We are outraged and horrified by three instances of white supremacist political violence in the last week. A gunman attempted to enter a black church and then shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kentucky grocery store; an itinerant Florida man with a history of advocating the extermination of African-Americans and LGBTQ people constructed pipe bombs and sent them to elected officials, members of the media, and the oft-demonized George Soros; a rabid anti-Semite entered a synagogue on Shabbat and killed eleven members.
These horrors displaced from the news the terrible story of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist allegedly tortured and murdered by agents of the Saudi government, with little response from the U.S.
All Americans have to grapple with what these developments mean about the state of racism, anti-Semitism and political violence and assassination in our society and what we each can contribute to changing the conditions that have brought such bloody extremism into the mainstream.
The Pittsburgh synagogue killings are deeply personal for me. What, after all, did I really know about anti-Semitism beyond what I’d learned in history books? The answer is very little—but also something profound.
I knew very little because my parents wanted it that way. Only many years after their deaths did I discover that my father and his parents had changed their names and religious identifications at the height of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. The relatives I grew up knowing as Grandpa and Grandma Ames living in the Bronx, were Jacob Abramson and Julia Furst—Jews from Russia and Slovakia. My father’s brother who died at age five, Bertram “Buddy” Abramson, was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens I knew nothing of. That my grandmother’s sister, Leah, died in a Nazi extermination camp was hidden from me.
There were lots of ways I could have reacted when I learned this much richer and more complex version of my past. What I felt was sadness for my father who had been driven to keep such a secret and must have felt shame at his denial of self and his father’s split from the Abramson family. What I think of now is what mighty currents of hatred must have been moving through the world when the Abramson family made that choice.
Recently, my niece, a college sophomore, wrote me feeling despair about a world headed blindly toward environmental disaster. In responding to her—and trying, I guess, to make her feel better—I told her that we don’t get to choose the time in which we live but we do get to adapt to it and try to make a difference for the good.
I described growing up with a problem-free, middle-class childhood—my father a teacher and my mother a homemaker providing a warm and safe life for their three kids. Only much later did I learn their secrets and glimpse what they lived through. My father’s family changed their names when he was a college student at a time when many colleges had quotas on Jews. Immigration laws were as much a hot topic then as they are now, and were revised in 1924 to greatly limit Jewish immigration. Those quotas would lead to the denial of refugee status to thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. In language eerily similar to the rhetoric of today to which the Pittsburgh shooter responded, Americans were warned of a threatening refugee tide. Major American heroes like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were openly hostile to Jews and explicit about maintaining white racial purity. Living through those years, my parents must have thought nothing could be a greater achievement than to raise their kids into adulthood in a world protected from those kinds of threats.
They were ordinary people, living through trying and brutal times. Writing that, I correct myself, thinking of James Joyce. When a colleague asked Joyce how it felt to write “Ulysses” about a hero with an ordinary mind, he replied, “There is no such thing as an ordinary mind.”
Perhaps there are no ordinary times, either. But it’s a darker world today than the one I grew up in. These horrors of the past week are not just the actions of a demented few; they are the products of those currents of hatred rising again in America and across the globe with increases in nationalist anti-immigrant furor, racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.
How can someone walk into a synagogue and shoot to death a 96-year-old woman and her fellow peaceful worshippers? It’s tempting to say it’s beyond comprehension or to use the easy shorthand of our time and say, “No words.” But there are words: actions like that are predicated on seeing other people as less than human, and that behavior is learned and cultivated. Thus it can be fought and opposed. It can be countered by actions that affirm our collective humanity across cultures and religions and races and that actively resist white supremacy in every manifestation.
My parents, I believe, thought that if they taught me fundamental kindness, empathy and humanity, I would be equipped for encountering the forces of hatred that shadowed their younger years. They just hoped I would never need to find out.
As for what we teach our students at Sage: it’s crucial that our graduates have knowledge, critical intelligence, and empathy. We do our best to ensure our students know the history of racism and anti-Semitism. But that must be combined with the critical acumen not to be duped by propaganda or snowed by populist lies or the anti-intellectual dismissal of scientific reasoning and logic. We must foster in our own little community and our classrooms a mutually supportive environment that accepts human differences and respects the multiple complex cultures that make up our nation and world.
That’s a tall order, but the events of the last week remind of us of the urgency of our task.