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Sometimes we must interfere

“Today, the entire world is looking to America for enlightened leadership to peace and progress. Such a leadership requires vision, courage and tolerance. It can be provided only by a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals.”

- President Harry S. Truman, April 16, 1948, address before a joint session of Congress

Of the scores of messages and remarks I have written during my 24 years as executive director of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, this one was the most challenging. I have struggled as daily demonstrations of hatred coupled with inflammatory rhetoric made it difficult to organize my thoughts and feelings or to predict what outrage tomorrow will bring or how relevant my comments will be by the time you read them.

It was at a multi-cultural Shabbat dinner a few days following the violence in Charlottesville that I achieved some clarity. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee and hosted by The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, the event brought together a diverse group of invited guests, most of whom had never met one another. As representatives of groups demeaned and persecuted over time, we shared our common concerns and core values, recognizing that if one of us is at risk, we are all at risk. 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.

In the words of the late Elie Wiesel, “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must at that moment — become the center of the universe.”

Charlottesville has become that epicenter. During Shabbat services, worshipers at Congregation Beth Israel watched in terror as neo-Nazis paraded outside screaming, “There’s the synagogue!” and “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 begin to imagine the pain and fear that survivors of the Holocaust must have felt watching neo-Nazis parade through the streets of Charlottesville, a scene all too reminiscent of Kristallnacht and other 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.” What must they think of the vitriolic, or in other cases, tepid response of our leaders? With most now 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 two-plus decades has been my growing connection with our community’s Holocaust survivors. I have heard their testimonies and been amazed by their resilience. I have listened as they shared their stories with students, cautioning their young audiences 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 all of our efforts to educate and to preserve Holocaust memory are making a difference. The reality is that we will rarely change the minds of those with hearts hardened by hate, but imagine if there were no Holocaust education, no eyewitness accounts, no centers or museums, no scholars, researchers, historians, writers or filmmakers to teach about the consequences of remaining silent and indifferent in the face of racism and bigotry. Would we recognize the warning signs that exist today? Would we be seeing the pushback, the condemnation, the reactions by the media and celebrities, by the public and by some, though too few, lawmakers — or would tolerance of hate groups become the new normal?

As we approach the High Holidays, may each of us 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 each of us personally 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.