Even a country founded on principles of liberty and tolerance is bound to have some imperfections. In recent years, the United States has become increasingly polarized, with toxic rhetoric too often replacing civilized debate and legitimate differences of opinion. But in the Passover season — a holiday on which we recall the suffering of the Jews of antiquity and the freedom they ultimately received — it is unnerving to witness the hateful speech that lingers among a portion of our society.
Several weeks ago, Louis Farrakhan made headlines when, in a public address, he said “the powerful Jews are my enemy.” In his hours-long speech, he also called Jews the “mother and father of apartheid” and referred favorably to a discussion between Billy Graham and Richard Nixon about Jews’ influence on the media and Hollywood.
Besides being uninformed, Farrakhan’s comments have the potential to be truly damaging. History has shown that hateful speech of this type is rarely innocuous; hostile, racially-based discourse has historically encouraged brutal violence against both Jews and other minority groups.
Foremost among these were the blood libels leveled against countless Jewish communities in the past 900 years, which frequently claimed that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the baking of matza for Passover. These ludicrous accusations, all too often, turned deadly.
The French town of Blois had the first recorded blood libel in continental Europe. In 1171, a local Christian individual saw a Jewish man at a river and claimed that the latter was throwing the body of a child into the water. Despite a complete lack of evidence – not only was no corpse found, but no child was missing – nearly the city’s entire population of more than 30 Jews was massacred. The Blois blood libel was one of the first, and it was followed by literally hundreds of similar, sordid tales, several of which occurred as recently as the 20th century.
Kishinev was a sizable city in the Russian empire in 1903, when the local papers riled up the masses and blamed the Jews for the murder of a Christian child. Despite no evidence that any Jew was involved in the child’s death, mobs of hundreds set out against the Jewish community, killing close to 50 people and inflicting injury on hundreds more.
Of course, hateful rhetoric’s history of accelerating into brutal violence has also affected African Americans and other minority groups. In the post-Civil War south, the sentiments of racial superiority that led to the Jim Crow laws also encouraged violence that took thousands of lives.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, between 1882 and 1968, more than 3,400 blacks were lynched in the United States – a figure which only calculates the individuals murdered outside of the bounds of the law, but not those sentenced to death by prejudiced juries.
The re-emergence of blatant antisemitism is particularly troubling in light of a recently released report from the Anti-Defamation League, which found that reported antisemitic incidents in the US climbed by 57% in 2017. These incidents – like blood libel pogroms and lynchings before them – don’t emerge from a vacuum. It is uncomfortable but necessary to think about the innocent people who could ultimately be harmed because of the continued spread of centuries-old anti-Jewish canards.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that these sentiments still exist in a country founded over 200 years ago upon the ideals of enlightenment and tolerance. The United States has long been a bastion of democracy, where a collection of people united by neither color nor creed could collectively embrace the unique freedoms America provides.
The mandate for minority communities – as well as that of America as a whole – must be to affirm Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men were created equal” and reject the prejudice and racial biases that sow discord among different identity groups.
Of course, American history includes many individuals who can serve as role models for this task.
One such hero is Philadelphia native Leon Bass. An African American serving during World War II in a segregated army, Bass was among the soldiers who entered the Buchenwald concentration camp and witnessed the horrors made possible by racial prejudice. Bass noted that when he walked through the gates, he “began to realize that human suffering is not delegated to [the African American community],” but that “human suffering touches everybody.”
After the war, Bass spoke extensively about what he had witnessed: how unchecked racism and prejudice can devolve into the very worst crimes against humanity.
Just two years after WWII, Jackie Robinson was a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was facing opposition in breaking baseball’s color barrier. Robinson was placed in an incredibly hostile environment, as literally the lone black man in a sea of entirely white, largely bigoted ballplayers.
In an early-season game against Pittsburgh Pirates, Robinson and Hank Greenberg collided on a play at first base, and both were knocked to the ground. While some anticipated a fight to ensue, Greenberg simply dusted himself off and offered Robinson words of encouragement. For Greenberg, who had endured taunts because of his Jewish heritage throughout his career, sticking up for the African American pioneer was the natural, fraternal thing to do.
While the toxic nature of racism is well-established, antisemitic comments and other forms of prejudice continue to rear their heads, so it is vital for our communities to continue championing the importance of communicating tolerance.
Just a mile away from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the local community is redeveloping the outdoor space around the first public Holocaust memorial in the US into a Holocaust Memorial Plaza that will educate visitors about the atrocities of the past and demonstrate how commitment to democratic ideals can help prevent these horrors from being repeated.
Situated in the cradle of American democracy, the plaza will center around six pillars that juxtapose Nazi philosophies with American constitutional protections and values to showcase the role these principles can play in creating a just society. Prominently displayed on these pillars will be a quote from Leon Bass, an excerpt of George Washington’s famous 1790 letter championing religious tolerance, and other messages that convey these ideals.
The blood libels’ association with Passover is tragically ironic, as, for centuries, the potential for a blood libel turned a holiday that celebrates freedom into one marked by fear. Living in a 21st century America that, by and large, embraces diversity, Passover serves as an appropriate time to reflect upon the tolerant society that has been created – and to commit ourselves to eradicating the prejudice that remains and creating opportunity for all members of society.
For so much of recorded history, the world has turned a blind eye to irrational hatred. It is past time for us all to say “Dayenu.”The author currently serves as the project lead and acting director for the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza through her employer Fairmount Ventures, a consulting firm serving the nonprofit and public sectors in Philadelphia.