We lost a giant this past Saturday. Elie Wiesel was a great man, but not only because he chronicled the Shoah and kept the memory of its six million Jewish victims alive for more than 70 years by testifying as an eye witness in powerful written and spoken words. Wiesel’s greatness was equally due to the way he recognized an important truth and acted upon it. The Shoah was not just a horrifying and nearly fatal attack on the physical existence of the Jewish people. It was also a horrifying attack on Jewish values and the values of humanity. Wiesel spent his life standing up for the Jewish people, but he also spent his life standing up for our values and for human beings of any and every religion, nation and race that was threatened by intolerance, violence and genocide.
In the 1970s and 80s, Wiesel spoke out forcefully for the cause of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union and in Ethiopia, but he also was an activist for Black South Africans living under the appalling oppression of apartheid. In the 1990s and 2000s, Wiesel continued to fight against Holocaust deniers and for the state of Israel during the era of Intifada, but he also spoke before the UN Security Council to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. He rallied the world’s attention to the Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the plight of Miskito Indians in Nicaragua and the Kurds in northern Iraq and Turkey.
Elie Wiesel was great because he lived this truth: The highest calling of a Jew is to be a servant of God and of all humanity.
It deeply saddens me that in this week following the passing of Elie Wiesel, there is such urgent need for us to speak up and act for the sake of God and humanity. It has been a painful week. We are still reeling from the terrorist attack in Istanbul in which jihadists killed 41 people at the city’s airport. Twenty-two were killed in a terrorist attack in Bangladesh. In Baghdad, a minivan packed with explosives killed at least 250. The Islamic State then followed up with more bombings in Medina and two other cities in Saudi Arabia. All of this during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Elie Wiesel’s memory tells us that we have an obligation to speak out against these atrocities.
But the killing also came much closer to home for us. In the last few days, we have seen national headlines captured by the death of two more Black men at the hand of police officers. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot dead while two police officers held him down on the ground. His crime? Selling bootlegged CDs outside a convenience store, and, apparently, exercising his Second Amendment right to carry a gun.
Then, just yesterday, came the news of another incident. In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, 35-year-old Philando Castile was shot by a police officer during what should have been a routine traffic stop. The cause? His girlfriend who was in the car at the time of the shooting says that he was pulled over for “a busted taillight.” Castile was a school cafeteria worker who was called “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks” by his colleagues. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has said that he does not think that Castile would have been shot by the police if he had been white.
To add tragedy upon tragedy, we learned last night that a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas, was ended by a rooftop sniper who, intent on killing white police officers, shot fourteen people. Five law enforcement officers are dead – Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Michael Smith, and one more officer whose name has not yet been released. The shooter was killed by responding police officers who acted bravely to prevent further deaths. It is not clear if the shooter had accomplices.
In the aftermath of all of this horror, what can we do? If we are to follow Elie Wiesel’s example, we should make sure that the memory of these events is not lost. We should choose to make sure that these stories are told over and again. We should grieve for the dead and bring comfort to their families.
But we must do more. The highest calling of a Jew is to be a servant of God and a servant of all humanity.
We must make sure that poisonous and hateful ideologies – like those that motivated the mass killings in the Middle East and East Asia – gain no further foothold. We must build partnerships with our Muslim brothers and sisters who declare loudly to the world that this is not what their religion stands for.
And we must also take action against the violence here at home. We must speak out against American racism which is all-too-evident on our streets and on the public airwaves. We must be willing, when we hear racist comments in our everyday lives to denounce them. Jews are supposed to have big mouths. Well, we need to use them. If you hear someone say something hateful, go on and tell him or her what you think of it. There is too much in our society right now that is sending the message that it is okay to say disparaging things about people because of their race or heritage. Starting now, we are all part of the counter-message. It is not okay.
We also have to do something about the easy access to guns in our society. The Second Amendment may have been written in the 18th Century to keep us free, but, in the 21st Century, it is being interpreted in a way that is taking away the right and freedom to live for too many Americans.
And, we need to keep building partnership with law enforcement. This afternoon, I attended a press conference with Governor Raimondo, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and senior members of Rhode Island’s law enforcement establishment. They are on the right side. They want to make sure that police officers in the Ocean State are living up to the motto of “Protect and Serve,” but they need our help. We need to stand up for the good cops and help them train police officers to be effective. We also need to give them the support they need to get rid of the bad ones. The days of defending any police officer, any time, for doing anything is now over. Our law enforcement officials know it. We have to help them stand by their best intentions to keep us all safe.
I am so sorry that all of this has happened in the week following the passing of Elie Wiesel, but his memory can guide us and prepare us to build a better world. He would want us to be true servants of the Jewish people, of Jewish values, and of all the people of the world.