My mom and dad used to sit around the dinner table and talk with me as a boy about the hatred towards Jews that led to the Holocaust. Mom said it wasn’t only in Germany, but that people from her own Brooklyn neighborhood who were followers of Father Coughlin and Jew-haters, as well.
We knew friends and neighbors whose entire families were decimated by the Holocaust. My mom told me that too many people who knew better didn’t stand up to the anti-Semites. She asked me, “If this happens again to the Jews, or to the next group that takes the place of the Jews as the objects of bigotry, what will you do?”
I thought about these talks when I heard the news of the terrible killing of Jewish people on Saturday.
My parents’ discussions of the extermination of 6 million people led me to work with refugees. I couldn’t help Anne Frank, but maybe I could help her “children,” modern day refugees and people facing persecution.
I have always been grateful to have had so many Jewish friends and colleagues. Less than a generation removed from the Holocaust, they could have viewed me with suspicion or even hatred, and who could blame them? Instead, I found friendship and love.
I don’t want young Jews to grow up experiencing hatred and rejection. I already see many Latino and Muslim young people being marginalized, and I worry that the violence today will have a similar impact on young Jews.
I cried when I heard that the murderer denounced the Pittsburgh synagogue’s work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), right before he started his killing. Apparently, a combined hatred of Jews and refugees prompted a man filled with vitriol and propaganda to murder other human beings whom he did not even know.
HIAS is the country’s oldest refugee protection organization. The nonprofit group was founded to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe who were arriving penniless in the United States. During the rise of Hitler, they were leaders in rescuing Jews from the Holocaust. The organization today is one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies. It partners with the United States government to resettle refugees as part of the U.S. refugee admissions program.
In a statement after the massacre, the organization said:
“Founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS stands for a world in which refugees find welcome, safety, and freedom. Guided by Jewish values and history, HIAS rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are.”
This is the mission that the killer found so objectionable.
This mass murder was a hate crime against the Jewish community, and it was also terrorism designed to stop the work of HIAS and of Jewish congregations that stand with the victims of persecution. The Jewish community in the United States has been one of the staunchest defenders of human rights and humane refugee policies. Violent extremists, organizing and propagandizing on the internet, see in American Jewry both an ancient enemy and a modern threat. The hysterical fabrication of a “threat to national security” from a caravan of Central Americans by the president has lent credence to the far-right extremists who want to make war on refugees, immigrants, and Jews.
I am praying for the families of the victims of this hatred. But, prayer can only be the start. Unless we stand up for tolerance and love for the LGBT community, for Jews, for Muslims, for refugees, for African Americans, for First Nations people, for the victims of sexual abuse, for immigrants, we will have to hang our heads in shame when we are called to account for our actions in these days of great peril.