We Must Act or Bangladesh’s Hindus will not Survive
Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference
Manav Seva Mandir
April 25, 2015
[Note: The actual speech to this group varied from the prepared text, although the basic ideas and many of the specifics were covered in the talk or later interactions.]
Namaste. And thank you for allowing me to speak here today.
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 USSR, and the American Jewish community realized that if we didn’t do something about it no one else will. So, we mobilized, contacted our political leaders—politely at first, later not so politely—got other religious communities to join us and contact those same lawmakers, which made our voices even louder. Everyday Jews whom you might see at the supermarket or the office would put their lives at risk by going to the Soviet Union to smuggle in banned religious artifacts and let our people there know that they were not alone. In the end, we got 1.2 million Jews out of that communist hell-hole, almost half of the Jewish population there!
The entire community mobilized, however, the Jewish institution that was central to that successful struggle, that touched the widest number of Jews was the synagogue, our religious home, including our religious schools, which is another reason why I’m especially happy to be here with you today.
Did they say it was “political,” and so they better not take part? No. Did they say that our Senators and Members of Congress had too many other things to worry about or that we didn’t want to bother them? No again. Whatever else the politicians had on their plates, my God, this was a matter of life and death, a moral imperative. What could be more important than that, and if our religious institutions didn’t see that, well, their attempts to sound pious wouldn’t mean much, would they?
For years now, this everyday Jew has been putting his well-being at risk and giving up his family’s vacations so the Bangladeshi Hindus know that they’re not alone. I remind audiences like this that they have been persecuted from almost one in three East Bengalis to perhaps as few as one in fifteen. Sometimes, truth be told, it’s discouraging. I wonder if people get that moral imperative, if I’m making a difference, if my talks at venues like this have any value. It’s not so much that no one’s listening; they are and people care. I just don’t know if they care enough to do something about it.
And that’s a tragedy, because every day that we don’t act, is another day that the bad guys win; another day that a Hindu child is abducted, another day that a Hindu woman or girl is raped, another day that a Mandir—perhaps one just like this—is destroyed, another day that a Hindu is murdered. And another day that the Bangladeshi government gets away with letting it happen.
Do you want to stop that?
Good, because my personal feelings aside, we have made progress and there is something that you can do. A year ago, the Bangladeshi government refused to let me into the country, which more than anything else said they are afraid of me. We must be doing something right. Only last month, human rights attorney Rabindra Ghosh raised the Bangladeshi Hindu issue with one of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s closest confidantes. He also mentioned me. And do you know how HT Imam responded—this man who has input into what the Bangladeshi PM does, one of the most influential men in the Awami League and in fact in all of Bangladesh—do you know what he said? Do you know how he dismissed his government’s need to act?
He told my friend that “Dr. Benkin is working for the interests of the Jews.” What does he even mean by that, and what’s it have to do with his country’s ethnic cleansing of Hindus?
As I said, we must be doing something right. Because the first part of any human rights struggle is letting people know that something bad is happening; and we’ve done that to a large extent: Indian PM Narendra Modi has been public with his support; since Congressman Bob Dold first raised the issue from the floor of the House, other lawmakers from both parties have followed; several NGOs, including the Hindu American Foundation are now talking about it; by way of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), our government will recognize the persecution of Bangladesh’s Hindus next month; and one US Presidential candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, has started taking up the issue.
That accomplished, it’s now time to do something about it, and I need your help. There are a lot of things each of you can do, but I will focus on just two of them today.
During that effort to save Soviet Jews, every child in Jewish religious school got a Soviet Jewish child as a pen pal. It was very interesting because they didn’t write each other about politics or persecution. They wrote each other about the things that make up most kids’ lives: school, sports, dating for the older kids, and so on. And it did at least two things:
· For the Soviet children, they did learn that they were not alone, that kids half way around the world cared about them.
· For the American children, it strengthened their Jewish identity and their involvement in the Jewish community. And it helped them see that even the plight of their people far away was their plight, too.
For this to work, for the Bangladeshi Hindus to become your Soviet Jews, you do not need every Mandir in America to take part—not even most; but you do have to begin with you own. In doing so, you will strengthen the dharma and help save millions of lives.
· Amar ji, can you (or someone else) get me the number of pen pals each Mandir needs, and let’s get a due date from the group. (confirm both)
· Also, I will send each of you an inforgraphic my daughter created so you can get it to your schools as an introduction for the children as to why we’re doing this. So someone needs to start collecting email addresses. (Get someone started on that.)
· Now if anyone needs help in explaining this or introducing it to the schools, let me know.
Okay, good, but I said I would address two things, and let’s move to the second. According to the Hindu American Foundation, there are two to three million Hindus in the United States. How many of them do you think shop at Wal-Mart, or The Gap, or Target? (audience reaction) Do you think that buying power is important to those companies? (audience reaction) Those companies happen to be the largest importers of Bangladeshi goods, mostly clothing, and Bangladesh’s economy is heavily dependent on those purchases. What do you think would happen if those companies were suddenly flooded with emails that said their support for Bangladesh’s ethnic cleansing of Hindus is causing concern among their customers? (audience reaction) I don’t like the idea of boycotts or anything like that. I do believe, however, that the simple power of your moral outrage will make a difference; 1-2 million emails certainly will make a difference, but so will 1-2 thousand, or even 1-2 hundred. But we need someone here today to coordinate it with me. Who will that be? (Wait for an answer.) Good. Give me your contact information; let’s do it.
I’ve worked with the Bangladeshis for years, and I can tell you that they will not stop their persecution of Hindus simply because it is the right thing to do; but they will if we make it a matter of saving their economy, and for their leaders, saving their political lives and cushy jobs. They will act, and we know exactly what they need to do.
So, I’m not asking anyone to come to Bangladesh with me, or even Washington. I’m not even asking anyone to give up their next vacation or weekend or even a TV show. I am asking for your commitment to join me today, to take those two small steps that will save millions.
Do I have that commitment? (audience reaction)
Will you make today a new beginning for all of us? (audience reaction)