Unity and Collective Action
Address by Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Hindu Unity Conference
Manav Seva Mandir
August 22, 2015
Namaste. Thank you for having me here today, and for allowing me to share the podium again with one of the most incisive minds I know, Dr. Subramanian Swamy. My personal gratitude, as well, to the Chicagoland Hindu community and especially three individuals who have supported my efforts, given me faith and confidence, and helped me understand my dharma: Prasad Yalamanchi, Amar Upadhyay, and Dr. Bharat Barai.
Our theme is “Hindu Unity,” yet even after years of fighting for Hindus, with the utmost respect, I still am not sure what that means. My understanding of a people’s unity necessarily involves mutual support, mutual defense, a common identity, and whenever needed collective action. Perhaps that’s not your understanding, and if so I respect that; and if that’s the case, I ask that you humor me and see where this leads. Let me begin with some history.
How many of you remember the 1970s? Not hippies and free love, I’m referring to the fact that back then, you couldn’t pass a synagogue without seeing a huge banner that read “Save Soviet Jewry.” Our people were being persecuted in the Soviet Union, whose leaders wanted to eradicate their Jewish religion and identity. We in the American Jewish community saw our persecuted brothers and sisters and recognized our obligation to do something to save them. More importantly, we acted on that obligation.
We lobbied Washington and our local officials; and we prevailed upon other religious bodies to recognize the atrocity and let Washington know their position. No venue was too small for us; no official too intimidating. Everyday Jews who you might see at the office or in the supermarket—people just like you—went to Russia at their own expense to smuggle in religious books and other Jewish artifacts at considerable peril to themselves. Jewish children reaching their Bar and Bat Mitzvah—one of Judaism’s most important rites of passage—were twinned with Soviet children who did not have the freedom to celebrate this most important religious event; so we joined them to our Jewish ceremonies. And before it was over, we helped get 1.2 million Jews out of that communist hell. It strengthened our identity, and every Jewish child who was part of that effort never forgot it or their own sense of Jewishness. We also realized that we could stand strong for our people, and that the only thing that could stop us is ourselves. The fate facing 12 million Hindus in Bangladesh is no prettier than that which Jews faced in the USSR. Let them be your Soviet Jews. Recognize what’s at stake, mobilize, and imagine what it will mean for real Hindu unity when we succeed in saving them.
Before going on, however, I want to make it clear that I would not presume to lecture this assemblage or be so full of myself to believe that my world view is the only one. If anyone got that impression, my apologies. Plus, my personal duty to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, given the fact that I have seen it with my own eyes, is part of my dharma. To be sure, we’ve made a lot of progress. The issue has been raised and discussed several times in the US Congress, which can take action on trade (something I’ll get to in a moment). The Hindu American Foundation has taken up this cause, and other Hindus have joined the struggle. However, every day that we do not take effective action, another Hindu child is abducted, another Hindu woman is raped, another Mandir destroyed, and another day that Hinduism in Bangladesh comes closer to being nothing more than a memory.
Understand, too, that being united has nothing to do with total agreement. We Jews are notoriously divided amongst ourselves. Do you know that when the US military rolled into Kabul, Afghanistan, they found two Jews there—and they refused to attend synagogue with each other. We argue with each other about everything, and actually I think that is one of the things that keeps us strong.
Unity, however, does require a common identification that trumps our divisions. So, for instance, even though the Israeli Right and the Israeli Left hate each other passionately—you should read the things they say about each other—they are united in their opposition to the recently-negotiated Iran deal, because they agree it places Jewish survival in jeopardy. In 2002, when the Israeli army surrounded arch terrorist Yassir Arafat’s compound, an American named Adam Shapiro went there to stand with him in solidarity. I consider Shapiro horrible for that, as I do Baruch Goldstein who open fired on unarmed worshippers in a mosque; but I recognize both of them as being Jewish. They face opposition for their actions, which deserve opposition; but if they faced it simply for being Jewish, I would see my obligation to fight that.
So let’s get back to how we translate that history into action that saves 12 million Bangladeshi Hindus. By now, I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the facts: Hindus have gone from almost a third of East Pakistan in 1951, to less than a fifth of the Bangladesh population in 1971, to less than a tenth 30 years later, to around one in 15 today. And we know that during the entire time, Bangladeshi governments regardless of party, have been complicit in the atrocities that are driving Hindus out of the county, forcing their children to convert, or outright killing them.
And let’s be real everyone. We Jews were fighting the mighty Soviet Union. Here we’re taking about Bangladesh! Hindus have a lot of adversaries, and if we can’t do this with Bangladesh, what chance have we with those others? And how many atrocities would that mean? So, let’s take action.
First, effective action does not require all billion plus Hindus—or even a tiny fraction of them. There are only about 14 million Jews in the entire world (just a little more than the population of Illinois); and only a small part of that number was involved in saving Soviet Jewry. So we just need a core group to get started. Besides, there is an expression: “Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.” I had almost no one with me at first, but with each small victory, a few more joined me.
Second, as Americans, we have particular leverage. I’ve dealt with Bangladeshi officials before—and was successful; not because I convinced them to do the right thing. They’ll never act because it’s the right thing to do, but they will act if their financial interests are threatened; and the Bangladeshi economy is inordinately dependent on one thing: garment exports—you’ve seen those “Made in Bangladesh” labels, right? Well, we’re their biggest customer. In 2011 and 2012 alone US garment imports equaled 40 percent of Bangladesh’s annual budget.
Here’s how it will go. First, they’ll deny things, then act insulted. Next they’ll accuse the US of something or if it’s a Hindu effort, maybe they’ll bring up the old tired lies about “Hindu extremists.” Finally they’ll play the “poor me” card. That’s what happened when I confronted the Bangladeshi Home Minister about it in Dhaka. He was defiant and tried to be bullying (notice I said “tried”), until I threatened their garment exports. All of a sudden, he became a poor victim; asking me not to “hurt” the millions of Bangladeshis in the garment business.
“Me!” I said. “You’re the one bringing the calamity on your people. And you’re the one who can stop it.”
If we don’t fall for any of their duplicity, we will prevail. If we demand action and not just words we’ll prevail. On the other hand, if we believe their expressions of goodwill without demanding action, we’ll be consigning Hinduism in Bangladesh to the historical ashbin.
You can be part of the effort to prevent that, and you don’t have to go to Bangladesh or even leave your homes. I’m passing out cards and ask that you write your name and email address on them. I will send you a link so you can email several large US companies like Target and Walmart; not to threaten a boycott but to let them know that their purchases support ethnic cleansing, something they’d rather not have their name associated with. A bunch of people signed up to do this in a church the other night. I have to believe that I’ll get an even greater response here. When we’re done will someone collect them if they pass them to the aisle? Perhaps the Manav Seva Mandir can do this as a community. Can we talk about this another time?
There’s something else. One of the things I’m working on would not stop Bangladeshi imports, but it would slow their sales here. Those buyers you email still need the goods. So I turn to my good friend Subramanian Swamy and ask if we can take action so Indian companies capture that market and replace them. If that happens, it really will scare the Bangladeshis into doing the right thing. It also could boost “Make in India” and so be a double victory.
And next year, we Americans elect the entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate, and a new President. Everyone who wants to be elected will be looking for your vote. We can make this an election issue by telling them we’ll vote for people who take action on it. At this same time, some already have, and we all owe them our support and our votes; in this area: Senator Mark Kirk, Congressman Peter Roskam if you’re in his district; and most importantly, Congressman Bob Dold of the Tenth District. Bob is the first person to address the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus from the floor of the US Congress. He actively supports the fight for Bangladeshi Hindus and with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, co-sponsored House Resolution 396, which calls on the US to protect Bangladeshi minorities and if passed, will be the basis for other action, such as on trade.
I’m going to end with an example of Hindu Unity that we’ve already seen. I periodically address Hindu groups in Cerritos, California; a town with a large Hindu population that many in the Los Angeles area refer to as “little India.” During one of my talks, in 2013, I noted that Cerritos is in California’s 39th Congressional District, represented by Ed Royce. Ed has long been a friend of the Hindu community and strong voice against radical Islam. He, too, has spoken out about what’s happening to Hindus in Bangladesh—and he’s the Chairman of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs. I noted that this gave my audience a unique opportunity to take effective action for Hindus. I helped them arrange a meeting with Congressman Royce, and the next day—THE NEXT DAY—I got a call from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which now has held two hearings about this. It’s also where House Resolution 396 is; and take a guess about whether or not they send it to the entire House for a vote.
So much that is happening now is due in no small part to those individuals who believe that Hindu unity means standing for all Hindus and protecting those who need it.
We’ve made a lot of progress and still have a lot of work to do; and I am confident that together we can save 12 million Hindus in Bangladesh.