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Statement Of Rabbi David Saperstein Director, Religious Action Center Of Reform Judaism On Freedom From Religious Persecution Act Of 1997

U.S. Capitol - May 20, 1997


It is with a profound sense of honor, appreciation, and responsibility that I join in this gathering today. The honor is to stand in solidarity with so many civic, religious, and political leaders of distinction on this morally vital issue. The appreciation is for Senator Arlen Specter and Representative Frank Wolf's leadership in this Congress at this crucial moment. The responsibility is for me as a Jew. For three reasons compel me as a Jew to be standing here today.

First, we Jews have been the quintessential victims of religious persecution over the centuries, precisely because, in the face of the oppression and degradations visited on us, good people stood by silently and let it happen. And we Jews have, under the lash of brutal religious intolerance, been forced to flee from land to land, seeking asylum and safety only to find the doors of refuge closed to us. Never again can this be permitted and so there is no place for me to be this morning, save here. We have learned painfully, over the centuries, a crucial paradox: anti-semitism was unique even while a fundamental truth of the ages is that religious tolerance and freedom is indivisible. It is for that reason that the organized Jewish community has responded so strongly on this issue, as have so many prominent individual Jews, including a number friends and colleagues in this room this morning such as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Michael Horowitz. When God's children are imprisoned for praying, America must speak out. When God's children are put to death for proselytizing, America must speak out. When God's children are denied their most basic human rights for reaching out to God, America must speak out. It was this recognition that animated this year the Passover Seder held at our Religious Action Center, attended by numerous Jewish leaders, with the Dalai Lama. What an extraordinary moment, when, on the imprisoned Panchen Lama's eighth birthday, my seven year old arose to ask the four questions. The goal of this bill is to help ensure that next year the Panchen Lama and every Buddhist, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim child will be able to pray in freedom. If we do not secure religious freedom for all, then the religious freedom of none will be secure.

Second, when, over the past 30 years, the Jewish community united to mobilize support for the plight of Soviet Jews, our voices for freedom and justice were amplified by those of our Christian brothers and sisters. From Capitol Hill, to the media, to the local churches, non-Jews of conscience arose to join in our struggle. The power of that model inspires us to do no less for our Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and other friends who suffer religious persecution and oppression. For only in solidarity, can we succeed in this effort as we did for Soviet Jewry.

More importantly we can learn from the Soviet Jewry Movement. First, we succeeded because we spoke with a unified voice. It is true that we had different approaches and used different strategies within the community, but on the whole, the Jewish community made the compromises we had to make in order to speak publicly with a unified and forceful voice. Secondly, we relied simultaneously on national leadership and local grassroots support. We engaged our congregants throughout the nation in public advocacy and in political activity. Much of that energy came directly from the synagogues. When we needed people in local protests, it was the synagogues who geared up the people to lead the protests and were the driving forces behind so many of our activities. Only if churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples do the same in this effort will it succeed. Towards that goal we pledge our support.

Finally, one indispensable component of our efforts with the Soviet Jewry movement was the willingness of Congress to act with effective legislation. The legislation put forward today offers the promise that the 105th Congress will act with similar determination. While we have not yet had time to review the particulars of the legislation, and may well have recommendations to offer based on our own experience, the fact that such strong legislation has now been presented is a source of optimism for all who cherish religious freedom and provides sound reason to believe that we will succeed in our common cause -- securing freedom for the world's persecuted Christians, for people of all faiths.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1800 Reform rabbis in more than 850 congregations throughout North America.




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