After many centuries of exclusion and oppression, the Jews of France were granted citizenship and equal rights by the French National Assembly in 1790. When the great thinkers of the Enlightenment began to talk about "liberty," "equality" and "fraternity," the leaders of France's Jewish communities asked if these new ideals were meant for them as well.
French Jews had long been prohibited from owning land, serving in the military, engaging in trades, professions and civil service, and more. (This was also true elsewhere in Europe; sometimes Jews were charged special taxes on materials, travel, and property.) The debate before the declaration was candid about the prejudices against the Jews that were prevalent in France at that time, that their different beliefs and customs made them unequal and ineligible for citizenship.
Ultimately, Jews were granted full and equal recognition as individual citizens, but not as a distinct ethnic or religious group, a fact that would have a profound impact in later years, but that is another story. The barriers began to come down, and equality was the law of the land. This came about because the values of post-revolutionary France, values that were held to be basic human rights and had to apply to everyone, or they were false. If everyone was not equal, then there was no equality. The new law of the land did not change everyone's opinions, but the precedents of legal and social equality had been set, just as they had in America.
Ever since the end of the 18th century, individuals and groups everywhere have been challenged to live up to their stated ideals, and most recently it is the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Founded in 1910, the BSA has always seen its mission as preparing boys to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes. Scouts take an oath to keep themselves physically strong, mentally awake and morally upright, and to embody the qualities of trust and loyalty, friendship and helpfulness, kindness, respect, reverence, thrift, courage, obedience, cleanliness, and good cheer.
Over the 103 years of Scouting's existence, American society has changed, and the BSA has worked to maintain its principles and values in the light of changing practices. It has not always been easy, as old assumptions are challenged by new ones and stereotypes (racial, ethnic, and religious) have been confronted.
As a Reform Rabbi, I know that my religious tradition, which stands for faith and heritage in the context of modernity, has been an advocate for including all boys in the benefits of Scouting, regardless of religious belief, ethnic background, race and, yes, sexual orientation. Many people, including people of faith, agree, and many have other perspectives. One of the greatest blessings of being American is our freedom to disagree, and our responsibility to respect each other nonetheless.
But our freedom to disagree and to hold different beliefs and opinions does not entitle us to disenfranchise others. The BSA has its roots in the British Scouting system, whose first members were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant boys. Over the course of its history in America, the BSA has overcome many prejudices and stereotypes as packs, dens and troops struggled with and eventually embraced wider, more inclusive visions of what it means to be a friend to all and a brother to all Scouts, and to have respect for a diversity of beliefs and customs.
The current language of opposition to equality for people of all sexual orientations has taken the same form as prejudices against other groups: blacks, Asians, Jews, and others. As our awareness of differences grows, we have learned that not all difference is a matter of choice. We have had to learn not only to pursue justice and fairness, but to understand that each and every human being is created in the divine image, and to look for that spark of holiness in the other. That spark is our connection, the light that reminds us that respect and acceptance are more than a matter of the law of our land.
As one whose religious traditions and history include persevering in the face of exclusion, segregation, and persecution, I stand on the shoulders of the many who have worked and advocated -- and sacrificed -- for those who are not accepted because of who they are. To be physically strong, mentally alert and morally straight includes reaching out, especially to those who have been excluded and discriminated against, in word and in deed.
I applaud the volunteers and supporters of the BSA in the Chattahoochee Valley who will continue to stand with the organization and who will welcome boys into Scouting regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. I believe that the Boy Scouts of America will be stronger for this resolution, affirming for this generation of Scouts the values of faith, community, and strength that have always been a hallmark of Scouting.
Beth Schwartz, Rabbi, Temple Israel of Columbus.