“For your benefit, learn from our tragedy. It is not a written law that the next victims must be Jews. It can also be other people. We saw it begin in Germany with Jews, but people from more than 20 other nations were also murdered. When I started this work, I said to myself, ‘I will look for the murderers of all the victims, not only the Jewish victims. I will fight for justice.’”
— Simon Wiesenthal
It is with great sadness that I write to our community to express my deepest condolences to all who have been affected by the truly horrific events of this past week, and especially the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where people were gunned down on the Sabbath while practicing their faith. My heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims — who have a long, difficult journey ahead of them as they come to terms with their loss — and to the larger Jewish community on our campuses and beyond. I know this crime, and the recent dramatic rise in anti-Semitic acts, causes many to wonder if a history of persecution is tragically repeating itself.
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This attack comes on the heels of the pipe bombs sent to politicians and journalists around the country and an apparently hate-motivated shooting in Kentucky that had the potential to echo the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. And it takes place at a time when several arrests were finally made related to the white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville; when there are repeated incidents of people of color having the police called on them for everything from resting in a lounge to knocking on doors while running for office; and when the federal government is considering rolling back protections for transgender individuals despite the ongoing harassment they face. We must question the relationships between these and other such events, the growing division in our country and the hateful rhetoric that is becoming all too common in public discourse, laying the foundation for the increase in hate crimes in our communities and in our nation. And we must ask ourselves what we can and must do about it.
First, we must realize that together, we can lift our voices. In the face of a national narrative — including divisive rhetoric in the public discourse mainstreaming and amplifying hateful ideas that had been pushed to the fringes — we must unite our voices against hate, violence and discrimination.
Second, we must realize that we are each stronger than we think — and we are much stronger when we are united. We need to collectively commit to do all we can to rally around our common humanity, shunning messages of bias and prejudice that encourage fear and hate in order to divide us.
There is a range of actions that can be taken, including political ones — and I encourage everyone who can do so to exercise their right to vote for their preferred candidates. This right, fundamental to our democracy, was hard-won for many in our nation and remains the dream of many more around the world.
We can also come together through other forms of action, following the example of the Muslim nonprofits that have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the victims at Tree of Life. We can unite through campus activities that bring people together for actual conversations, countering the “othering” that is increasingly used to delegitimize not just ideas but entire communities. We can unite by seeking justice and equity for those in our society who still, today, are marginalized, whether because of the color of their skin, what they believe, who they love, their gender identity or where they’re from. We can unite by seeking understanding — listening to reasoned and critical points of view and engaging in civic debate.
When hate is the motivation, the impact of violent crimes is magnified, and research clearly demonstrates that the effects are more profound and destructive. Hate crimes send fear through entire communities, delivering a message that the community members are neither safe nor welcome. So it is especially critical that we unite through individual acts and words of kindness toward those who have been most affected by hateful rhetoric and overt violence. This makes our whole world a kinder, more welcoming place for those facing hardships of all sorts.
I still believe that as a country we’ve made progress, but it’s also clear that our progress may be more fragile than we thought, and that if we are not vigilant, backsliding can and does occur. This is a fraught time in our history, and I wish I could tell you I had the answer or a clear path forward; I do not. But united, we can, we must, create that path.