As we pass the 50th Anniversary of a pivotal march in Alabama, we have to ask ourselves how quickly we let important stories become yesterday's news.
This year alone: A Muslim "ring of peace" around an Oslo Synagogue, a social media campaign protesting #wecantbreathe, a French prime minister's speech against anti-Semitism, a president's unshakeable defense of immigrant children. The power of speaking out on behalf of others and against prejudice cannot be overstated or forgotten. It's a lesson already known in our schools. Standing up for the bullied is essential to fighting hate. It must be repeated again and again.
We know it from history. Growing up Jewish in the late '60s and '70s in New York, my parents stressed the importance of the civil rights movement and took pride in the fact that so many Jews participated: Michael Schwerner, who was murdered in 1964 along with fellow New Yorker Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, trying to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi; Joel Spingarn, who helped found the NAACP; examples from a long list. It was a time of upheaval. Reverend King and the Kennedys had been murdered, the Vietnam War was unraveling. Having lost relatives to Hitler in Europe, my parents' message to me and my sister was clear: Had more people stood up to the Nazis, lives would have been saved. If more people stood up to bigotry and injustice, lives would now be better. The post-holocaust chant "Never again" was not just for us. It was our responsibility as Jews, as Americans, and as human beings to stand up for others in need.
Following the January Charlie Hebdo and Jewish grocery store attacks in Paris, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stood up, delivering a speech to the House of Commons about the rise of anti-Semitism again in Europe. It would have been momentous had it been reported more widely. "When the Jews of France are attacked," he stated, "France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked ... Without its Jews, France would not be France." I cannot get his words out of my head: "We are not outraged enough," he said.
Replace the word Jew in these sentences with any group facing intolerance today: African American, Muslim, Latino, Gay, Christian, Immigrant. When we do not stand up for one another, we stand for nothing. The prime minister's message was for all of us, yet few media outlets reported it.
In 2015, "we can't breathe" and "we are Charlie", but we are also Muslims and Jews who deserve to worship and send our children to school without fear. We are "dreamer" immigrants who innocently grew up knowing only this nation and deserve a clear path to citizenship. We are urban parents whose children deserve safety from gang and gun violence and a solid education. We are gay, transgender men and women who deserve protection and equal rights under the law.
As a psychologist, I'm often asked: Do we teach our children about the injustices of the world or do we shield them? Should my child see Selma? Watch the news? Hear about ISIS? Is the book they were assigned in school appropriate? I understand the desire to protect our children from fear and tragedy. Believe me, I'd love to wrap my own kids in a safe cocoon. But finding age-appropriate ways to expose our children to the challenges we face, that they themselves will face, is crucial to their becoming informed, empathic advocates for themselves and others in the world. Maya Angelou wrote: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
The lessons and pain of our past and present hardships educate us. But the stories of those who courageously stood up to those challenges are what inspire us to feel connected and to act. Never Again. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malala Yousafzai.
The March was 50 years ago, but we cannot stop. "Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now," said John Legend so poignantly at the Oscars. Why must we repeat this long after each news cycle? Because when we keep speaking out against injustice, when we keep standing up for others, we are never left standing alone.
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