In My Own Words: The legislation won’t make them or us go away

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Associated Press article talked about the legislation being passed in states across the country that bans centers/groups dedicated to “diversity, equity and inclusion” at colleges and universities. The underlying idea is to rid campuses of organizations that help the LGBTQ+ community, as if banning help for those in need or who are questioning their identity will make them disappear. I’ve written numerous times in support of the LGBTQ+ community based on my belief in B’Tselem Elohim, the idea that we are all created in the image of God. With the current political climate, the idea that people are anti-diversity, equity and inclusion scares me for another reason: this could easily turn into antisemitism. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion: These are ideals that Jews have struggled and fought for for decades. There are still places in the U.S. where Jews are not accepted, and casual – and not so casual – antisemitism reigns. We were and are looking for full acceptance, something that reminds me of a conversation I had in rabbinical school with a professor who explained the difference between Jews being tolerated and Jews being accepted. Toleration allows us to exist, but tolerance doesn’t mean we have all the rights and obligations that come with being a full member of a society. Acceptance doesn’t mean that people have to understand Judaism or agree with our theology. They just have to accept us as citizens and allow us to practice our religion as we wish. 

One of the universities in Texas is replacing their diversity center with a “Center for Student Advocacy and Community.” That may sound good at first, until you consider that the LGBTQ+ students might need their own space. After all, during traumatic times, Jewish students have turned to campus Hillels and Chabad Houses. In fact, after the recent attack by Hamas, those spaces may have been the only truly safe ones on campus. A center-for-all-religions would not have offered the same comfort as a space where people truly understand how you are feeling. That cuts across most types of support groups – for example, it was an enormous help for me to attend a meeting with others who had a hearing loss. A group featuring all types of disabilities would not have had the same impact. There is a place for that type of group, but it should not be the only one available.

You can’t legislate away sexuality or gender: they will still exist even during times of oppression. If you don’t believe that, then look at the Jewish community. We’ve survived centuries of oppression. For that reason, I feel obligated to help others who are oppressed. Don’t understand why they feel the way they do? It doesn’t matter. No one is asking you to change your sexual orientation or gender. What they are asking is the right to exist as full citizens whether people understand them or not. It’s not that much different from people who don’t understand Judaism. I don’t care whether they believe our religion is valid. What they have to accept is our right to be equal citizens.