In classrooms, at kitchen tables and throughout the halls of government, Americans are grappling with how to understand the massacre in Buffalo. Long overdue public conversations are beginning about how to take meaningful steps to combat violence borne from hate.
For both Black and Jewish Americans, the attack has prompted particular reflection and deeply emotional discussions.
Last year, the FBI reported hate crimes targeting Americans because of their race increased more than any other category. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a growth from 3,954 to 4,939 total incidents. In 2020, there were 2,755 attacks targeting Black Americans – the largest rise.
For 2019, the Anti-Defamation League, recorded more than 2,100 antisemitic acts in America of assault, vandalism and harassment. This was an increase of 12% over the previous year. In 2018 and 2019, the world watched as brave police officers battled with violent antisemites who attacked and killed Jews in Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey and New York.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently made clear, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The rise in hate is not a problem limited to the Black or Jewish communities, but one our communities acutely face.
For Jewish Americans, Dr. King was an important ally. He devoted significant time to strengthening ties between the Black and Jewish communities. Just ten days before his life was tragically cut short by the same hatred we witnessed in Buffalo, Dr. King joined Rabbis from across the country in New York City to celebrate the 60th birthday of his friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In introducing Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel told his colleagues, “The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
As we grapple with the tragedy in Buffalo, the impact and influence of Dr. King should guide us.
Dr. King was not stranger to state capitals and Washington. At this moment in American history, Congress has concrete steps they can take.
The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act is a bipartisan bill that would combat the growing threat of domestic violent extremist groups and individuals. It authorizes domestic terrorism offices within the Departments of Justice Department and Homeland Security and the FBI. Similar to how Congress mandated the tracking of hate crimes in 1990, it requires biannual reporting on the state of domestic terrorism threats. With passage of the bill, law enforcement will be better equipped to work together in identifying risks and thwarting future attacks.
In January, Senator Chuck Schumer joined Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Sikh leaders in New York City calling on the Senate to double the size of the Non-profit Security Grant Program administered by the Department of Homeland Security. The grants have paid for physical security measures at house of worship, religious schools and similar non-profits at risk of targeting by violent bigots.
We learned from the civil rights movement that government officials are only part of the equation. Everyday community leaders play an integral role in fostering a climate that provides no oxygen for hate.
A perfect example for communities across the United States is in Rochester, New York. The Levine Center to End Hate began from the tragedy in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through a multicultural, multi-ethnic, interfaith steering committee, business and non-profit voices in the community regularly convene. While launched through the Jewish community, the work has brought together diverse leaders to begin to stifle polarization and divisive rhetoric in the greater Rochester area.
Similarly, former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Zach Banner has educated not only schoolchildren, but also his fellow Black NFL players about antisemitism. After Desean Jackson of the Eagles posted quotes attributed to the Nazis, Banner wisely used his platform. “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now but I want to preach to the Black and Brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them just as much.”
Over the last five years, there is a direct line between the vile antisemitic hatred displayed on the streets of Charlottesville and the awful tragedy targeting Black New Yorkers in Buffalo.
As America prepares to celebrate her 250th birthday, we should not forget the wisdom of Charlottesville’s native son, Thomas Jefferson. In 1776, he proposed that the national motto should be “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many one).
Indeed, it is our diversity that is America’s greatest strength. Not only are the Black and Jewish community in New York stronger when standing together, but the entire nation will also benefit.