The path from words to action

Pittsburgh attack underscores need for legal crackdown on hate speech.

A woman reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 29, 2018 (photo credit: CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS)
A woman reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 29, 2018
The haunting words of the kaddish prayer, an ancient incantation to sanctify God’s name recited in memory of the dead, waft across the hall of mourners and outside to the protesting crowds. As I write this, the bodies of 11 innocent victims murdered in cold blood in the largest attacks against Jews in American history have just been buried. They were shot while they prayed in a religious sanctuary simply because they were Jewish.
Antisemitism may have been termed “the longest hatred,” but it is alive and well in 2018. Last year in the United States alone, the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents rose almost 60%, the largest single-year increase on record. But the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh wasn’t the only hate crime that took place on US soil last week. Two African-Americans were gunned down at a grocery store in Kentucky simply because of the color of their skin. These tragedies come at a time when online harassment, hate speech and hate crimes are up in most major American cities.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon. In Britain, hate crime offenses have more than doubled over the last five years alone, due to the aftermath of the Brexit vote and a recent spate of terrorist attacks. In my own country of South Africa, 22 years after our transition from oppressive authoritarian rule to democracy, the deep-seated structural inequalities and entrenched attitudes of bigotry inherited in the Rainbow Nation make South Africa’s transformation incomplete.
Antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination are hate crimes and on the rise around the globe. A hate crime has been defined by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as “a criminal act committed with a bias motive.” Hate crimes are “identity crimes,” actions directed at the identity of the victim and, like hate speech, harm not only the individual they are directed against but serve as a threatening message to the larger group the victim is seen to represent.
The escalating scourge of hate-based violence has been linked to a dangerous rise in hate speech – slurs and threats online and in traditional and social media, and vitriolic rhetoric in political debates and social dialogues. Fringe elements and once-pariah views are increasingly becoming emboldened and normalized in today’s public discussion, often through speech that is prejudiced and hateful.
OLD CONSPIRACY theories that demonize groups or individuals – such as the old antisemitic trope of Jewish “globalists” puppeteering foreign affairs behind closed doors that has recently been directed at George Soros – create division, mistrust and fear of the “other.”
There is hope that the current outrage around recent events will build momentum for increased awareness of hate crimes and hate speech, along with education and legislation around the world. Hate crimes legislation would not only improve the policing of, and judicial response to, acts of hate but would also establish societal norms in which hate would be intolerable.
Through initiatives to effectively monitor hate crimes, credible data on the nature and scope of the crimes could be created to better understand the cause of the violence and what could be done to resolve it. These legal and judicial processes need to be carried out alongside tolerance programs, particularly targeting the youth that explore the repercussions of discrimination and dehumanization, transforming perpetrators and bystanders into “upstanders.”
Words have power. History has taught us that what begins with words often ends in action, and that hate directed at one group does not end there. As we saw during the Holocaust; the genocide in Rwanda; and during apartheid, a society where people are dehumanized and discrimination becomes socially acceptable creates a space where human rights can be infringed, democracy retreats and ultimately, atrocities can unfold.
One of the greatest lessons of the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity is that we cannot become indifferent to the suffering of others and think that there is nothing we can do to make a difference. Each of our actions, every day, matters. Our moral obligation to remember the past is not just a call to turn back, but an injunction to the present for us to act today and build a society in which hate has no place.
This coming Shabbat, Jews around the world will come together and meet in synagogues and community centers around the world in a message of defiance to those that seek to intimidate them and threaten their way of life. In the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy and the wave of other hate crimes, may the memory of those killed last week due to hatred act as a wake-up call to all of us to stand up against discrimination whenever and wherever we come across it in our daily lives.
May we all be advocates for tolerance within our families and communities, working to break down stereotypes, meaningfully engage with groups different to our own, and build inclusive societies that embrace unity in diversity.
The writer is a human rights activist based in South Africa and a Steering Committee member of the Hate Crimes Working Group and the World Jewish Congress’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps.