We can do a better job standing up against hate

Last week, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, bought a handgun and went on a shooting frenzy in the Greater Atlanta area that culminated in the killing of eight people, most of them women of Asian origin.

Local, state and national law enforcement officials have been struggling with the horror of this latest episode of mindless violence. Did the shootings emanate from racial hatred? Were these heinous acts crimes of twisted passion infused with a sick fetish of Asian women by the perpetrator?

Last weekend, demonstrations across America resonated with the protests of tens of thousands of Americans decrying this latest deranged attack on Asian Americans and others swept up into the vortex of violence.

President Biden expressed the dire sadness of millions of Americans when he and Vice President Harris visited Atlanta. The president noted that hate crimes against Asian Americans have been “skyrocketing” since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in America last year.

Asian Americans have “been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed,” the president said after meeting with Asian American leaders in Atlanta.

The president added that the carnage in Atlanta had left families and friends of the victims with “broken hearts and unanswered questions.”

Then, in keeping with Judaic ideals of social justice, President Biden implored Americans to take responsibility for failing to express enough outrage about overt discrimination against Asian Americans during the pandemic.

“Because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit,” the president said. “We have to speak out. We have to act.”

The Anti-Defamation League and the Committee of 100, a Chinese American, nonprofit leadership group, issued a joint statement after the shootings:

“We are united with all of our Asian American brothers and sisters in standing up against hate, xenophobia and violence,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO.

“Violence towards any minority group is not the answer. The anxiety and fear in the Asian American community is palpable, and we grieve with and support the millions of Chinese Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the U.S. who feel targeted,” he added.

Both the ADL and Committee of 100 issued a call for “all our elected officials and law enforcement to urgently address racism, discrimination, and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with actionable concrete results. With additional funding, education, and action, there is a chance to put these horrific incidents in the past and move forward as a nation.”

Clearly, America, as a nation, must muster adequate laws and social policies to remedy vile discrimination perpetrated on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

As American Jews, it is vital for us to remember that we have experienced rank discrimination that is virtually identical to acts of hate inflicted upon Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and other minorities. 

On Oct. 27, 2018, congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were savagely attacked by Robert Gregory Bowers, who shot and killed 11 engaged in Shabbat morning worship. Six other congregants were wounded in the attack.

Just as Asian Americans have been slaughtered solely because of their ethnicity, the perpetrator’s mindless slaughter was rooted in his deep hatred of Jews, as a people. The perpetrator was wounded by police at the synagogue. After being shot, he told police that he wanted to kill all Jews.

Sadly, mindless hatred and discrimination are all too familiar to Asian Americans and Jews.

The history of Judaism records depraved crimes against our people, too numerous to count. From Ancient Rome to the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, and in so many other chapters of our history, Jews have been persecuted because we are different. At different times, we have dressed differently. Many Jews today still observe these customs. We have eaten differently, abiding by the laws of Kashrut. Millions of Jews abide by those same laws today. We have worshipped differently. Our Sabbath begins on Friday evening and lasts until the sun sets on Saturday evening. Unlike our Christian neighbors, Sunday morning is not the focal point of the week’s religious rites.

Like Jews, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been victimized because they are different. From customs to eating habits to languages, Jews and Asian Americans have brought their heritage with them as they have settled in this country. And, the nation is better off for drawing wellsprings of strength from pools of different cultures. 

President Biden is right. We must all speak out against hate and discrimination whenever it surfaces. It is simply not enough to disapprove of mistreatment of our fellow human beings.

Judaism is rooted in Justice. “Justice, Justice thou shalt pursue,” is a guiding light of Judaism as expressed in Deuteronomy 16:20. Rabbinic Judaism teaches that there are no wasted words written in the Torah. Thus, the fact that the word “Justice” is repeated is viewed by prominent Torah scholars as a commandment from Hashem that we seek Justice in our daily lives.

Let us remember the famous tale of the skeptic who challenged Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel accepted the challenge, and imparted a lesson that we must all remember:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now, go and study it.”

A version of this editorial ran in the March 25 edition of the Jewish Herald Voice and is reprinted with  permission.

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