Sara Weinberger: Really, America? Too afraid to do the right thing?

Last modified: Friday, November 27, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — I remember as a child on Yom Kippur watching those in my synagogue beating their chests with clenched fists as they chanted an alphabetized list of transgressions, ranging from gluttony to gossip. When I became too cool to sit next to my parents, my friends and I stood in the back of the sanctuary, mockingly punching each others’ chests, chuckling as we recited this alphabet of evil deeds.

What I remember most was the transgression corresponding to the letter “x.” Each year, when we made it down to “x,” we would point to the word that sent us into “preadolescent” giggles — “xenophobia.” Each year we wondered what the meaning of this strange word was.

Today it has lost its mystery. Xenophobia has reared its ugly head in the aftermath of a Paris bloodbath, turning collective horror into a pulsing hatred. Televised images of Parisian streets on Nov. 13 filled with police cars, hauntingly empty, were surrealistic.

A few days later the news was different. Images of weary Syrian refugees fill the screen, followed by a map of the United States, with more than half of the states shaded in read. “The red states,” the announcer explains, “are those whose governors have banned Syrian refugees.”

Republican presidential candidates have seized the moment, preying on our fears, which they promise to cure with bombs, bullets and bans on refugees. “Xenophobia!” I scream at the television, which answers with news of anti-immigrant legislation.

On Nov. 9, four days before the Paris murders, Jews remembered Kristallnacht, an onslaught of Nazi retribution for the assassination of German Secretary Ernest Von Rath by a Polish Jewish student. It resulted in 91 Jewish deaths, 1,000 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The attempts to collectively blame Syrian refugees for the crimes of a few mirror the Nazi efforts to find any excuse to justify xenophobic violence. I can’t remember the sin beginning with the letter “H” in the Yom Kippur confessional, but I wouldn’t hesitate to add, “Hypocrisy.” Two months ago, we were grief-stricken by a photo of a drowned Syrian child, washed ashore like a dead fish. Our nation was moved by the plight of Syrian refugees. Our own community raised over $30,000 at a benefit concert for Syrian relief.

We called our representatives, imploring them to send us refugees And just as quickly, in the aftermath of Paris, those who were the source of compassion became suspect.

One fraudulent Syrian passport found on a suicide bomber has been used as the symbol of a xenophobic effort to demonize all Syrians trying to escape from the unimaginable violence in their country. As winter brings added misery to those in refugee camps, cold-blooded politicians have unleashed a campaign to freeze the hearts of the American people.

How is it that so many are so easily manipulated? In the last decade almost 300,000 people in the United States were killed by gun violence, while only 24 died as a result of terrorism. The October school shootings at Umpqua Community College were the 45th school shooting in 2015.

We are terrified of guns in the hands of Muslims fired across an ocean, while the government does almost nothing to prevent deaths of innocent children in our own backyard, deaths caused mainly by white men. Xenophobia?

According to a Guardian investigation, by the end of 2015 about 1,100 people in the U.S. will have died at the hands of law enforcement. Black people are twice as likely to die by police as whites or Latinos and are significantly more likely to be unarmed. Xenophobia means that in the U.S. black lives still don’t matter.

In 2007, I helped organize “Voices for Darfur,” a concert at Smith College, to raise funds for humanitarian assistance for victims of the Darfur genocide. Today, 500,000 people are dead in a continuing genocide that nobody speaks of. We grow tired of genocides that go on too long, especially when the victims are black and African.

The xenophobia that fueled the recent Congressional vote to bar Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. brings to mind the anti-Semitism that drove the U.S. to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of those trying to rescue the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe from imminent death. Will fear and ignorance again cause us to miss an opportunity to save thousands of innocent lives?

In the years since I innocently giggled at the recitation of the word “xenophobia,” I have become all to familiar with its brutal meaning.

Hatred of the “other” is a soul-killer. It eats away at our values and threatens our nation more than terrorism. Only by recognizing our common humanity can we defeat those who are motivated by xenophobia; only by speaking out in support of those who suffer will we keep the doors of this country open.

Sara Weinberger of Northampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.


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