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Speaking Truth to Power, Rabbi Schneier Denounces Religious Persecution

Lela Gilbert

“Those who burn churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples will also burn human beings.” That startling, clarion call for religious freedom was issued by Rabbi Arthur Schneier during his remarks at the U.S. State Department’s first-ever Ministerial Advancing Religious Freedom, held July 24 to 26 in Washington, D.C.

As the founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York, Rabbi Schneier brings his own grim experience to the issue of religious rights. As a child in Vienna, he witnessed the burning of his synagogue during Kristallnacht on Nov. 10, 1938.

Rabbi Schneier has never forgotten that horrifying night, and for decades has devoted his life to supporting religious liberty and resisting anti-Semitism, a cause the Trump administration strongly supports.

During the Ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence spoke forcefully against today’s rising anti-Semitic tide, and warned of its resurgence in Europe. He singled out anti-Semitism in Britain, France, and Germany as especially worrisome.

“Last year,” he said, “hate crimes against Jews hit a record high in the United Kingdom. In France and Germany, things have gotten so bad that Jewish religious leaders have warned their followers not to wear kippahs in public for fear that they could be violently attacked. And in too many cases, that’s exactly what’s happened.”

The vice president’s remarks were sadly prescient. Less than a week later, a New York Times report on anti-Semitism appeared under the title, “‘They Spit When I Walked in the Street’: The ‘New Anti-Semitism’ in France.”

Adam Nossiter, The New York Times’ Paris correspondent, reported, “France has a painful history of anti-Semitism, with its worst hours coming in the 1930s and during the German occupation in World War II.

“But in recent months, an impassioned debate has erupted over how to address what commentators are calling the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ as Jewish groups and academic researchers trace a wave of anti-Semitic acts to France’s growing Muslim population.  . . .”

Then closer to home on the Jewish Sabbath, an Indiana synagogue was defaced with spray-painted Nazi symbols. Pence, who served as Indiana’s governor from 2013 to 2017, expressed outrage at the attack.

“Sickened and appalled by the cowardly act of vandalism at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla; a beautiful synagogue in Carmel, Ind., where I have many good friends. Those responsible must be held accountable. These vile acts of anti-Semitism must end,” Pence tweeted.

The Schneier family’s tragedies during the Third Reich included murdered loved ones, displacement, and material losses — including the torched Vienna synagogue. Ever since, Rabbi Schneier has spoken out against anti-Jewish injustices, and he is credited with pioneering efforts to familiarize State Department personnel with religious-freedom issues.

Beyond his own Jewish faith and experience, the rabbi has been a clarion voice speaking out against the persecution of other faiths as well.

Popes and patriarchs alike have honored him, grateful for his concern for their suffering peoples as well as his own.

Alongside his work with the Appeal of Conscience organization, Rabbi Schneier has faithfully served his congregation at New York’s Park East Synagogue since 1962. One major highlight came in April 2008, when Rabbi Schneier greeted Pope Benedict XVI there.

It was the first-ever visit by a Pope to a U.S. synagogue.

Rabbi Schneier also was part of the U.S. delegation to the Stockholm International Forum for the Prevention of Genocide in Sweden, and received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton in January of 2001.

In April of 2015, Rabbi Schneier was granted a papal knighthood from Pope Francis, presented by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. That put Rabbi Schneier in the company of comedian Bob Hope and industrialist Oskar Schindler as members of the Papal Order of St. Sylvester.

During the recent Ministerial, Rabbi Schneier met with Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Mosul and Kirkuk. The Archbishop’s church, like so many others in the region, was devastated by ISIS in 2014, as his congregation was murdered, brutalized, and scattered.

In his address to the Ministerial for Religious Freedom — which welcomed 80 foreign delegations and religious leaders from across the world — Rabbi Arthur Schneier insisted on much more than the simple “toleration” of other faiths.

“Our aim should not be tolerance, but mutual respect and acceptance of each other,” he said.

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