In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1986, Holocaust survivor, writer and Boston University professor/prophet Elie Wiesel declared:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
It often begins with “the Jews,” doesn’t it? Or “the darkies,” or maybe the “the traitors,” inherently evil “mobs” out to destroy “us;” “enemies of the people” who require, perhaps even deserve, execution, lynching or assassination, to protect “our way of life.” “Oh, say can you see” that it can happen here, in the land of the free and the home of the white people?
It HAS happened here, since the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown in 1619, and as recently as one week of October 2018. In that week, Eli Wiesel’s words from 32 years ago became all too accurate in the United States of America, with violence perpetrated against three distinct groups of people “because of their race, religion, or political views.” These actions aimed at those target groups are tragically connected, clearly impacted by the language of violence disseminated across multiple online, media and partisan sources, including the President of the United States.
“Our times, already out of hand, were compounded this October. We’ve all got to take stock of our country and ourselves.”
It started on Tuesday, Oct. 23, when a “live” pipe bomb was discovered in mail delivered to George Soros, Jewish billionaire and major Democratic party donor, long a target of rightwing, presidential denunciation. Writing in the Washington Post, Talia Lavin noted that Soros’s “name has become a synonym for a well-worn anti-Semitic canard: the idea that Jews are malevolent fomenters of social dissent, agitators slyly funding and masterminding protest, seeking to undermine a white, Christian social order.” Some even linked Soros to the “caravan” of Latin American immigrants headed to the U.S. Lavin cited a tweet from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL): “BREAKING: Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source!” It was untrue.
The bomb sent to Mr. Soros was only the first of multiple explosive devices – 15 and counting – sent via the United States Postal Service in the largest assassination plot in American history. Intended recipients were various political leaders, all Democrats, including two former presidents, a former vice president, a former secretary of state, a former CIA director, two African American senators, an African American congresswoman, two prominent Jewish political donors, and a broadcasting network. None of the bombs exploded, and an accused perpetrator was soon arrested in Florida, living in a van plastered with rightist stickers, many using the language of violence.
The second catastrophic event occurred on Thursday, Oct. 28, when a 51-year-old white man attempted to enter the predominately African-American First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown, Kentucky. Unable to do so (the doors were locked), he went instead to a nearby Kroger supermarket where he shot to death two African-American senior adults, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones, as they shopped. When confronted on the parking lot, the shooter exclaimed: “White people don’t shoot white people.” Who knows how many would have perished had he gotten inside the church.
Then came Shabbat, Oct. 27, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where a white man, age 46, murdered 11 Jewish worshipers, wounding another six. (I will not repeat the killer’s name). The shooter blamed Jews for aiding and abetting “invaders” in those Latin American caravans through organizations like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), founded in 1881 to help Jews escape Russian pogroms, now aiding displaced people worldwide. Before attacking the synagogue, he posted online, “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw the optics. I’m going in.” Wounded by police, the shooter continued to rant that he wanted “to kill Jews,” even while being treated by Jewish surgeons. He promulgated the largest mass murder of Jews in American history.
Our times, already out of hand, were compounded this October. We’ve all got to take stock of our country and ourselves.
“Can we say one more time that WORDS STILL MATTER, whether in the mouth of an anti-Semitic shooter or at a political rally of any party?”
Reflecting on that terrible week, I kept hearing the sounds of white people clapping and chanting “Lock HER up!”, “Lock HIM up!” (referencing Hillary Clinton and Soros even after bombs to them were found) and “CNN sucks!” (also after a bomb was found). And clapping their agreement for rhetorical images that include “enemies of the people,” “immigrant invaders” and a “low IQ” black woman. The white men who killed or attempted to kill our fellow Americans are the ones responsible for these terrible events, but can we say one more time that WORDS STILL MATTER, whether in the mouth of an anti-Semitic shooter or at a political rally of any party?
Firearms, America’s favorite idolatry, were an ever-present element in the Kentucky and Pennsylvania killing fields.
As Christians, we are called to respond to those murdered in Tree of Life Temple, especially because our religious tradition has fostered so much anti-Semitism across the centuries. We honor the dead: Daniel Stein, 71; Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal 54; husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69. Their deaths cry out to us all.
Note their ages. They were the elders of their congregation, faithfully present “every time the doors opened.” All of us know such elders – saints, really – in our respective congregations.
I find myself drawn to the brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, known as the prime “welcomers” at Shabbat services, buried on Oct. 30. They shared “Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that often results in mild to moderate intellectual disability.” Some called them the “unofficial mayors of Pittsburgh.”
Our daughter Stephanie, a person with special needs, is a “greeter” at our church in Winston-Salem. One friend calls her “the mayor of First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue.” For that reason, among others, I will not keep silent.