As the 16-hour siege of the Sydney Lindt cafe played out on December 15, an Australian woman named Rachael Jacobs was riding the train when she saw a Muslim woman quietly removing her hijab. When they exited the train, Rachel ran after the woman and said, ‘Put it back on. I’ll walk with you.’
Rachel posted her story on Facebook and soon after, #IllRideWithYou was trending on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people in Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and North America joined the spontaneous social media campaign offering to meet up and escort fearful Muslims on their journeys.
I am reminded of this story as we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. This year, the commemoration takes on heightened significance in light of the global outbreak of violent anti-Semitism.
It’s worth remembering that the Holocaust did not begin with the ghettos and concentration camps, it began with the Jews being stripped of their dignity, stripped of their rights, and stripped of their humanity. Only then did the Nazis take their lives.
It’s impossible to open a newspaper today without seeing a story of individual degradation taking place somewhere in the world. It seems that there will always be some people who believe that some lives are worth less than others because of what they believe, where they come from, how they look, or what they stand for.
This is the defining battle of our generation and what is at stake is the future of civilized societies. In the recent Paris attacks, radical extremists targeted Jews, news staff, and police officers. This was akin to attacking freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – the foundation institutions of civilized society.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly on January 22, Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor remarked, “If Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who bravely spoke out against the Nazis, were alive today, I imagine that he would write: First they attacked the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. Then they attacked freedom of religion, but I was not religious and so I did not speak out. Then they attacked the press, but I was not a journalist and so I did not speak out. Then they attacked freedom of speech and expression, but there was no one left to speak for me, because there were no freedoms left.”
The hallmark of a free society is the acceptance of differences among people. If we are committed to safeguarding a free and tolerant society then we must follow in Rachael Jacobs’s steps and take a meaningful stand against prejudice.
Here in the United Sates, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there are 939 active hate groups, a 56 percent increase since 2000. In the face of this ugly surge of hatred we must rise above our differences and stand united.
We must stand with the Muslim woman who is afraid to wear her hijab in public. We must stand with the Jewish boys who are scared to go to school wearing a yarmulke. We must stand with the gay student who is being bullied. We must stand with the new immigrant who is being verbally abused.
Our common humanity demands that we stand together, people of all faiths and of no faith, united in the desire to live in a free and tolerant society. With this in mind, let us mark Holocaust Remembrance Day by pledging never again and proclaiming no one again.