I am here today representing Community College of Denver (CCD) and the leadership of our tri-institutional campus. We come to you in shared horror and grief over the senseless killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and a grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. We are all experiencing a range of emotions. Sadness. Fear. Anger. Loss. But what I want to talk about is what it means for our community here at CCD, and how we will address it moving forward.
What we know is that these acts of hatred and terror did not happen in a vacuum. The Anti-Defamation League and other groups that track hate crimes and anti-Semitic acts have shown an alarming increase that corresponds to the continued decline in our civic discourse. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the string of killings in America. Some are impossible to understand. In other cases, like the killing of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the cause is readily apparent. They are the acts of avowed racists.
There are no easy explanations for these acts of unconscionable violence. But we must recognize that what we are seeing now in terms of hatred is what we have fought throughout our history. It is not new. All religions have a history of persecution at different times. All communities that are close-knit, and different in the way they look, have been targets.
The history of race riots and lynchings in this country is a dark stain on our nation. The Jewish community has frequently been targeted throughout the ages, most horribly in the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany. And what the events in Pittsburgh and in Kentucky and in South Carolina tell us is that the sickness of anti-Semitism and racism has remained.
As Americans, we’ve lived with this reality and periodically must fight it back. We must fight prejudice wherever it raises its head. Prejudice against immigrants, against race, against religion. We must recognize that we are a nation of people who, at some point in our history, were escaping religious intolerance or violence, looking for a new world where they and their children could prosper in peace.
That sense of determination is also part of the richness of this country. Immigrants who came here were risk takers. And still are. Think about what it takes for someone to leave their country and all that they know behind – in the hopes of finding something better. That strength and resolve were passed on to our early immigrants’ children, and their children’s children. The greatness and “exceptionalism” of Americans is that we’re not complacent. We are open. We are innovative. We are welcoming.
But sadly, there is often a backlash. A strain of resistance toward people who are different. (From people who themselves were once considered different.) We periodically look toward different groups – Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims – and see them as threatening. Threatening our livelihood, our sense of security and our identity as Americans.
There are things going on in our country - undercurrents - that are very disturbing. But it’s a reflection of what’s always been there. What’s different is that hatred can grow and spread much more quickly due to social media. We are not hearing or seeing the same information about what is real.
Not that long ago, we all watched the evening news. We had confidence in professional journalists, and we read books and local newspapers. Our news is now so fragmented that we can limit ourselves to programs that offer only confirmation of our own worldviews. And social media offers further differentiation with rampant misinformation and extremist venues. People live within these venues. And they get clues that lead to the incubation of violent acts.
How can we combat this? One thing we can do as educators is go back and remind our students that our democratic institutions are strong but not unbreakable. They must be protected. Remind students of our history. Help them find ways to engage with our social and political structures. Help them practice civil discourse. Teach them to become discerning consumers of information. We must remind people of our foundation of religious freedom. It is our choice. We cannot assume our country is so strong that it will all be okay -- just because it always has been. Hatred is a threat. Ignorance is a threat. Indifference is a threat.
We must remind our own children of the values that are the foundation of democracy. Remind them of the mistakes of history. History is full of horrible attacks - of one group on another. And it starts with anger, hatred, and demonization of one another. We must start in our own families, communities, and in our roles of leadership. Let’s look for opportunities to dispel the fear of the other, fear of the different.
We do see currents of understanding growing in our community. One of the most striking things for me in recent days was seeing the Muslim community of Pittsburgh offering support for the Jewish community. It was a hopeful and meaningful countertrend.
What can we do as an institution at CCD? Well, to start, we are here today to show our support. To share our pain. To say this is not who we are. That this is not acceptable. And we will not give in to fear and hatred. We have a role as an educational institution to serve as a forum for civil discourse. As an example, we hosted the state Attorney General debate last week. Going forward, we will be asking student leaders what they can do, and what we can do, as well as the deans, faculty, and staff – to bring discussion, involve the community, and raise awareness.
We are always fighting to find community in a diverse society. It’s part of the fact that we are many cultures. This is a strength, but with so many groups and heritages, we are constantly striving to find community. Our college is an expression of that. We are a COMMUNITY college. In spite of our differing backgrounds, we have a sense that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. We must constantly ask ourselves - are we insulating ourselves, or are we making efforts to create a more inclusive community?
We hear a lot about tribalism these days. The tendency to go into our corners. To take care of our own. We must remember that just as strong as the human impulse to reject the outsider is the human instinct to reach out to others, extend kindness, to create community. Who are we? Are we a tribe, or a community? Can we be loyal to our cultural values and at the same time extend those to the community?
I want to end by paraphrasing a thought expressed by Rabbi Field, of the Denver congregation, Judaism Your Way. It is incumbent upon all of us to raise the level of civility in our public dialog, to speak to the better angels of our nature, and to condemn in no uncertain terms such acts of violence. As Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue.”