If one of us is at risk, we are all at risk. That realization snapped into focus for me as I attended a dinner sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee and hosted by The Temple Congregation B’nai Jehudah following the violence in Charlottesville, Va. Representatives of groups demeaned and persecuted over time shared our common concerns and core values. We understood the need to have each other’s backs, to speak up when any group is threatened, and to continue the conversation during good times as well as bad.
As the late Elie Wiesel stated so eloquently, “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Charlottesville is that epicenter. Worshipers at Congregation Beth Israel watched in terror as neo-Nazis paraded outside screaming, “Sieg Heil!” Online threats to burn down the synagogue forced congregants to remove Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the building as a precaution.
I cannot imagine the pain and fear that Holocaust survivors felt watching neo-Nazis parade through the streets of Charlottesville, a scene reminiscent of pogroms of the 1930s and 40s. These are people who endured suffering and tragedy that, in the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, “beggar description.”
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What must they think of the vitriolic, or in other cases, tepid response of our leaders? With most in their 90s, do they wonder if they have made a difference? Was their suffering all for naught? What will be their legacy? Will the world remember when they are not here to remind us?
One constant over the past 24 years has been my growing connection with our community’s Holocaust survivors. I have heard their testimonies. I have listened as they shared their stories with students, cautioning them not to hate. I have internalized their sadness, their hope for future generations, their belief in the words “Never Again,” and although I have no knowledge of my family’s direct connection to the Holocaust, for me, it’s personal.
Like the survivors, I sometimes ask myself if our efforts to educate and to preserve Holocaust memory are making a difference. Admittedly, we will rarely change the minds of those with hearts hardened by hate, but without Holocaust education, eyewitness accounts, centers and museums, historians, writers and filmmakers to teach about the consequences of remaining silent and indifferent in the face of racism and bigotry, would we heed the warning signs that exist today? Would we see the pushback, the condemnation by the media, the public and by some, though too few, lawmakers — or would tolerance of hate groups become the new normal?
Each of us must do what we can to ensure that the new normal is instead a strengthened resolve to protect the rights of those marginalized and victimized. Let us continue to educate and to learn from those who do not share our religion, ethnicity or skin color.
Let us promote and preserve the moral principles upon which our nation was founded and demand that those with political power do the right thing by weighing the impact of their words and actions more heavily than their political careers.
Jean Zeldin is executive director of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.