So explained five teenage boys in France after they turned themselves into the police. They had vandalized the cemetery, upending tombstones and spray-painting swastikas.
Let us suppose it is possible that their naiveté is genuine. If what they say is true, then without specific malice towards Jews, these five, aged 15-16 chose a random symbol, which just turned out to be a sign of Aryan power and hatred towards Jews. Nor were they aware that the tombstones marked the graves of Jews. Sure they knew it was bad, and they are willing to admit they were up to some mischief, but by no means were they out to make national news as Antisemites.
If is it is hard for you to believe, that is understandable. Even if their naiveté were believable (which it is not,) the context in which their actions took place, moves it from being an isolated act of individuals to part of a broader narrative of hatred. Their actions are framed by hundreds of years of desecrating Jewish cemeteries in Europe, the Nazi atrocities in Europe and the current wave of small and large acts of violence towards Jews in France and across Europe.
Whether these boys intended Antisemitism or not, it is impossible to remove this incident from the history and contemporary reality in which acts against Jews are in part of a systematic ongoing hatred against Jews.
When a systematic pattern of hatred and discrimination has been entrenched over the generations, it is impossible to remove a single event from that context. The pervasive denigration of another group contributes to the permissibility of action against that group, the use of particular symbols or tropes in acting out. That these boys painted swastikas instead of smiley faces is no random act.
Recently in sentencing three young white men for beating and then driving over James Craig, an African American, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, provided historical context for this heinous crime. His thoughtful and painful look at the role racial hatred has played in Mississippi made it clear that no amount of general good behavior or church involvement on the part of the perpetrators could lessen the meaning or impact of this crime. As they drove over and killed Mr. Craig, they yelled about White Power. This was no random act.
Similarly, last week when three Muslim American students were shot in cold blood in their home in North Carolina, it was hard to see the act as distinct from the culture of Islamophobia that exists currently in the United States. That Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 had run-ins with Chris Hicks (the alleged murderer) about parking has been established. But we cannot remove that dispute, or Hicks’ turning up to game night with a shotgun in hand, or his eventual shooting of three innocent people in their home, from the general negative vision of Islam that has become commonly acceptable in many quarters.
Persistent communal hatred is frightening on many levels. It is not easily banished. It seeps into our day to day. When we knowingly or even unintentionally contribute to narratives of discrimination, against people with different colored skin, different religions, from different regions, sexual orientations, or abilities, we contribute to creating a broader culture of communal hatred. Our tradition teaches us the need to be vigilant and think about how we act and treat the other, for there is no room for claims of naiveté when it comes to acting in or contributing to a context of hatred.
I have had many reactions so far to the recently leaked audio of comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. For those who have missed the media coverage, Sterling had a lengthy conversation with his girlfriend about why she should remove all photos of herself with African-Americans on the social media platform Instagram and why she should not bring African-Americans to Clippers basketball games.
First and foremost, I am disgusted by his comments. I am disgusted by the dehumanizing hate inherent in his words. I am disgusted that Donald Sterling is a Jew, the son of immigrants who knew what it meant to be hated for what you were rather than judged for who you were as a person. I am disgusted that Sterling can date his girlfriend/mistress (he is not divorced from his wife), who is both African-American and Mexican, while finding her public associations with other African-Americans to be abhorrent. I am disgusted that Sterling can find it fitting to profit from the physical exploits of his predominantly African-American basketball players yet prefer for African-Americans not to attend his games. I am disgusted that a Jew would be associated with these racist comments at the time of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we affirm our commitment never to forget what hate and discrimination can lead to. So I join the basketball players, sports columnists, and pundits who have condemned these comments. I hope, once due process runs its course, that if it is confirmed that Sterling spoke these words (thus far he has not denied that it is his voice speaking), that he is forced to sell his team and banned from basketball.
(Update: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling admitted to being the speaker on the audio recording and Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA and was fined $2.5 million)
I further hope that the Jewish community of Los Angeles will exercise tochecha (rebuke) and reject his presence and involvement unless and until he shows true contrition and a willingness to engage in teshuva (restorative repentance).
Yet some might view Sterling’s comments as less abhorrent than the overtly racist screeds we heard earlier this week from Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal lands and refused to pay for it. Bundy, of course, became infamous last week for telling New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney that African-Americans were better off when they were slaves:
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Seen in this light, Sterling’s comments seem far less jarring. Disregarding the fact that Sterling has a history of explicitly racist comments, in the audio recording, Sterling argues that he is not racist but a realist. At about the one minute mark, he claims that his girlfriend should not publicly associate with African-Americans not because they are inherently bad but because of public perception of minorities as bad. “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is.”
Yet there is an insidious underpinning to Sterling’s comments that bothers me, as a Jew, far more than Bundy’s noxious harangue. Sterling argues that we stuck with the detritus of our culture, that there is nothing we can do individually to change racism in America. But this idea of acquiescence is anathema to Judaism! It is the opposite of the redemption we have experienced throughout our national history and which we pray for daily in our liturgy. The story of Abraham is the story of a man being willing to leave his homeland, his status quo, for an uncertain future. And, in Genesis 18 (when Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), it is the story of a man who was willing to stand up to no less than God for what he thought was right. The story of Passover, which we just celebrated, is the story of God, through Moses, freeing the Israelite slaves in Egypt from the mightiest empire then on earth. The story of the founding of Israel in 1948 is the story of a people who had been exiled from their homeland for nearly 2000 years yet never giving up hope of an ultimate restoration to that land. As Rabbi Tarfon insists in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 2:16, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from trying.” Standing up to the status quo, fighting for what is just, effecting change in a world of intransigence and stasis—this is what makes Jews Jews.
During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we Jews count the Omer to symbolize and to embody the ongoing pursuit of personal and collective redemption. As we do so this year, let us continue to fight for what is right and reject those who claim “that’s just the way it is.” Let us reject the Sterlings who accept the world with all its flaws and re-commit ourselves to creating the world as we aspire it to become.