In the span of five weeks, the Jewish community was rocked by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as well as a anti-Semitic rampage of a Jewish-owned clothing store in the Harlem section of New York that left eight – including the gunman – dead.
Both incidents, desperate by vengeful men, should make our blood run cold, because they underscore the case that irresponsible rhetoric can incite tragic action.
As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us remember that the man whose ideal of nonviolence impressively addressed the grievances of an oppressed people understood this.
Although hotheads were no scarcer then than they are now, King’s emphasis on civil disobedience rather than vigilante tactics was a steel lid on a seething cauldron of passion – both black and white.
Rhetoric, used to advance his cause, was employed thoughtfully and responsibly, the outpouring of a mature, sensitive individual.
As we Jews so painfully know, hate shrouded in rhetoric is still unabashed hate. Unfortunately, as we have seen as a result of the Rabin assassination, our community is not less immune to its seductive power than is any other group whose leaders espouse vicious discord.
The lesson here is straightforward – whether stamping the imprimatur of Jewish law on political views or passing off a personal agenda as communal activism, each one of us who tolerates the savaging of a human being is complicity in that savagery. Malevolence is not a spectator sport.
Today, especially in light of the Harlem massacre, the Jewish community seeks to hold African Americans to a standard of moderate leadership set by King.
In our eyes, hatemongers such as nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan or the so-called black leaders that allegedly instigated the bloodbath in Harlem miss the mark by a long shot. Their brand of extremism and hate repudiates any strides they have made in the name of civil rights.
Why then, do we not apply this same standard to ourselves?
Extremism within the Jewish camp is not new, and we have certainly had our own false prophets. But invectives and epithets, whether hurled at each other or shot-put across community lines, are anathema to our collective psyche.
Jewish tradition, social mores and an abiding respect of the dignity of others serve to inhibit reckless emotion.
Thus, when vicious and extreme rhetoric begins to explode around us like Roman candles, it is our obligation as Jews to tone down the fireworks, to soften – though never still – the voices of dissent, and disavow those who lack tolerance and sensitivity toward others.
For even though our tradition fosters debate, it eschews demagoguery, and those in our community who spew it must be isolated.
If we Jews are to learn anything from misguided mechanism, it must be that we need to cultivate a new sensitivity to extremism among ourselves. It is a lesson that King, a student of the Bible, took to heart early on.
We cannot tolerate the kind of depravity that preceded the death of Rabin, no matter how firmly we may have opposed his policies or perspective.
We can never stop to branding any Jew a “traitor” or a “Nazi.”
We cannot abide that Kind of escalating vitriol which leads to a call for bloodshed.
Such vindictiveness puts us in league with the demagogues who inflamed Harlem crowds to “get the Jew” and “make him suffer.”
Ideologically or sociologically, murder is murder.
Words can hurt and even kill. Those who employ them as weapons must be held accountable for whatever action – or reaction – they engender. Any leader who resorts to hate as a vehicle of persuasion must be made to surrender his or her stewardship, to abdicate his or her position.
And those who would respond to such stridencies, whether directly or indirectly, must be made to know that they are outside the bounds of communal acceptability.
If we now look to the African American community and wonder, “Where are the moderate leaders?” – the voices of reason and moderation, can we do no less within the House of Israel?
King’s approach, still embraced by mainstream black America as the road map to a just and equal society, is rooted in our own Jewish value system.
As we celebrate his birth, we would do well to look no further than our own tradition to appreciate King’s message of moderation – and take it to heart as we seek to heal wounds inflicted from within and without.