On Saturday morning, Robert Bowers perpetrated what the Anti-Defamation League referred to as the “deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.” Twenty minutes after Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, he opened fire, leaving 11 victims dead, and six more wounded. “All these Jews need to die,” he told police upon his arrest.
While many are coming together to mourn this devastating loss of life and condemn the anti-Semitism Bowers espoused, others have heaped the blame for the genocidal act on President Trump. Even after it came to light that Bowers did not support or vote for the president, some doubled down, claiming that, in spite of his having championed Israel throughout his presidency, Trump himself is anti-Semitic.
Nolan Finley of the Detroit News writes in a recent editorial that, on account of our political differences, Americans have come to hate one another. I think we can take his thesis one step further: Americans have stopped seeing their political opponents as humans.
The dehumanization of those we do not like, along with being the fourth of ten steps on the path to genocide, has become an insidious component of our political dialogue. It occurs at all levels. The most respected figures in our political and social hierarchies dehumanize those with whom they disagree. Our next-door neighbors and workmates do it. Perhaps the worst perpetrators of all are the people spewing hate while hidden behind a computer screen. When we tire of debating, we rejoice in the imagined death of our political opponents. We hurl the most inflammatory terms we can find, screeching, “Hitler,” and “Nazi,” even if those monikers are grossly inaccurate.
While name-calling is simply bad for discourse, there is an important reason not to throw around light accusations of anti-Semitism: true anti-Semitic hatred is not dead. It festers on both ends of the political spectrum. It lives inside twisted people like Bowers, or like James Wenneker von Brunn, a Holocaust denier who opened fire in the lobby of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, and who killed a Special Police Officer before he was shot and apprehended.
Last week, casual accusations of anti-Semitism hit my home state of Michigan when a Democratic spokesperson sent a Tweet to a Republican political consultant in which he blithely suggested that the two candidates the consultant represents are Nazis. That Tweet has been deleted, but the point remains: referring to our opponents with this kind of hate-filled, unproductive language is reprehensible. It masks those who truly espouse such ideas, and minimizes the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Hitler and his Nazis attempted to wipe out Judaism, and succeeded in murdering six million Jews during the Second World War. As Holocaust history fades from memory, detached terminology of the era persists. As I’ve written before, we wield it far too carelessly.
For anyone who requires a primer on Germany’s descent into dehumanization, barbarity, and genocide, many of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s vast holdings are available online. There are Holocaust monuments and memorials in more than half of America’s fifty states. With the knowledge at our fingertips, there is no excuse not to educate ourselves. Perhaps when we understand its heft, we will no longer use the language of genocide against one another.
In these troubling times, and as we mourn this genocidal act, our country is in desperate need of unifying leadership. I beg President Trump to take the first step towards coming together by apologizing for hurtful and belittling remarks he has made in the past, and by making a commitment to stop rising to provocations and criticisms of his policies and behaviors in the future.
Most importantly, I call for leaders of all political parties to come together to make it unequivocally clear that no quarter will be given anywhere within this country to proponents of anti-Semitism.