As a civil rights attorney, I have spent over 3 decades using the tools of my trade to respond to hate that has been unleashed upon my clients. However, until recently, society has generally supported victims of hate and vilified the hate mongers. Sadly, the campaign and subsequent election of our president-elect has resulted in something I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime-the legitimization of hate.
Even a casual news observer cannot help but notice the daily occurrences of swastika graffiti, beatings and even killings of Muslims, and shaming of schoolchildren of color. On the Saturday night before this past Halloween, I went to see friends who perform in a local band at a nearby neighborhood club. Many were dressed up in a wide variety of costumes. Before the show, a complete stranger sitting next to me wearing a long Pinocchio nose, apparently thought it was completely ok to tell me a vile anti-semitic joke. Whether he knew I was Jewish does not matter. What was most disturbing was that he felt completely free to spew his hate in public to a total stranger.
Though I consider myself a strong advocate, I was so stunned when that stranger shared his anti-semitism with me that I failed to respond. I have been thinking about this incident ever since to try to understand my failure to respond. Beyond just being in shock, I also did not want to cause a scene at an otherwise festive public affair. But after I posted this incident on Facebook and a number of friends said they would have responded strongly, I realized 2 important things:
- Never judge how someone responds to a crisis because you never know how you will respond if confronted with the very same crisis; and
- It is often easier to respond on behalf of someone else than to actually defend yourself.
Sadly, once the election was over, the president-elect moved quickly to make sure the world understood that he would continue to legitimize hate when he appointed a purveyor of hateful prejudice, Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist, a position in the White House that has never previously existed. For those who are unaware, Bannon was the editor of Breitbart.com before joining the president-elect’s campaign. In that capacity, he regularly denigrated Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, people of color and women, and he did so in vile and hateful language. Until recently, such a man would not be accepted in civil society, but since the president-elect has normalized hate and prejudice, he has now welcomed it, through Bannon’s appointment, to the highest level of his White House.
Fortunately, yesterday, I was given a chance to respond belatedly to the anti-semitism I experienced, when a local TV news reporter called me in my role as President of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim, to ask if I would be willing to publicly respond to my Congressman Mark Pocan’s call that the president-elect withdraw Bannon’s appointment. I gladly agreed to do so and you can watch my interview at this link.
During this interview, I was able to convey the following in response to Bannon’s appointment and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s acceptance of it:
“Our president-elect has chosen to legitimize hate within his own administration. We had a big Bat Mitzvah this past weekend (and) people are worried. They’re very worried. He has an opportunity – Speaker Ryan – to say directly to the President of the United States – hate does not belong in the White House. I understand that he was just renominated as Speaker of the House, but that’s not leadership to duck a question like that.”
This TV news story not only provide me with the opportunity to delegitimize hate, but as the story has been shared widely, local leaders have approached me to work with them to strategize on an organized local response. I look forward to doing so in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately, given the results of our recent election, this will just be the first of many battles which good people simply cannot shy away from. The timing and manner of each of our responses to hate will vary, but respond we must.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.