Our state’s motto is simply “Hope.” For many right now, feelings of hope may feel distant and difficult to achieve. But we must remember, we all have a responsibility to one another.
Elie Wiesel, author, professor and Holocaust survivor famously stated, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We are living through a time of historic upheaval. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the inequity in our country. Prior to the pandemic, there was a growing and persistent gap between those at the top and the bottom of the economic ladder. Today, while the stock market has returned to pre-shutdown levels, tens of millions of Americans remain without work.
In times of stress and in times of trouble, history teaches us that people look to place blame. Too often that blame falls to minority populations. Our own histories teach us this. In the Black community, America’s original sin of slavery has led to a systemic racism that has terrorized Black Americans for generations. After the Civil War, freed slaves were blamed for problems in the nation leading to Jim Crow laws and other restrictions on their freedom. Following the Civil Rights movement, the Black community and other minorities were blamed for rising crime and unrest, and we witnessed the implementation of racist laws sending millions to prison for small crimes or no crimes at all.
For many in the Jewish community, our American story started when our ancestors escaped the Pogroms of Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Those early Jewish immigrants experienced anti-Semitism in very blatant ways, being denied the ability to buy homes in certain areas and enter communal institutions, which is the immigrant story many in this country had and continue to have. And sadly, each day we lose more survivors of the Holocaust that killed more than 6 million Jews. We are losing the ability to hear first-hand accounts of the atrocities that take place when hatred and bigotry are used as weapons.
We know from these histories that hatred begins when we blame others for the problems in our own communities. That hatred turns to radicalization, which all too frequently turns to violence. In recent years we have witnessed horrific tragedies in Charleston, South Carolina, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, among too many others. In both cases people praying together were targets for white supremacy and hatred.
For targeted communities, there is not only violence, but deeply entrenched fear. We want to be clear, our experiences are not the same. Systemic racism and bigotry in America affect the Black community every day in ways that most Jewish community members have not experienced in decades. But more recently, even here in Rhode Island, we have witnessed actions that have increased fear throughout all minority communities. Whether it is someone shouting a slur from a car window, online harassment or threats of physical violence, it needs to end.
Hatred is hatred, full stop. We stand together to say we are steadfast in our work together to fight racism and anti-Semitism. To fight homophobia and xenophobia and Islamophobia. To recognize people for who they are and not simply by their race, ethnicity, orientation or faith. We call on you to join us. We hope you will consider the following action steps:
None of this is easy, but it is necessary work. We don’t want to live in a world built on fear. The late John Lewis, one of our heroes, once said, “Freedom is the continuous action we must all take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” We ask you to join us in our fight against hatred and bigotry in all forms, to fully realize the values embedded in our state motto of hope.
Jim Vincent is the president of the NAACP – Providence Chapter.
Adam Greenman is the president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. A version of this commentary appeared in the Providence Journal on Sept. 7.