Last Saturday marked the date 235 years ago that delegates in Philadelphia signed the American Constitution. After months of intense debate and humbling compromises, 39 Americans with diverse interests and backgrounds signed their names to a first-of-its-kind document in world history.
Sitting in the East Room of the White House last Thursday, I kept thinking about the early years of American history, the compromises agreed to that summer of 1787, and how far our “shining city on a hill” has come. At the same time, I could not help but wonder what our collective future as diverse Americans will hold in an increasingly complex environment grappling with democratic backsliding, unprecedented hate crimes and bitter partisanship.
In the chair to my left was Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh.
To my right was the leadership of the Arab American Institute. In front of me, sat the brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh murdered four days after September 11, 2001.
A couple of weeks before this event, on an otherwise uneventful Labor Day weekend, I had received an email invitation from the White House for this United We Stand Summit. Dr. Susan Rice, who leads the Domestic Policy Council, indicated that at the all-day event President Joe Biden aimed “to counter the corrosive effects of hate-fueled violence on our democracy and public safety, highlight the response of the Biden-Harris administration and communities nationwide to these dangers, and put forward a shared, bipartisan vision for a more united America.”
In 2020, more than 7,700 criminal hate crime incidents were reported to the FBI. This is an increase of about 450 incidents over 2019.
Attacks targeting blacks rose to 2,871 from 1,972. Anti-Asian hate crimes grew exponentially. In New York, there was a 223% spike. In San Francisco, a 140% increase.
As a Jewish community, we are painfully aware that the deadly antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh in 2018 was followed the next year by deadly attacks in Poway, California; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Monsey, New York.
During the last decade, the US has endured a deeply troubling series of hate-fueled attacks, from Sikhs massacred in their house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin to black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York last May.
Antisemitism a canary in the coal mine
MANIFESTATIONS of antisemitism are often the first indicators of a societal sickness. The recent global rise in hatred against Jews is a fundamental challenge to human rights and the principles of democracy envisioned by the Framers of the US Constitution.
The summit last week allowed us to reflect on the dark days in recent American history. Participants were reminded that while grief is universal, hope and love are too.
At the White House, I met the diverse Americans – Jews and gentiles, young and old – who survived violent hate crimes. I heard family members talk about attacks that took their loved ones as if they happened yesterday. Together, we mapped a hopeful future as we learned from professionals in diverse communities who are daily taking this threat seriously and working together to build bridges.
The president pledged that the administration would share best practices across all agencies and, subsequently, hold training for local law enforcement to identify and report on hate-fueled violence. This will require our community to be proactive. Our congregations, community centers and schools must be a “light unto the nation” demonstrating what innovative partnerships with government and law enforcement look like.
Antisemitic rhetoric online too often leads to antisemitic violence offline. Community leaders should join the president in calling on Congress to get rid of special immunity for social media companies and impose stronger transparency requirements on them.
Sitting in rush hour traffic after a full day at the White House, I reflected on the Constitution’s first sentence, “…in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…”.
The Framers of the Constitution each were deeply familiar with biblical teachings. Their word choice has guided diverse Americans for 235 years. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as American Jews in all 50 states visit synagogues with, in many cases, armed security, my New Year’s resolution will be a year more perfect, just and tranquil, with fewer violent incidents of hate.
The writer lives in Pikesville, Maryland. He is the author of Paths of the Righteous from Gefen Publishing House.