On the morning I felt compelled to write this commentary, I woke to the news that yet another Black man had been killed by a white police officer in Minnesota, just a day after a similar killing in Louisiana. The Minnesota shooting was live-streamed by the man’s fiancé, Diamond Reynolds, and, like others, I wept to see it, incredulous at the actions of police officers yet again out of control as they racial-profiled a Black American. I grieved the loss of another innocent life. And I was reminded of how prevalent police violence is in this country and how pervasive racism remains here. I mourned how ineffectual our leaders are in addressing the crucial issues at the root of these tragic events, including fear of “the Other.” Then Dallas happened, and I mourned again.
But most of all I thought, with enormous sadness, about the overt and incipient violence that increasingly seems to be aroused in my country. I thought about the insensitivities of those who should know better: facile media talking heads and politicians whose mandate is, like physicians, to do no harm, among others. I thought about Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and gifted writer who had just died, and who once said, “…to tell the lonely person that I am not far or different from that lonely person, that I am with him or her, that’s all I think we can do and we should do.” I thought about an elderly, sensitive artist I met once in France named Francois Brochet who created a moving work called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” It was comprised of a large group of carved figures depicting innocent people who had suffered during their lives.
It wasn’t only the slaughter of Black innocents that drove me to awake that morning with an urgent need to put my feelings into words. It was also an open letter written by a woman named Dana Schwartz posted on Facebook the day before. Schwartz, a Jew like me, and like the owner of the paper she writes for, the Observer, wanted her boss to know why the meme that had been posted by Donald Trump in which Hillary Clinton’s face appeared with a six-pointed star juxtaposed on hundred dollar bills was so offensive. Her boss, Jared Kushner, is Donald Trump’s Jewish son-in-law. Schwartz said that the meme was blatantly anti-Semitic and had resulted in “mocking those like me” while “strangers on the Internet told me to put my head in the oven.”
Here are just some of the tweets Schwartz received after posting her letter. “People are waking up to greedy Jews.” “Your nose can wrap around a baseball.” “Jews control money. They are Satan’s children.” “Pre-heat the ovens.” “Are you being Holocausted again?” “I survived the Holocaust and all I got was this lampshade.” “Another neurotic Jew.”
How is it that such hatred, such discrimination, such vitriolic, violent rage and rhetoric, such disgusting ideology still flourishes in a country like ours? What has been unleashed, and sanctioned in some quarters, in our current politics to resurrect sentiments thought to have been overcome post lynchings, post-Civil Rights movement, post-McCarthyism, post Holocaust?
How is it that so many of our elected officials act out their own violent tendencies and cruel beliefs with ugly slurs and slights, with laws meant to oppress human rights and to reject human dignity? How do so many turn their heads the other way, exhibiting their own collusion with violence?
Yes, there are the resistance fighters among us who speak out, who advocate and who bear witness. The principled are many and strong. Like Diamond Reynolds, they dare to speak truth to power.
But somehow, we’ve lost our way amidst the furor of white supremacists, of racists, of anti-Semites, of dangerous demagogues and demented, power-hungry politicians, of misogynists and small-minded people who have no time for compassion or courage or for simply doing the right thing.
Now, somehow, before it’s too late, we must find our way back to what President Obama calls our better selves. We must return to the ideals we like to proclaim even when they prove hollow, return to kindness in the face of cruelty, return to our common humanity before it slips away from us forever.
No one understood this better than Elie Wiesel, who wrote, “I know and I speak from experience, that even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another; that even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion; that it is possible to be free and strengthen the ideals of freedom, even within prison walls; that even in exile, friendship becomes an anchor.”
May we find our way back from the darkness, may we create light and share warmth, and may we dream again of compassion, freedom, and strength as we reach for the anchor of friendship. It is, in these troubling times, our only hope.