Tree of Life Synagogue Massacre | Chancellor’s Message to the Antioch University Community
Dear Antioch University Community,
Today, the congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue continue to bury their dead. It’s yet another chapter in our national ignominy of mass shootings and death by AR-15 assault rifles in the hands of domestic terrorists. This time, it was the deadliest rampage on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. The assailant was motivated by hate and a desire to kill “as many Jews” as he could. A couple of days earlier, a gunman tried to enter a predominantly black church near Louisville, KY. Thwarted by locked doors, he went to a nearby Krogers and allegedly murdered the first two black people he could find. These terrorist attacks and mass shootings by self-identified neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists are on the rise. We are reminded of the white supremacist that entered the predominantly black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the evening of June 17, 2015 and murdered nine African Americans during a prayer service “in the hope of igniting a race war.” We are left wondering, why? How did we get here? And, what can we do?
The early investigation into the synagogue shooting supports that the gunman’s motive was his opposition to the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), and its perceived role in relief efforts for immigrants. HIAS is now one of nine agencies that contract with the U.S. State Department to assist in the resettlement of refugees legally admitted into the United States. Yet, by working for social justice, the entire Jewish community had apparently become a target for the gunman. As an institution with its own long history and strong mission of social justice, Antioch University must stand together with HIAS in solidarity, speak up for our shared social values, and speak out against hate.
Founded in 1881 in Brooklyn, HIAS is one of the oldest charities in America. Its mission originally was to help Jews fleeing from persecution, as they have often been required to do throughout history. By 1975, its mission expanded to assist with the relocation of persecuted and dislocated refugees of any ethnicity. In its history, HIAS has helped more than 4.5 million people escape persecution. HIAS writes, we originally helped refugees “because they were Jewish”; now, we help refugees “because we are Jewish.” Its mission of social justice, to “protect the most vulnerable refugees, helping them build new lives and reuniting them with their families in safety and freedom,” is as compelling as the American story itself. Like Antioch University, they respect the dignity, diversity, uniqueness and beliefs of all people.
But, as a result of that humanitarian work, they were the target of many anti-Semitic rants by the alleged shooter in social media, including one, just hours before the massacre speculating that Jews and HIAS were behind the caravan of refugees fleeing the chaos in Honduras. His last post on Gab, the pro-hate-speech social media site, was, “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” Certainly, he and other white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis have been incited, whipped up and emboldened by the recent political rhetoric dehumanizing and demonizing others based on their race, their religion, their ethnicity and the color of their skin. We have witnessed the stoking of fear, the demagoguery, the references to refugees as “animals,” “rapists,” “terrorists,” “murderers,” and “diseased invaders.” We have seen Jews blamed for the “invasion,” and now we have seen the consequences of that rhetoric. Words matter!
But, these fringe groups are also emboldened by what is not said, by what they do not hear. Instead of unambiguously denouncing the torch-bearing demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, who chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and who mowed down counter-protesters resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, we are told that “there were good people on both sides.” We did not hear that fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism have no place in America, that it will find no sanctuary in this administration, that acts of violence will be prosecuted to the full extent of federal and state law as hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism.
Similarly, in the face of the recent three-day spree of pipe bombs being mailed to 12 individuals perceived to be political enemies of the President, including prominent Jews, two former Presidents and the President of CNN Broadcasting, we hear again that “the press is the enemy of the people.” We do not hear that the bomber is a domestic terrorist; we do not hear that his attempted assassination of two former US Presidents will be met with the full fury of the federal government; We do not hear that the press is a cornerstone of our democracy protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and that the government will do all in its power to protect it.
When a journalist, living in the US and working for the Washington Post, is lured from our shores to Turkey by Saudi operatives, and then ambushed, butchered and dismembered while still alive, we hear that “he is not a U.S. citizen, he was only a permanent resident of the U.S.” We hear that we have many lucrative contracts with Saudi Arabia that must be considered. We do not hear that the U.S. takes seriously its protection of permanent residents to our country, including Muslims that they enjoy the same Constitutional rights as citizens and have the full protection of our government against foreign powers. We do not hear that we take seriously our protection of the free press and that a brutal murder of a US journalist is an attack on the United States that will be met with swift and meaningful sanctions.
The implicit message is that, if violent action is directed at journalists or the press, or other perceived enemies of the current administration, they deserve it. It is well established that as dehumanizing rhetoric increases from any government, the incidence of violence and hate crimes directed at those group increases. On the night of November 9, 1938, referred to now as “Kristallnacht” or “The Night of Broken Glass,” German civilians smashed the windows of Jewish shops, and dragged Jews from their homes into the streets. Estimates are that 91 Jews were murdered that night. It was the beginning of the Holocaust. The Nazi government took no responsibility, but clearly their rhetoric demonizing and dehumanizing Jews triggered the attack. While there has always been a small fringe of neo-Nazis and white nationalists in the United States, the self-described “alt-right” is growing. According to the 2016 American National Election Survey (ANES), those identifying with White nationalist ideology make up 6% of the white population, or about 11 million people.
And with that growth, has come an increase in hate crime. The Anti-Defamation League released its most recent annual report in February 2018 concluding that “the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60% higher in 2017 than in 2016, the largest single-year increase on record, and the second-highest number of incidents since the ADL started tracking data in the 1970s.” Now we have the largest mass murder of Jews in American history. There is clearly a connection between political rhetoric and violence.
In Horace Mann’s oft-quoted plea to “be ashamed to die until we have won some victory for humanity,” we are reminded that it is not enough to be good; we must do good. This is a call to individual action. As most of you already demonstrate in your lives, in your work, in your teaching, and in your scholarship, we must speak up, speak out, demonstrate, be heard, educate others, be engaged, debate public policy, stand up to hate, support candidates that support our values and VOTE like our democracy, our values, and our rights depend on it–because they do. It is who we are as Americans and as Antiochians.
As I watch the funerals of the victims and the grieving of the families of both the attack at the synagogue and the supermarket, I have both a deep sense of despair and a growing sense of hope. The NY Times reported yesterday that two Muslim organizations raised more than $130,000 to help victims and their families of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue —Muslims helping Jews to build a stronger America. That’s the kind of America our founders envisioned, one in which people of all faiths, all races, all ethnicities, all genders and orientations, live peacefully together — in service to each other for a better world.
As an institution of higher education, we are a laboratory of diverse ideas and political perspectives. Certainly, on the topic of immigration, there is room for a diversity of opinions and approaches. However, we can debate those issues with civility, and in a way that does not demonize and dehumanize populations of vulnerable people.
By standing together, we, –not the domestic terrorists, not the neo-Nazis, not the white supremacists–will define America.
William R. Groves. J.D.