About 60 years ago my mother and I arrived in the United States. As we ate breakfast on the SS Rijndam, tears welled up as we had our first long-anticipated view of the Statue of Liberty. To us, America was “The New World,” a country where everyone had the opportunity to thrive, a country that welcomed the stranger, a country with none of the narrow-mindedness and antisemitism that persisted in Europe even after the Holocaust. As we stood at the railing waiting for our turn with the immigration officer, we marveled at the heavy protective gloves worn by dockworkers as they unloaded huge crates, and at the cups of coffee they were served on the loading platforms when it came time for a break. Surely this was the real workers’ paradise!
But shortly after our arrival, we acquired our first television set—we hadn’t planned on getting a TV, though it was the first piece of furniture in our apartment—and as we watched the news and saw the images of Black children being jeered at and cursed, blocked from attending school, we learned that America was not free of hatred and prejudice. Over the years, as we witnessed the civil rights movement and the power of nonviolent protest, we concluded that America still had the potential of being the “Goldene Medineh,” the “golden land.”
But repeated shootings targeting predominantly African American churches, marches by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, the massacre in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and, now, the resurgence of ancient antisemitic tropes in light of the COVID-19 pandemic have made me wonder whether there is any place of refuge from prejudice, bigotry, and hatred. I fear that the idea of America, the America of our Declaration of Independence, is under attack, under attack by words, venomous words that target the stranger, words that we have learned can have lethal consequences. A survey found that most people think that Adolf Hitler gained power through violent means. But it was words in the form of propaganda that brought him to power. It was words that destroyed the pre-Nazi German government’s Weimar constitution. It was words that led to the Holocaust.
In July 2012, I heard a speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that now seems sadly prophetic: “Those in power begin to dehumanize particular groups or scapegoat them for their country’s problems. Hatred not only becomes acceptable; it is even encouraged. It’s like stacking dry firewood before striking the match. Then there is a moment of ignition. The permission to hate becomes permission to kill.”
My mother passed away 18 years ago. What would she say if she were alive today? I think I know. Because she loved the change in seasons, every fall I would take her to Shenandoah National Park to admire myriad shades of gold as far as the eye could see. She would remind me how witnessing the emergence of spring through the cracks of a cattle car transporting her from one concentration camp to another had kindled her imagination and given her the hope of a better world. No human power, she said, can keep the sun from shining or undo the beauty of creation. She truly believed that just as spring erases the gloom of winter, goodness ultimately will prevail over evil. It falls to all of us, she would say, to find the good, to embrace it, and to spread it.
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