Our only intolerance must be for the rhetoric of hate and the violent acts it breeds.

Summary

She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy is every one that holdest her fast.

— Proverbs 3:18
 

Eleven Jews — Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger — were killed Saturday morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This shooting rampage is the worst anti-semitic massacre in our country’s history.

Each of us needs to take note of the rhetoric of hate that is roiling our country, and each of us needs to do what we can to stop it.

A year ago, we wrote in this space of a local annual observance of Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass, the start of the Holocaust.

We urged then as we do now: Whenever any of us sees a sign of hatred — a painted swastika or a Confederate flag — or whenever we hear a slight to someone who is vulnerable — a person with disabilities or a poor or homeless person — or to someone who is unlike us — of a different race or religion or ethnicity or gender identity — we should speak up.

We are reminded of the oft-repeated thought expressed by Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor in Germany, a critic of Hitler who was put in concentration camps for the last seven years of Nazi rule.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist,” Niemoller said. “Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Shelly Shapiro, director of the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center, is the force behind the annual local Kristallnacht commemoration. “It’s an effort to bring everyone together, to stand together against prejudice,” Shapiro said.

“Prejudice leads to genocide,” she told us a year ago. “What you can do to protect our country is to fight bigotry.”

Shapiro also said, “The other half of the story about hatred today is this is not new. But because of all the different media, everything is louder. It seems to get you from all sides. The haters have gotten a louder voice but they don’t dominate this country.”

Each year, as part of the commemoration, a free movie is shown about “people who took in Jews when they would have been murdered … You learn that you stand up,” said Shapiro.  The commemoration will take place this year, for the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. at the University of Albany’s Page Hall, at 135 Western Ave. This year’s film is “Above the Drowning Sea,” which tells the story of Ho Feng-Shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna who defied his own government and the Gestapo by issuing visas to Jewish refugees.

We urge you to go to the free event, to stand together against prejudice with representatives of every faith in the Capital Region.

A former teacher, Shapiro talks to students who come to the center. She shows them a picture of herself, standing with recipients from across the country, each the winner of an FBI award for community leadership. “It’s a diverse group,” she notes. “That’s what we are. Every kind of person you can imagine lives in this country … We are not represented by those voices of hate.”

Her words remind us of the words Barack Obama spoke during his 2009 inaugural address:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

How far we’ve fallen from those days of striving to find common humanity, instead dissolving into tribal-like hatreds. Just this past week, our country has suffered attempted political bombings, the synagogue shooting in Pennsylvania, and a racist attack in Kentucky.

“If you see prejudice, stand up … That’s the lesson from the past,” said Shapiro. And that is precisely what we need to do.

We were moved by an email we received on Sunday from Nigel Savage. He is the founder of Hazon, which means “vision” in Hebrew, a not-for-profit that, among other things, promotes food justice and uses bicycle trips to foster understanding.

Savage is currently in Israel with 219 bicyclists, along with crew and staff members. Six of the riders are from Pittsburgh, Savage wrote in his email. One rider lost one of his closest friends in the Tree of Life massacre. Two were married by someone who was shot. Each of the cyclists wears a shirt that says the same thing in three different languages — English, Hebrew, and Arabic: Ride As One.

The day before the Pittsburgh shooting, Savage wrote, “We’d done a session with students from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, our partner on the Ride. Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian students, more than 30 of them, meeting in small groups with our riders. And we heard the same story, over and over, each one different, each one the same:

“This is how I grew up, this was my family… and I came here, and met these people who had very different histories from mine, very different understandings of the world… and it was hard…. And we wrestled…. And now we’re friends. Genuinely. Not that we agree on everything — we don’t — but we know each other and we care about each other.”

On Sunday morning, the bicyclists held a ceremony before they set off on their day’s ride. Savage told the gathering: The fault line now is not between Israelis and Palestinians, or Democrats and Republicans. It’s between those who strive to use language with honesty and empathy and a desire to make things better; and those who use language to inflame, incite, exaggerate, and demonize. That is what our tree of life has taught us these two millennia — that language, and respectful discourse, and truth are utterly central to being Jewish.

After a moment of silence, the shofar sounded. Savage told the assemblage that the sound of the shofar is about taking away fear.

That is what we need to do, here, in the United States of America. We need to take away the fear. We must not let inflamed rhetoric let us believe our neighbors, our fellow citizens, are to be feared. We must use language, as Savage advised, with honesty and empathy and a desire to make things better.

Our patchwork heritage is, indeed, our strength. More than any other nation on Earth, the United States is made up of people from all parts of the world. In that diversity lies our greatness. But only if we respect our differences. We must work each day, each one of us, to rid ourselves of old hatreds and find our common humanity.

That’s the least we owe to Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.

More Editorials