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Educating against Hatred, for Respect

October 30, 2018 by

people holding a vigil outside Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after mass shooting
Bruderhof members at a vigil outside Tree of Life Synagogue

The cold-blooded murder of the eleven Jews gunned down during Shabbat services on October 27 in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh calls for the sharpest condemnation. But coming hard on the heels of similar bloodbaths in other places of worship (Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, and Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, come immediately to mind), it calls for more than that: for reflection on what it might be that has brought us, as a society, to such a terrible pass. After all, people don’t just get up in the morning and decide to go out and mow down other human beings.

In the case of this particular gunman, Robert Bowers, his rampage was anything but rash: he had documented his development as a purveyor of hate speech through his own online rants. And as is so often the case when like-minded cranks let out their bile by posting it, he found a sympathetic sounding board and a safe place to nurture some very warped views.

But if people can be taught, over time, to hate, then surely they can also be taught to love. To quote Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin... If we can learn to be racist, then we can unlearn it too.”

Which brings me back to Pittsburgh (or at least the rural community southeast of it where I grew up) and the rather obvious idea that even if we can’t catch every Robert Bowers before it is too late, the issues raised by him and his ilk still have everything do with the way we educate our children and one another – or don’t – in the ways of open-mindedness, fairness, justice, generosity, and respect.

A case in point is an old teacher of mine, Mr. Wardle, who used to take his classes to Pittsburgh to teach them just these values. One destination was the University of Pittsburgh’s famed landmark, the Cathedral of Learning, where we were taken on a tour through classrooms decorated to highlight the cultural backgrounds of the second- and third-generation immigrant families who populated the city. Other field trips included visits to coal mines and even a steel mill to learn about the poverty of the hardworking Slovaks and Irishmen on whose aching backs the area’s industrial fortunes had been built.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin... If we can learn to be racist, then we can unlearn it too.”
—Nelson Mandela

Closer to home, we visited Dr. Parker, a college professor in our neighborhood who had adopted several children, among them a Korean and an African-American. In English class, Mr. Wardle stressed the importance of communicating not just in your mother tongue, but in others, and taught us snatches of Latin and Esperanto, the “universal” language popular in post-World War II Europe that he had learned as a young man.

Later, at Uniontown High School (also near Pittsburgh), that same unobtrusive moral education continued by virtue of the subtle but abundantly clear attitudes of the teaching staff. With plenty of racism and anti-Semitism in our school district, and an active regional chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, our teachers were largely matter of fact about the existence of ethnic rivalry (and occasionally, real hatred) on campus, which was fairly diverse. With a student body comprised of Armenian Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, Italian Catholics, Black Baptists, Syrians, Iranians, Germans, Poles, and Czechs, it was not uncommon to hear slurs like “Spic” and “Dago” and God knows what else hurled down halls and stairwells in between classes. But woe betide the kid who was careless enough to let fly such a disparaging word in the classroom, within earshot of Mr. Bierbower, Mrs. Gelotti, Mr. Slampak, or Mrs. Grote. A withering glance and the suggestion that they had never met anyone as “ignorant” as the offender made it perfectly plain where they stood, and what they expected of their charges.

That sort of (comparatively) orderly and friendly era seems worlds away now, in our explosively polarized time, when every group and subgroup you can imagine seems to have found someone to hate – and that, despite endless talk in every arena of public life (ironically enough, the educational most especially) about the importance of inclusion and tolerance and diversity.

the word peace written on a building

So what is there to do in the face of a tragedy like the one in Pittsburgh? Horror, outrage, grief, public expressions of sympathy and solidarity, and prayers: all these have their place. But can they stop another Shabbat massacre?

President Trump’s predictable response – we need more guns – is a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that Bowers had an arsenal of some twenty-one weapons registered to his name, and that no matter the particulars, attempting to match firepower with firepower always means entering an arms race. And with regard to the argument that better security is the answer, I’ll stick to paraphrasing a member of a Pittsburgh synagogue quoted in various newspapers who said she’s not willing to settle for living in a country where attending a house of worship means entering something akin to a barricaded fortress.

Then there’s the whole question of the Internet and its denizens, at least those unhappy souls for whom surfing the darker corners of the web is a way of life. As long as the cancer of isolation continues to eat away at them as individuals, and more generally, at our culture’s already threadbare social fabric – as long as Facebook friends count for more than real ones, and “community” means an online chat group – disturbed loners, conspiracy theorists, and impressionable eccentrics are going to continue, slowly but surely, filling cyberspace with their rage, and turning into sociopaths and mass murderers in the process.

Horror, outrage, grief, public expressions of sympathy and solidarity, and prayers: all these have their place. But can they stop another Shabbat massacre?

These are not just American problems, of course. I’ve witnessed more anti-Semitism in Germany, where I’ve lived for the last several years, than I ever did in the USA. The most blatant incident: driving a group of overseas visitors home from the former concentration camp of Buchenwald, where we had toured the museum and various memorial sites, we passed a huddle of young men in full neo-Nazi regalia: jackboots and shaved heads and black leather jackets sporting the telling number 88 (for the eighth letter in the alphabet, and meaning “Heil Hitler”).

As for places of worship, they are often heavily guarded. In Berlin, a friend and I made an abortive attempt to visit the storied old synagogue in the Oranienburgerstraße. We couldn’t get in because we hadn’t announced our visit, and spontaneous drop-ins are not permitted. Also in Berlin, my wife and I visited a walled Jewish cemetery with Jewish friends, and each of us had to enter through a security zone. There, to prove his respect for Judaism, each male visitor had to don a kippah before being allowed to enter the cemetery proper. In Munich, Ohel Jacob, the city’s main synagogue (opened in November 2006, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht) is connected to the nearby community center with an underground tunnel and features, among other things, bullet-proof windows.

All these precautions are understandable enough here in Germany, but in the USA? Certainly, no one can fairly compare the United States to Germany. And yet… No matter how small the actual percentage of Americans who are truly anti-Semitic or racist, it is always an error to discount the power of a minority in terms of influencing and infecting the majority. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We will have to repent in this generation… not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people….” In other words, we need to keep speaking out.

Which brings me back to the “obvious” role education plays in this. I put “obvious” in quotation marks because it is not always so obvious. In fact, the need to keep speaking up and educating one another is mostly much easier to talk about, than to actually address in practice. Of course it’s natural to condemn a man like Robert Bowers. But what about that acquaintance or colleague or family member who is at best blind or insensitive – and at worst, mean spirited, even blatantly so?

Vigil outside Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh

How often have you made allowances for someone who said or did something offensive simply because you knew them, and didn’t want to throw things off balance by coming across as self-righteous or judgmental, and then have to deal with the blowback? If you’ve ever been in a situation (I have) where a person said something like “Don’t be such a Jew?” (meaning: “Don’t be so stingy”) or called someone a “nigger lover,” and that person was defended by another person involved in the conversation, you’ll understand what I’m getting at. It’s always more convenient to let something like that slide, to make excuses, or to convivially agree that whatever was said wasn’t actually intended to come across that way, and was really just harmless banter. Even if it wasn’t.

Writing in Germany in the 1920s, a dozen years before Adolf Hitler’s rise, the theologian Eberhard Arnold pointed out that thoughts are never just neutral ephemera, but forces that always press for realization through action; and that once they develop into words and deeds, they possess the very real power to harm or to heal, to destroy or to build, to tear apart or to unite.

That’s why, after Maik (not his real name) marred the yearly traditional May Day festivities in my German village a few years ago by making comments about the dark-skinned people in attendance and giving one such onlooker a Hitler salute, I decided to confront him. (Privately, of course: it never would have worked in a crowd.) One mutual friend told me that Maik had drunk a few too many, and hadn’t really meant it; another person warned me that Maik was a Nazi idiot, and that it was best to just ignore such people. For the record, this wasn’t the first time Maik had betrayed his political leanings (some of them fairly disturbing), and I sometimes wondered how far he was going to go next.

Thoughts are never just neutral ephemera; they possess the very real power to harm or to heal, to destroy or to build, to tear apart or to unite.

So one evening a few weeks later, over a beer, I told him what I thought. I listened too, of course. At first he was angry; about ten minutes later he had caved in. Extending his hand, he apologized and promised he’d never do or say anything like it again. (He’s kept his word.)

There’s nothing heroic about working out differences with an acquaintance: it’s a vital part of any human relationship, especially if there are real issues to be dealt with. Of course, actually making time to sit down and do so takes effort. But there’s too much at stake not to – to resign ourselves to evil and console ourselves with pablum like “This is the world we live in.” If it really is our world, then we are responsible to help change it for the better, and that requires action. Maybe we’d take action more often if we remembered that the time we spend with another person can sometimes prove, in hindsight, to have been a matter of life or death.

On that note, here’s a final story that has emerged in the aftermath of the massacre in Pittsburgh. According to several news sources, at least three of the doctors and nurses who cared for the injured gunman at the hospital where he was taken after surrendering to the police were Jewish. So was the head of the hospital, Dr. Jeffrey K. Cohen. More to the point, Dr. Cohen is a member of the synagogue where the shooting occurred, and knew nine of the victims who did not survive. Amazingly, that didn’t keep him from personally checking in on Bowers at his bedside, and making sure his pain was under control. Asked by a local paper how he felt about meeting and treating Bowers, Dr. Cohen said, “We’re here to take care of sick people… We’re not here to judge… We’re not here to ask, ‘Do you have insurance? Do you not have insurance?’ We’re here to take care of people who need our help.”


Chris Zimmerman grew up near Pittsburgh but has spent the last eight years in Germany. Comments

About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman and his wife, Bea, live at Holzland, a Bruderhof house in a village south of Berlin.

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  • Are you thinking of voting this time. There are enough of you to help stop the hate mongering that is being spread by the president. Derek was also my teacher.

    Rachel Burger
  • Thanks Chris for writing and sharing this!

    Ryan