It's time for the right people to say 'Enough'
Posted October 31, 2018 12:51 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- A few weeks ago, the 60th anniversary of one of the most notorious acts of violence in Atlanta's civil rights history passed almost unnoticed.
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In the small hours of Oct. 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite were planted in an entryway of The Temple, a synagogue prominently parked on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. No one was in the building at the time, and so there were no casualties. Nonetheless, the city was shaken to its core.
The bombing of The Temple can't compare to the 11 congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue killed Saturday in Pittsburgh. Or the nine shot dead two years ago at "Mother Emanuel" AME Church in Charleston. Or the four little girls killed, five years after The Temple explosion, in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
The South has a long history of murder in sanctified places, in the houses where the different gather to pray. To see the custom migrate north may have been unexpected, but it was no surprise.
Yet given today's climate, it's worth examining what happened in Atlanta after The Temple bombing. And so, my first stop on Monday was the office of Peter Berg, the synagogue's senior rabbi -- who was already planning the Tuesday memorial service that would be attended by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and others.
I found Rabbi Berg to be a worried man. Not that many nice people, watching the horror unfold in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood of Squirrel Hill over the weekend, hadn't already offered heartfelt words of sympathy and solidarity.
"Part of my concern today is that there has been tremendous support from clergy," Berg said. "The interfaith community has been extraordinary."
It was the silence of the secular world that disturbed. Yes, Twitter generated statements of condemnation from every corner with a keyboard and a communications director. Emailed condolences abounded.
What was missing was a human voice in the public square, a voice weighted with political influence and capable of reaching those infected with what now ails us. Someone to say, "Enough."
"So many people are walking around like nothing happened," the rabbi said.
As if, every day, elderly people at prayer are killed by a man who thinks them part of a conspiracy behind a slow-moving storming of our southern border by a few thousand refugees. Or for that matter, as if Kroger patrons are gunned down in Kentucky for being black on a daily basis. As if, with a regularity that smacks of boredom, the leaders of an American political party are mailed a dozen and more pipe bombs.
"In the Jewish community, there are no words to describe the trauma," Berg said. He is a student of history. The rabbi knows of the pro-Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden that preceded World War II. And there is not a Jewish person in Atlanta who does not know the name of Leo Frank, the factory superintendent lynched in 1915 by a Marietta crowd that melted into the protection of high society.
What happened in Pittsburgh was something different, Berg said. And, yet, it's very much connected to what's happening elsewhere.
"We've seen the usual tropes," he began. "'The Jews killed Jesus. The Jews control the media and the banks. The Jews are strangers in this land.'
"We've seen those tropes. This is different. This is anti-Semitism based on the perception that the Jewish ethical beliefs about the world are corrupt. It's a different kind of anti-Semitism," he said. "This was meant to get the attention of all Jews."
In the past, I would venture, most acts of anti-Semitism -- whether pogroms or expulsions -- were conducted under the fiction, however thin, that the preservation of Christianity or some other faith required it.
Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh, just like Dylann Roof in Charleston, is accused of killing in the name of irreligion -- in the name of race. And that is somehow more frightening.
Sixty years ago, within hours of that explosion on Peachtree Street, Mayor William B. Hartsfield was poking through the rubble of a broken synagogue. He was handed a microphone and didn't hesitate.
"Whether they like it or not, every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South," Hartsfield said. "It is high time the decent people of the South rise and take charge."
Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, unloaded the next day. "When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe," he wrote.
Those words sound easy now. But in 1958, the state Capitol was waging a desperate, rear-guard action against integration, and there was no doubt of the link between political speech and political violence.
Jacob Rothschild, the rabbi at The Temple at the time, had committed the sin of using his pulpit to express solidarity with black Atlanta. He had become an enemy of the Southern people -- at least to the "dynamite clubs" that infested what would someday become the suburbs of Atlanta.
The bad part of the story: A massive police effort resulted in the arrest of five men. One was tried twice and acquitted. Charges against the other four were dropped.
The better part: Atlanta's business, religious and political communities united and drew a line in the sand -- which has been sometimes scuffed over, sometimes violated, but somehow has held through the decades.
It is a line that needs to be redrawn, and not just in Georgia. I asked Berg whether he wanted to hear more from our political leaders. "Definitely," he answered.
"It's time for every sector of society -- business, religious, civic -- to come together to say that anti-Semitism and all forms of racism are unacceptable," Berg said. "And that psychotic people, people who are mentally deranged, should not have guns. Those are two things that have to change."
The bar is such a low one. But I am reliably told that there is a line in the Talmud that advises, "In a place where no one is acting human, strive to be human." That would be good enough.
It is time to stop poking the bear, time to stop walking to the dangerous edge of discourse -- only to deny you ever meant anything of the sort.
And if you are a political leader of this city, county or state, you have a special responsibility. Get off Twitter, don't bother with email. Get thee to a pulpit that will reach the people who need to hear it and say one word: "Enough."
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