Rockville, Maryland. On Saturday, October 27, my wife and I returned home from Shabbat services at a local synagogue here in Rockville only to discover the terrorist attack that took place in Pittsburgh. My first thought went to my former cantor who is now a rabbi in Pittsburgh. Luckily he works at a different synagogue.
My next thought went to how we got to this moment and how that week — including the attempted bombings of political opponents, using the president’s own quote to justify the inappropriate touching of another person on a plane, and killings in a grocery store of black people after a failed attempt at a black church — culminated in a mass-murder of Jews at a peaceful worship service on Shabbat.
It is easy to dismiss these incidents as a handful of lunatics out of a nation of over 300 million people and to say that not every senseless act can be stopped. But let’s not mistake what we have heard and seen over the past three years since Donald Trump declared his candidacy and won the 2016 election based upon a Constitutional technicality that does not represent the will of the people.
Since 2015, we have heard the now-president of the United States of America refer to Mexicans as “rapists,” sign multiple bans on Muslims, refer to Neo-Nazis as “very fine people” after they chanted “Jews will not replace us,” crassly imitate a disabled reporter, speak ill of a gold star family, separate Latino parents from their children, take away the passports of Latino-Americans who live near the Mexican border, label the press as “the enemy of the people,” and mock victims of sexual violence to cheering crowds. The very same week at the Pittsburgh attack, his administration took the first step in delegitimizing transgender people, with the end goal of stripping them of the official recognition of who they are.
We have watched this administration and the members of the Republican party come up with their own version of science that does not reflect science at all. They are actively suppressing the votes of African-Americans and Native Americans to put themselves over the top on Election Day, because the only way they can win in a diverse America is if they cheat. In other words, they come up with alternative facts that suit their every whim.
We have watched those in power find ways to make black, brown, LGBT, Muslim and Jewish people the “other.” As if one cannot be black and American, Latino and American, gay and American, Muslim and American, or Jewish and American.
Many Americans do not know that Hitler rose to power through legal means. Though he only received about one-third of the popular vote in 1933, he was still named chancellor, and he began his reign of terror by dismantling democratic institutions and norms, coming up with alternative science about the appearance of ethnic and religious groups, and “othering” Jews, Sinti, Roma, political opponents, the disabled, and homosexuals. This spilled over into almost all of Europe, including France where an exhibit called Le Juif et la France (The Jew and France) showed the “differences” in appearance of Jews compared to “Aryans.”
Some people voted for Hitler because they were forgotten by Weimar. Some were affected by the hyperinflation. Some were unemployed. But Hitler never hid his animus towards Jews. Those who voted for him who were not openly anti-Semitic chose to ignore Hitler’s open anti-Semitism.
If you are reading this and voted for Trump, you need to think about your actions. Perhaps you voted for him because you felt left out. Perhaps you voted for him because you oppose abortion. Perhaps you felt that you really needed that tax cut, even though you are so well-off that you actually don’t. Perhaps you are afraid the liberals will take away your guns, despite 200 years of precedent that proves the opposite. Perhaps you did not like Hillary Clinton. Perhaps you gulped down the fear mongering of Fox News and believe it. If you voted for Trump but abhor racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia, know that your vote has allowed him to abuse his power in the delegitimizing and marginalization of people who look differently than you, pray differently than you, and love differently than you. You have put the lives of my wife and me at risk every time we enter a synagogue. You put our gay friends and relatives at risk every time they hold hands in public or go to a gay resource center. You put our black friends at risk when they go to a supermarket or a black church or a polling site. This is what you did. You are who got us here.
One of the movies I show my students is Au Revoir, les Enfants in which a Catholic priest attempts to hide three Jewish children in the religious school he runs during the Nazi Occupation of France. At one point, the priest, Father Jean, preaches to his students and their well-off parents:
Remember the Bible’s stern lesson: it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Saint James said, ‘Now you rich, weep and wail for the woes awaiting you. Your wealth has rotted and your garments are eaten by worms.’ Worldly wealth corrupts souls and withers hearts. It makes men contemptuous, unjust, pitiless in their egoism. I understand the anger of those who have nothing, when the rich feast with arrogance.
At this point an angry parent storms out of the chapel, refusing to hear the rest of the homily. If you are reading this and finding yourself to be that angry parent, I am urging you one last time to reflect about your deeds, to think about what you can do for our country to heal, and to do the work we were all brought into this world to do: to love one another.
I can guarantee you that it is so much easier to treat people with dignity, to respect and celebrate differences rather than fear them. And we will be so much better off if we all change our attitudes to one of love, embracing, and celebration than if we continue to make various groups of human beings the “others” of society.
Paul Kutner is an independent school French teacher. In 2017, he was the researcher and writer for the Conspiracy of Goodness exhibit about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, a village of devout Christians that saved 3,500 Jews during the Holocaust, still on display at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at CUNY-Queensborough Community College in Bayside, Queens, New York. This is a personal statement and does not reflect the opinions of any organizations with which he is associated.