I recently devoted an evening to watching two documentaries aired on PBS which were recommended to me.
One was "Birth of a Movement," which chronicled the protests of African-Americans against showings of D.W. Griffith's film, "Birth of a Nation." Griffith’s work, based on the book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, cast citizens of the American south as total victims in the Civil War and during the ensuing period of Reconstruction. The film visually presented African-Americans in the worst possible way. In the book, Dixon had advocated for suppression of a number of groups in America, including Jews. The protests did not end the showing of the film, but they demonstrated how a community could empower itself to make its views known to our national leaders.
The second program I watched was "American Experience: Oklahoma City." On the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, I had a morning meeting with Congressman Sam Brownback. While I waited, I watched news reports about the bombing on the television in his office. The congressman and I spoke briefly about the reports that had come in so far. As we all learned more about Timothy McVeigh after the bombing, it became clear that the network of hatred of which he was a part believed that Jews had taken over the government, and that Jewish power must be eradicated. The net effect, for me, of watching those programs one-after-the-other was that it was obvious whom these groups considered "real Americans." They did not include Jews and other non-Christians (actually, non-Protestants) as acceptable. It was as if there was a nearly straight line from an earlier version of white supremacy to its more recent incarnation.
I have been participating for the last few weeks in a discussion group (with a diverse membership from the community) on Dr. Jonathan Sarna's book, American Judaism. In this work, he outlines the development of the Jewish religion in the context of our nation's ever-developing story. I came upon this paragraph about the attitudes that prevailed in the 1920s, just before the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924: "Immigration restrictions that sought to restore the nation's ethnic mix to its nineteenth-century white Protestant character also aimed directly (though by no means exclusively) at Jews. The House Committee on Immigration received a report prepared by Wilbur J. Carr, the director of the Consular Service, and approved by the secretary of state, that described Jews who desired to migrate to the United States as being, among other things, ‘undesirable,’ ‘of low physical and mental standards,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘un-American,’ and ‘often dangerous in their habits.’ Resulting legislation never mentioned Jews, and it restricted other ‘undesirable’ immigrants like Italians and Slavs no less stringently, while Asians were barred entirely. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American Jewish leader of his day, recognized. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’”
This passage from Dr. Sarna's book reveals how the racism of the late 1800s and early 1900s targeted Jews as different and outside the mainstream of those who could be considered "acceptable Americans."
It is difficult to hear those comments from nearly 100 years ago at this time, when unknown perpetrators have phoned in bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and vandals have toppled headstones at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia. This follows a year when Jewish journalists faced horrifying anti-Semitic responses to their tweets (with their faces often placed in an image of a gas chamber), and white supremacists have been emboldened by the current political climate
This is most definitely a time to be watchful and vigilant. It is not a time to be afraid. Recently, someone sent Temple a vase of flowers to express appreciation for our presence in the community. Members of the Islamic Center of Las Cruces have personally expressed concern to me about the threats against the American Jewish community (concerns which I have expressed to them in the past 14 months in the wake of threats to their well-being). People who have shown public support for vulnerable groups in our locale have asked me if we need a rally in support of the Jewish community in the wake of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and incidents of vandalism in recent months.
I believe that what we need to do is to realize we are not alone. After officials in our area contacted local Jewish institutions in light of recent events, I visited the Alevy Chabad Jewish Center and spoke to the teachers who were in the building. I left a note for Rabbi and Mrs. Shmukler (they were not there) that offered a prayer for our well-being. Such prayers can help us feel that there is a Presence that can provide us a sense of protection and security.
Purim is coming soon, the holiday on which we mock the one who hated the Jews of Persia and cheer for the bravery of Mordechai and Esther for standing up for their people.
It is always time to be like Mordechai and Esther in how we view our Jewish identity and in how we can find ways to stand against hatred in cooperation with partners in the greater local community. History has taught us that those connections can bring us both strength and hope, so let us pursue them in the days to come.