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Steve Wessler has worked to reduce hate crimes and degrading language for 30 years, including leading the Civil Rights Unit in the Maine Attorney General’s Office. He has worked in Maine, across the country and in Europe and elsewhere to reduce violence and hate. As an adjunct professor at College of the Atlantic he continues to teach courses on human rights issues.
Some will say that the desecration of a menorah in Rockland last week was not a significant problem. But anti-Semitism is wrong whether from teens or adults. Moreover, I have seen the escalation of words to violence from kids and adults when we remain silent.
I have spent the last 30 years trying to reduce anti-Semitism and racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ actions in schools and communities. I have done this work in Maine, elsewhere in the U.S. and also in Europe.
I have learned that bias and degrading language is fueled when we don’t stand up and say “no” to hate. When we don’t speak up, the haters assume that the community agrees with their bigoted ideas. In far too many situations this leads to more and more serious acts of bigotry and even violence.
For the past 20 plus years I have been conducting focus groups to assess the level of bias and degrading language. Among the areas I focus on are: gender, race, sexual orientation and gender identity and religion. I have been particularly concerned with the increase of anti-Semitic bias in schools. Students in middle and high schools in Maine hear so-called jokes about the Holocaust, that “Hitler was right,” that “the Holocaust did not happen,” that Jews “are stingy.” Students say these things to their friends. They also say them to Jewish students. Jewish students tell me that these words are scary for them.
The desecration of a menorah in public resonates for many Jews and others. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Adolf Hitler organized the destruction of Jewish owned stores, synagogues and homes across Germany and Austria. This was called Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Many Jewish men were taken to concentration camps for months. Far too many Jews died.
For Hitler this was a turning point in his war on Jews. He needed to know if non-Jews would speak up to decry the attack on Jews. Some did. But far more remained silent. This was the start of the Holocaust.
Mainers care about each other. We know a wrong when we hear or see it. But we need to speak up to our friends, to our children, to our work colleagues that anti-Semitism and other forms of bias and hate should have no place in our schools, our homes and our workplaces. Many ministers and priests speak from the pulpit to decry anti-Semitism. I hope that all ministers and priest and will speak up to decry anti-Semitism this Sunday.
I worry that this generation of students hears degrading language about Jews far too frequently. I worry that if anti-Semitism continues to rise in the next years that too many these of these students will know very little about Jews other than the ugly jokes about the Holocaust or that the Holocaust did not happen.
I also worry about violent white supremacists. Their threat is real. A white violent supremacist in Pittsburgh four years ago walked into a Jewish synagogue and murdered 11 Jews during prayer. The deaths at the Tree of Life Synagogue could have been far higher but for the response of police officers and paramedics. The risk of deadly violence toward Jews by white supremacists is both real and deeply disturbing.
I speak with children to find out what kind of degrading language they hear in their schools. I spoke to one third grader and asked if he heard ugly language about LGBTQ people. He said yes and told me the disturbing words that he hears. I asked him if students speak up. He said “yes.” I said who does this? He looked up at me and said, “I do.” He was a small boy. His head came up to just above my belt. I asked him what he said. He replied, “I told them not to say those words around me.”
Several months later I saw this same boy. I asked him if he still needed to tell students not to say degrading language. He looked at me and said, “No, students don’t say those words around me any more.”
In 1966 in South Africa, Robert Kennedy spoke to students about the oppression of Black people in their country. “Each time a person stands up for an ideal … or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest of oppression and resistance.”
We all have a reservoir of courage. We all have the ability to speak up against hate. We need to tap into that reservoir.