In times of trouble, our fears can lead us to some ugly places. My darkest moment this week came when I thought perhaps Donald Trump was onto something.
A disease so insidious that no vaccine exists has seeped its way into our schools and our churches and our synagogues and our places of political office. It’s infected the people we love.
It has made me afraid, and sometimes I want to build a wall. Make it 100 feet tall and 10 feet thick and erect it, impenetrable, around my city of Manhattan. Leave a checkpoint for those entering from Brooklyn and Queens but keep out all of the others–those who let their despair manifest into intolerance.
The world has gone mad and I fear it might be contagious.
I recognize the paradox here. In wanting to distance myself from friends, relatives, fellow citizens whose politics differ from mine, I am becoming the very thing I condemn. A friend gave me some advice today, reminding me that when someone is reacting in fear, he or she has become a victim, too. We can find empathy there.
I write about Israeli politics–I know the face of Islamic terror. I live in New York–I know what it is to be afraid to go to work. The morning the ISIS video came out threatening Manhattan, I pulled up my subway map to see if I could take a route that avoided Times Square. This week, a suspicious package addressed to me was delivered to our office; we got our bags and put on our coats and left the room.
These instincts repulsed me, though I have to admit they weren’t unfounded. I’m not naive and I know there is a real threat here. It is tempting to shut one’s self off, to push out the other and hold close to what makes us comfortable. It creates a false sense of safety. And feeling safe is so very important right now.
I am not always as brave as I need to be, and I certainly don’t know how we pave a path forward after three months of daily attacks in Jerusalem, 130 people killed in one evening in Paris, 14 killed at a center for the disabled. I don’t know how many refugees we should accept, how much surveillance we should allow, what kind of screening process we should enforce.
But I think there’s a different question we must answer first: if we let these dark impulses dictate the very character of our identity, what are we left with to protect?
Fortunately, I don’t need all of the answers; I’m not running for office. But some of the loudest proponents for religious intolerance are, and maybe they should know better. Maybe they should keep their walls to themselves. Maybe they have reached a day where it is necessary to shut themselves off and maybe I’ll reach that day, too. But that day is not this day.
In preparing today’s content, which necessarily focused so fully on Trump, I came across an ad that ran in the New York Times Thursday. Seven hundred organizations banded together to purchase a full page spot, calling for religious tolerance and professing, “We are better than this.” I hurried to write down the names of the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish members of clergy participating, and soon ran out of space on my page.
This city, so haunted by what can happen when hate and radicalization combine, refuses to be held hostage. I’m reminded that on the day the ISIS video was released, the very morning of the threat that encouraged me to change my routine, New York’s mayor led a call to the president, urging him not to send to our city the number of Syrian refugees that were allotted to Manhattan. The mayor, instead, asked for the president to send more.
It’s not a coincidence that the candle remains such an important symbol in every major religion. We light a match, and in doing so we light the world. In Judaism, we honor a yahrzeit on the anniversary of someone’s death, marked with the lighting of a Yizkor candle to cast out the shadows of grief. Just before Thanksgiving was the yahrzeit of Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet who wrote the famous epithet at the foot of Lady Liberty. The words are a divine promise, a reminder in our darkest moments that we can always fall back on her eternal flame of compassion, that when all else fails, there are still some things the dusk can’t steal away.
Come, let’s lift our light beside the golden door.