Wednesday, February 20, 2019

First They Came For The Muslims

We tend to look at things from our own little corner of the world and I suppose I am no exception.

Over the past few years, hate crimes against Jews have spiked, and my focus as a Jew has been on my own community. "You feel the hate rising," said one Jewish person in France, where hate incidents increased by 74% in 2018.

Here in the States, earlier this month a yeshiva in Monsey, New York was torched, with swastikas spray-painted outside. And last Friday night, Jewish residents of Bushwick (Brooklyn), New York were sitting down to Sabbath dinner at a local synagogue when somebody smashed the windows.

This of course is not a laundry list of crimes. I could go on and on about the kids who threw pennies at my daughter's friend in school. The catcalls when we went on vacation in Florida. The sinister, not friendly "Shalom" aimed at my husband more than once.

I could talk to you about the synagogues that are sending their members out on patrol, every weekend. The security guards. The hushed discussions of Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life massacre. The rush to get guns and learn self-defense, in case there is another active shooter situation.

"The rabbeim (rabbis) are specifically authorizing this," someone told me recently. "They never would have allowed it in the past."

Yes, it's always been scary to be an open Jew. And now it's becoming terrifying.

In recent years, I've also become aware that other groups are both targeted and scared. Just like Jewish people have a volunteer patrol in New York called the "Shomrim" (guards), the Muslim community has its own community watch. They are victims of horrifying hate crimes, from decapitated pig's heads to terrifying social media posts to violent assaults and worse. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 15% in the U.S. in 2017 and hit a record high in the UK in 2017.

In general, hate is on the rise. According to the FBI, there were 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, up from 6,121 the year before. The number-one target group: African-Americans, followed by Jews.

Christians do not talk about it as much, but they are victims of hate crimes just as Jews and Muslims. According to one recent poll, "half of white Protestants say there is a fair amount or a great deal of discrimination against Christians."

Why is it important for us to focus on the problem of hate crime, particularly if we are not part of the group that was targeted in the attack?

The answer, in my view, has to do with censorship. As we know when it comes to the Middle East, in an environment where free speech is constantly blocked, fanatics rule. Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani-American writer who visited the Middle East to better understand the conflict there, is preoccupied with learning more about extremists' "zealous conviction, unclouded by doubt, anchored by an arrogant righteousness, unwilling to tolerate dissent."

In an environment where thought itself is dangerous, insane people step in to regulate the lives of everybody else -- and peace, which has to be based on truth, justice and reconciliation -- becomes impossible to achieve.

In fact, I remember working for USAID, and an offhand comment someone made about Muslims getting harassed if they so much as hinted at the desire to work with Israel toward peace. Their normal desire for a normal life, for themselves and their children, was brutally repressed and distorted. They could not speak the truth of what they saw or felt; peacemakers were not wanted; peacemakers were "collaborators with the occupation."

It is popular to blame hate crimes on conspiracy theories; the impulse is quite naturally to silence anyone who seems to be rousing the public toward anger, even if the corruption they are pointing to is real.

But I would argue that the greater danger is our innate desire to assume the Orwellian posture of "thought police," even if our motives are noble.

As a parent I am troubled to see that my children fear speaking out publicly, even in a thoughtful way, about any controversial but important topic.

As a teacher I am troubled to see my students far too willing to provide the answers they think I want to hear.

And as an employee, I have always been troubled by the Darwinian tendency of many a colleague to figuratively "step over the bodies," just go along to get along -- because they've seen too many people stick their heads out only to find their necks chopped off.

Social media platforms, and now even banks, now routinely regulate speech in just this misguided way. They target all sorts of people, for reasons that are hard to know, with messages that simply offer some variation of "you are no longer online."

We have the opportunity to unite against hate, by supporting one another as members of the human race. Human beings must think, they must express themselves, they must learn, and they must debate in order to arrive at higher truth -- in this we are no different than scientists doing hard experiments.

Let us commit to protect each other's right to say unpopular things, things that make the rest of us uncomfortable, things that may turn out to be flat-out wrong. Let us trust the human race to crowdsource the truth, and correct those among us who are simply misleading or inaccurate.

Miscommunication is dangerous enough.

Repression is the genesis of war.


Public domain. Opinions are the author's own.