Even though I had never heard of her before, I felt almost physically ill when, after Shabbat was over yesterday, I read about the Arizona shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords by a lone gunman. Short of genocide, there is no more horrible crime than political assassination. It is an attack on all of us, on the very idea that we can rule ourselves through a peaceful democracy. JFK, RFK, MLK, Sadat, Gandhi, Rabin -- it brings tears to my eyes just to write these names down together, and they are just a sample of the many who have died at the hands of assassins in my lifetime.
Sometimes -- when I read about the recent assassination of the Pakistan's governor of Punjab -- I manage to comfort myself by thinking that such things don't happen "here." But, as the Arizona shooting -- where at least six lives were lost, including that of a Federal judge and of a nine-year-old girl -- is a reminder, I'm just fooling myself when I think things like that.
But, as great as my initial disgust was, it went to a whole other level when I heard Giffords was Jewish. The entire long history of Jews being murdered for ideological or political reasons -- a history where the Holocaust is only the most horrible of so many occurrences -- suddenly came rising up in my heart and mind. I am sure I am only one of countless Jews who were suddenly asking themselves these kinds of questions: Did he choose her to try and kill because she is Jewish? Is it possible that this horror that has happened so many times before is happening, again? Can such things happen in the country that has been the safest for the Jews in all history? Am I safe? Are people going to try and kill me because I am Jewish?
We live in an age when so many people want to deny that that there is such a thing as a hate crime or hate speech. For those of you who feel that way, I offer you my reaction when I heard Giffords is Jewish -- the fear this crime brings up in me because I am Jewish and because it happened to a fellow Jew.
What make a hate crime a hate crime is that it does not stand in isolation -- it is the connection of that crime to a systematic pattern of hate, discrimination and violence against a particular group that makes it a hate crime. When someone draws a noose on the dormitory door of an African-American student leader, it is that history of violence -- and the fear that history engenders -- that makes it more than a crude, sophomoric prank. That's why it's different when white and black people use the "N" word. In the mouth of a white person directed at a black person the "N" word automatically creates associations with all the crimes white Americans have committed against its African-Americans -- lynchings, slavery and acts of discrimination. This is true even if the white speaker did not intend any of these associations. But, in the mouth of a black person -- a person who is not part of the crime-committing group -- the "N" word has no such power to associate with mass oppression.
Certainly, I do not know if the shooter in Arizona was acting out of antisemitism, so I cannot say if it was a hate crime directed against the Jews. But I know it is possible.
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, when we read of God saving the people Israel by splitting the sea, thus guaranteeing the success of their effort to escape the oppression and slavery they knew in Egypt.
May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we will all be freed from the oppression and violence that comes from the hate amongst us. And may all of the wounded and bereaved from yesterday's shooting find healing and comfort.