Over the last two weeks we’ve seen the best and worst of our Falls Church and Fairfax community. The worst in the ugly, vile painting of 19 swastikas on the Jewish Community Center on Little River Turnpike. And the best in the overwhelmingly positive and supportive response to that incident from the community at large.
Sunday night I had the pleasure of attending a CommUNITY event at the JCC and was moved by the outpouring of support from leaders of other faith communities, statewide elected officials, county leaders from both parties, and community members.
The week prior, upon seeing images of swastikas spray painted on the walls and windows of the Center, I did what so many of us reflexively do when we are moved to speak out, I typed out a Facebook post on my smartphone. In addition to sharing a picture of the graffiti with words of condemnation, I also observed that the President had recently been accused of repeating anti-Semitic tropes about global Jewish financiers, and that the number of anti-Semitic incidents of violence and vandalism had increased substantially since his election.
I also said then, and I repeat it now, that we don’t know who painted these 19 swastikas or why. Nevertheless, sharing those observations in my post apparently hit a nerve with a number of people including many of my own constituents who support the President. They resented any implication that they were somehow responsible for the acts of a still-unknown bad actor, whose motives can currently only be guessed at.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has catalogued anti-Semitic incidents since 1979, reports that anti-Semitic activity increased 34% in 2016 and by 86% in the first quarter of 2017. Before 2016, the number of incidences had been in decline.
Here in Virginia, there were 6 incidents of anti-Semitism in 2016. By the end of 2017, there had been 34.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe that support for the President makes you anti-Semitic. Nor do I believe the President himself is an anti-Semite. He does, however, have a troubling history of managing to appear to encourage those with extreme views.
Does he do it by design, or is this just part of his aversion to appearing to be “politically correct?” Does it matter?
Let me say it again. I don’t know who vandalized the JCC last Saturday and I don’t know why.
Here is what I do know.
When people watch a man mock a reporter with disabilities on stage; when they listen to him describe whole nationalities as primarily rapists and murderers – with some good people; when whole countries are described as s**tholes; when he calls women dogs, and horse-faced; when you support a leader who differentiates himself from other politicians with an unprecedented, unembarrassed willingness to demonize “the other” and stoke fear and sow division for his own political gain, you don’t get to pretend that the rise in acts of hate - against Jews, Muslims, LGBT friendly congregations, and others - has nothing to do with the poisonous environment those words and acts create.
When you build your coalition by pitting people against one another, by framing your world view as “us” being victimized by “them” - be it in trade, in job creation, or in allocation of government resources - when you frame every argument as a struggle where some are winners and the rest are losers, it’s easy to lose control of who gets to wear which label.
So, what do we do?
Elected officials at every level of government, Democrats and Republicans must continue to swiftly and forcefully condemn these criminal acts of vandalism. We also must not remain silent, or reward those who engage in campaigns to categorize and then divide us – to cast some members of our community as outsiders who don’t belong here. Be they anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic, or xenophobic, we can drown out these hateful words and deeds with messages of love and welcoming.
It was great to hear the unanimous voices of support at the JCC this past weekend, clapping and singing together. I think everyone enjoyed listening to Christians, Jews and Muslims, parents and children, Democrats and Republicans, all singing Bob Marley songs together, then tracing our hands and cutting construction paper as part of a collective art project. Symbols of love to obliterate those symbols of hate that had been painted days before.
It really was great and inspiration evening, and yet, as so many of the speaker’s said - we really have to stop meeting like this.