Can it be a coincidence that as Rosh Hashanah approaches, President Joe Biden convened a Washington summit to examine the effects of hate-fueled violence on American democracy? Can it be simply by chance that less than a week before the High Holy Days, civic leaders in Pittsburgh convened the world’s largest anti-hate conference?
Can it be that the new year might bring a brightening in the global fight against hate?
We have many prayers at this sacred season. This might be one of them.
The past several years have produced a harvest of hatred, including the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the 2018 murder of 11 Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Just this summer – only two days before the Fourth of July, the national celebration of American independence and, implicitly, American values and “certain unalienable rights” – dozens of white supremacists, riot shields in hand, marched through downtown Boston. In January, swastikas were etched into bathroom stalls at Village Elementary School in Marblehead. One of the school incidents occurred on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Jewish holidays that commence at sundown Sept. 25 are always a moment of deep reflection. More than 20 years ago, that took the form of assessing the world after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. In more recent years, it has prompted introspection on national leadership and democratic values. The last three years have been consumed with examining the effects of the pandemic and with reflections on Biblical accounts of plague.
Many of these preoccupations remain with us. Sadly, there are new ones.
We worry about the sanctity of elections, the threats to democracy, the growing polarization among Americans. The phrase “civil war” is spoken far too easily today, and not in reference to the devastating combat of 1861-1865, America’s most deadly war, but in reference to the plausibility of political violence more than a century and a half later. Perhaps the most troubling barometric reading of our political climate comes from a Pew Research Center poll taken in early summer that found alarming increases in the rate of Americans who say that members of the opposing party are more immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded than other Americans.
The notion of E Pluribus Unum has not seemed so remote in generations.
In that context, we might find comfort that the president and others saw fit, in the month of our secular calendar that includes Rosh Hashanah, to address the phenomenon of hatred.
This was the goal in Washington’s United We Stand Summit: “An important opportunity for Americans of all races, religions, regions, political affiliations, and walks of life,” in the characterization of White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “to take up that cause together.”
This was the goal in Pittsburgh’s Eradicate Hate Global Summit 2022: “Our promise is to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and respectful discussion where effective actions against hate can be fostered.”
And so, at Rosh Hashanah, we contemplate whether this might be the moment when we wrestle hatred to the ground, or take steps to stomp it out, or silence it, or make it at the very least an endangered species.
“We have learned, to our dear loss, that when people say they want to harm us, they mean it – because they have done it,” James A. Gibson, interim rabbi at Temple Shomer Emunim in Toledo, Ohio, told me. “That’s why we must be extremely aware in our tense atmosphere of any expression of hatred, no matter how subtle it would seem.”
This is not only a Jewish impulse.
“Every religion has resources and centuries of texts which offer our current generation guidance about how to get past the ideological hatred that so many of us have become embroiled in,” the Rev. James Antal, former president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, said in an interview. “Part of the problem is that there are so many practitioners of religion who are imposters, professing an alleged faithfulness to Christ and Christian tradition which has absolutely no basis in history or in Scripture.
“Normally we would expect religion could be used to address this moral quandary,” he continued, “but, sadly, religion, particularly Christian nationalism, is dead center in the middle of the problem.”
This is a community challenge – for communities such as Boston, where a Nazi flag flew from the Germany consulate at 36 Chestnut St. and where white nationalists marched not only during World War II but also in our own time. Or Marblehead, home to two important synagogues. Or Charlottesville, a great seat of American learning and where Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, once lived.
It is also a personal challenge.
And, so, this year at Rosh Hashanah, when we contemplate the year just ended and the year ahead, perhaps we might heed the invitation Martin Buber gave us:
“When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ Act instead as if there were no God, as though there were only one person in all the world who could help – only yourself.”
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.