…to anti-semites, that name marks me as a Jew.
During my more than 7 decades on this earth, I have wandered through a variety of religious identifications, including all 3 main branches of Judaism, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Episcopal Church, and my current affiliation with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) since 2002.
I have never denied my Jewish heritage.
At one point in early adulthood, when I had no religious affiliation/identity, I was offered a somewhat lucrative (for me at least) employment conditional upon my changing my name for business purposes, which was ironic given that the principals of the firm were all Jewish. I refused to do so, because I refused to deny my heritage.
During my life I have experienced my share of anti-semitic experiences. Sometimes they were direct. Sometimes I was present when I heard or observed anti-semitic expressions or actions when others did not know I was of Jewish heritage, perhaps because in at least two cases it was when I was an Episcopalian and wore a visible cross.
I have always taken bigotry of any kind seriously, almost certainly because of my Jewish heritage. I am too much a student of history — I am very aware of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. I am also quite aware of racism, misogyny, anti-gay bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Catholic bigotry, and prejudice and discrimination against people because of national origins and because of disabilities.
I do not deny that some prejudices have at times influenced my own behaviors and expression, but I take comfort in the fact that I could recognize that in myself and attempt to eradicate it.
Today brings me to a difficult point, one that has worried my wife enough that while she traveled to watch a nephew in a play took time to call me in and check on me. 11 people died today in a synagogue. We do not know if any were not Jewish, perhaps because of attending a bris, or if all were as we would say in Yiddish Landsmen — fellow Jews.
What I offer below is not intended as anything except a personal reflection. I offer it here because it is because of our country today also a matter of great political importance.
Unless and until we reject ALL bigotry this country will not survive.
I teach in a school with few white students, heavily African-American with most of the rest Latino. During my 23 years of teaching the majority of my students have been minorities. Those include religious minorities, including both main branches of Islam, Hindus, a variety of Buddhists, a couple of Jains, and a variety of others including Wiccans and Pagans who were not Wiccans.
As a teacher, I must see each of my students both as a unique individual and also a member of several different communities, for example, both religious and racial.
I have lived in close quarters with people of very different backgrounds while a Marine, in a period of time of some racial tensions in the mid-1960s.
I have been in circumstances where I was the first person of Jewish background a person before me had ever encountered.
I acknowledge that I have had prejudices, that my own hands have not always been clean. I have a sharp and quick tongue and have on more than one occasion demonstrated that I am quite capable of demeaning someone who was in some way different than me. That was wrong then, and it would be wrong now.
We may not always understand why someone believes and acts as they do. That is certainly true of religious affiliation. It is also equally true of political affiliation.
Here we hit an issue — what do we do when we are confronted with someone who justifies their prejudice, intolerance, active discrimination, or even worse on the basis of their religious or political or other ideological beliefs?
I cannot come up with a clear and infallible set of guidelines for such situations.
What I know is this — I cannot stand by in silence when ANYONE demeans or attacks on the basis of differences.
That becomes most imperative in the kind of heated political environment in which we currently find ourselves in this country.
And let me dare to offer this — that applies to our rhetoric on this site.
We have seen prejudice and intolerance towards a variety of things on this site. There are those who are intolerant of any belief in a deity. There are of course other areas where this occurs. Some of the worst rhetorical excesses have occurred in the context of Democratic primaries — think of 2004, or 2008, or 2016.
Yes, most of us here would identify as progressive on most issues, but that does not lead to unanimity on all issues.
I can remember Markos forcefully reminding us that the purpose of this site was to elect Democrats. Sometimes we had people critical of more conservative Democrats. But what if that person was the most liberal person who could win that election? What price do we pay if our rhetoric becomes too excessive? What might we unleash?
Certainly, we can and must confront those who by their rhetoric unleash and give license to the kinds of violence we have seen attempted and achieved this week. Our words have meaning, and the more influential our position the greater the influence those words can have.
I believe in the First Amendment. But to the person expressing Nazi viewpoints, I would note I have the First Amendment right to confront your vile expressions.
If you hold public office, elected or appointive, or you are a candidate for elective office, your words will be interpreted by some as a license to speak and act in ways that are harmful not only to the targets of the hate you unleash but to our society as a whole.
My name is Kenneth Bernstein.
That is a Jewish name.
My mother’s mother and her father left Bialystok in the midst of an early 20th Century pogrom.
Some of their relatives were still there when the ghetto in Bialystok was liquidated under the Nazis, meaning there are cousins I should have had who never got a chance to be born.
Today was quite probably the worst attack on Jews in American history, almost certainly in terms of the number of deaths.
As a Quaker, I will not resort to violence in response. That means not only violence of deed but also violence of words.
My heart is numb.
I fear for my country.
But I also hope that enough people will be horrified by what has been happening that they will speak out loudly by whatever non-violent means available.
In the meantime, my heart is aching.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.