Nightmares are strange things. No one ever asks why did this nightmare happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? Because we are told that they are part of life. We can eat right, exercise, say our nightly prayers, but we aren’t immune to horror. This is the consequence of intelligence and creativity.
I have been trying to put words together for days. I have been talking the ears off of friends. How do people want me to react to evil? People talk about the past like self-contained plots in comic books that are part of a larger series, but you could pick up any issue and know for sure who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and what side you would be on.
Should I join the proverbial resistance? I’m just a teacher and a cook. Should I make all neo-Nazis do grammar drills and eat kugel until they change their ways? Should I fight my way onto all the talk shows to spread my message of peace and understanding? Are my blog posts angry enough? I don’t know. Things are bad and scary right now. People want to talk. I am the only Jew a lot of the people I hang out with in Birmingham know. G-d blessed me with the gift of gab and my eloquent uncertainty is the unlikely hero of the times.
The bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers have become an unrelenting plague. 54 JCCs in 27 states in 2 months. Children have been pulled from the N.E. Miles Day School because parents are so concerned about safety. Many parents put their children in the day school so their children will feel safe being around other Jewish kids.
And across the country, Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized and destroyed. Mosques are being burnt. Communities are under threat and they feel it. But like siblings defending each other on the playground, Jews and Muslims are coming together to help each other up and make sure the bullies don’t bother us again. Because we are, after all, siblings (I said “brothers from another brother,” but that one might not catch on). Muslims have Jews have been helping each other pay for damages done to places for prayer and Muslim-Jewish Interfaith initiatives and dialogues have been popping up all over the place, even here, in Birmingham. It is such a wonderful thing to see. I get blubbery and teary-eyed over it. But it comes from the violence and hate that surrounds us. It’s like getting a really cool band-aid as a kid after being shoved down so hard you still don’t want to remember the impact.
Years ago, my friend Dala and I had tried to start some joint Muslim Student Association/Jewish Student Union projects. Things fell through, red tape got sticky, schedules got busy. I let the Jewish Student Union go when it became glaringly obvious that there just wasn’t enough Jewish presence on campus to support it. Even though this wasn’t ideal, Dala has become not just a friend, but a breath of fresh air on my campus. If I need to talk to someone who understands having to go to events where you can’t eat the food, the struggles of dressing modestly in the summer in Alabama, or the pressure that comes from wanting to please G-d and the professors, Dala is there and she gets it in ways my friends who are still bitter about their youth pastors don’t. Being young and religious at a liberal arts college is an interesting challenge.
Dala has recently been asking me the tough questions. How are the day school kids doing? Are they aware of what’s going on? How do you tell children about what’s happening? And it’s one thing teaching Hebrew a few hours a week, another to be the parent. I have only heard one child mention the bomb threats. He just wanted to know if I was the one who answered the phone. No. I was not. So what have parents said? From what I can tell, the truth. Growing up Jewish means learning about these kinds of things at an early age. You have to.
Dala was not the only one to ask if things have gotten worse since Trump was elected. The answer is yes and no. Rabbi Barry Leff at Beth El said it best (and I am paraphrasing): “there isn’t any more racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or homophobia in America now than there was 3 years ago. What there is more of now is acceptance of these ideas and seeing a president who bullies these groups, there is permission to act on these ideas.” Most forms of hate come in the form of microaggressions and lazy language. Careless, insensitive remarks from people you talk to every day. It is always upsetting. It has never been physically harmful. For the most part, this is still truth for Birmingham. The bomb threats were nation-wide. This is a on a grander scale. I would be more fearful if the threats had been just in Birmingham, from inside the city, in our neighborhoods.
This article has taken a few days to think over, process, gain the emotional stamina to write. And in those few days, more horror, more information has come to surface. Reports of murdered Muslim youth. One indictment in the JCC bomb threats, though it is believed to only be an individual responsible for copycat threats. That doesn’t make it any better.
So instead of continuing with my babbling, which has taken me a week to formulate and compose, I will let you read what local rabbis have said, people with more training in grace and eloquence.
Rav Barry Leff of Temple Beth-El:
We need a world where all are accepted, regardless of how they pray, what they wear, or who they love. The answer to hate is not to assimilate and become just like them. The answer to hate is not to hate others in return. The answer to hatred is to refuse to demonize ANY other group. To remain who we are, while setting a good example living two of the most important commandments we have: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and as the sage Hillel put it, “what is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”
In Kansas City, two men of Indian nationality were shot while socializing in a bar. Muslim communities have required extra police protection to guard their mosques and their worshippers. In Quebec, Canada, Muslims were murdered as they were bowing in prayer. Jewish Community Centers and schools across the country, including the Levite Jewish Community Center on Montclair Road, have been threatened repeatedly by bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. We must ask ourselves the question: What is going on in the heart of our civilization, and what can we do to improve the way we live in community and relate to each other?
As a citizen of Birmingham, these days bring me back to the dark days of the early 1960’s. Historical comparisons are never perfect. And thankfully, nobody in our city has yet been physically harmed by the hate filled atmosphere that is beginning to flourish and take root in some corners of our society. But we are all suffering from the phenomenon of violent intimidation.
More than fifty years ago, Birmingham was nicknamed “Bombingham”. Under the cover of darkness, cowards planted bombs in churches, synagogues and citizen’s homes. The results were deadly. American citizens were afraid for their lives and the lives of their children. Our law enforcement agencies and political leadership shirked their responsibility to protect the citizens of our country. The bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 is a stain on our city that decades of time can never wash away.
In 2017, an underground of hatred is again terrorizing our community with credible threats of violence. Jews and Christians and even those of no belief–adults and children–frequent Jewish Community Centers across the country and in our own community for their health and social activities and to educate their children. The JCC’s are a place where communities at large come to congregate.
The threats of violence against Jewish Community Centers and Islamic Centers and schools where children learn and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries are not simply acts of religious hatred or an expression of long held or deep seated religious animosity. These threats of violence are threats to the fabric and ideals of our country. We know from Birmingham’s history, from America’s history and from Jewish history that threats of violence often lead to acts of violence. Violence against the dead laying at rest can lead to violence against the living at work, worship or play.
America in 2017 is not the America that our ancestors came to build. Our brave soldiers did not lay down their lives so America could abandon its ideals of freedom and inclusion on the altar of small minded bigotry and group hate. The threats to the Jewish Community Centers and the cemeteries are direct threats to my well-being as a Jew and the people I serve. But more than that, all Americans should understand that these threats undermine and threaten our American ideals of freedom, equality and respect.
To mend our social fabric we need to hold our elected officials and law enforcement accountable to make the apprehension of these criminals a top priority. If permitted to escalate, it is only a matter of time before people will be hurt and families and communities will suffer irrevocable damage. President Trump, Attorney General Sessions, FBI Director Comey, Governor Bentley and our state and local police must do everything in their power to assure our safety and preserve our values. And we, the citizens who depend upon them, are required to hold them accountable if they should fail.
But our office holders and officers of the law are only part of the solution. As citizens, we hold the answer to the spiritual problems plaguing us. We are charged by our religious faith and the American values we cherish to assure that we do not contribute to the turbulent and divisive atmosphere in our country.
We ought to be agents of compassion and reconciliation. We need to guard our thoughts and our speech against the fear and hatred which tears up our communities and sows division among good people. We must challenge the hatred and fear which these uncertain times churn up. God gave us life so we might build and not destroy, and the founders of our county gave us sacred ideals to transform us into a diverse nation with common goals.
We need to demand answers from those who would speak for us and for those who would protect us. And we need to look inside our own hearts to find the beginning of the solution for these tense and challenging times.