Tucson, Arizona: When Words Kill

The attack Saturday in Tucson, Arizona that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killed a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and six other innocent bystanders marks a new and painful moment in our country’s history. As information continues to unfold about the attacker’s motives, the local sheriff blamed the “toxic political environment in Arizona” for the carnage.

Some may rationalize this latest tragedy as the act of a disturbed individual that should not be confused with politics. Well, yes, the shooter is probably a disturbed individual, but we also know that a climate of vitriol can fuel a disturbed or very angry person to take horrible actions. Many respected observers of our national scene have been warning for months of the risks fomenting just below the surface in this climate of intentional, hate-filled political rhetoric.

Last month, on eJewishPhilanthropy, there was an article about the Al Tirah, (Hebrew for Fear Not) You Tube video campaign that was jumpstarted by Jewish Funds for Justice and IKAR, the Los Angeles-based Jewish spiritual community, to draw attention to the abysmal state of public discourse in our country. The catalyst for the viral campaign came last summer when Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, watched as a mini-hate rally where participants spewed out vitriol against gays, Jews and other assorted minorities unfolded directly outside her office window which is housed at the local Jewish Community Center.

Is it not time now for an even more aggressive and bolder national campaign against the rhetoric of hate? Can we as a Jewish community give voice from our bully pulpits and bimahs, join Rabbi Brous and exhort other leaders to speak out for a new civility in our discourse? Can we encourage and join with all communities of faith to set a new standard for respectful dialogue and establish a community-level policy of zero tolerance for those who spew hate-filled words and telegraph symbolic images meant to incite hate or worse?

If there were ever a time to speak out, to viral the right messages and counter those that promote hate and become a voice of moral leadership, it is now. If there were ever a time to teach our children by example that words can hurt, it is now.

In Israel, one school system, the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, which runs a large number of middle and high schools across the country, teaches values first, even as it prepares students with a strong technology and science-based education. Yes, values is at the core of an educational approach aimed at preparing a student population of Jews, Arabs, Druze and Bedouins to become productive members of Israeli society because learning what is right and how to respect others is central to their educational approach.

It has been a painful weekend for America. As Jews, we know too well from our own history the power of rhetoric put to the most despicable goals. Let’s put our values and our strength as a people who practice kindness and civility to work for our country and all our children. They and we all deserve a safer, more respect-filled environment where individuals can choose to disagree and do so without fear or suffering.