I found myself thinking back to September 11, 2001. In the days following the attacks, we had heard stories about the mistreatment of Muslim people in and around the area, and so Cecilia and I (we were not yet married) decided to put a bouquet of flowers at the Islamic Center.
I will never forget the reaction of some of our Muslim neighbors who thanked us upon learning what we had done. They were particularly surprised to learn that we were Jews.
Flash forward in time by over 15 years and this is a community that seems transformed. The singular cold and calculated act of hate gained an overwhelming response of love and support. This act did not go unnoticed by those in the Muslim community to the point where, instead of anger and outrage, the overwhelming sentiment expressed on Friday was one of love and appreciation.
It was long-time resident Hamza El-Nakhal who told the audience that he was completely at peace in his heart. “I have already forgiven her,” he said.
I have often been critical of Davis. But organizer Kate Mellon-Anibaba really captured its essence this week, when she said, “In this community, diversity is celebrated, black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, immigrants and refugees are welcome, disabilities are respected, water is life, love is love, and Islam is peace.”
It is not that hateful things don’t occur in Davis – they do. “Many have said, this is not our town,” she said. “The reality is this is not the first time that this has happened. And unfortunately it may not be the last.” She said it would be more accurate to say that this is not what we want our town to be.
And this week, indeed, this community rose up to live up to the true meaning of its values and sensibilities. We reacted to an incident of hate, with love and a real sense of community.
In Davis, two Rabbis stood arm in arm with their Muslim brothers in an act of unity and defiance.
Davis Islamic Center’s Imam Ammar Shahin said, “It’s very hard to speak now when you see all of this support from the community.” He said the love and support “was expected from Davis.” He said, “This is a very clear message that we have to feel like we’re always together. If we stand as a group, then most likely all this will stop.”
This was a hard week for many. While some have drawn inspiration from the millions who came out to marches last Saturday, this first week of the Trump administration closes the door on any notion that campaign rhetoric was simply rhetoric. Words have become action and actions have consequences.
Those of us who have fought for civil rights and civil liberties have been beaten down. Here I draw strength from the words of Basim Elkarra who reminded us that, while Davis and the Islamic Center are not alone in this fight, the rest of the world is not Davis.
He said, “It’s not about the Muslim ban, it’s not about the Islamic Center of Davis or our community, this is about a struggle that the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not finish. Because hate was swept under the rug, today in 2017, we have an historical opportunity to address what happened in the past and fix what happened in the past.”
These are crucial words because we are reminded that this struggle is not just beginning, but rather continuing. From our vantage point, hindsight might be 20/20 but foresight needs serious corrective lenses. We can see the past clearly but we cannot see into the future.
Is this the last vestige of hatred that will clear the way for a better tomorrow, or the sign of dark times?
For the first time in awhile, I feel hope. But it is a guarded hope.
The words of Mayor Robb Davis are a reminder of where we stand now. When he decided to run for office, he did so with the belief that he could help solve the city’s fiscal crisis. He likely had no idea that he would be looked upon as a moral and inspirational figure, leading this city through dark times.
Time and time again he has been called upon in recent months to reach deep into his heart and give us meaning and hope where we might not find any. Time and time again he has mustered the strength and he has delivered not just with words, but heartfelt words, inspirational words and sometimes very sobering and somber words.
He nearly broke down on Friday as he described an incident about shame, from his days in Africa. But his words are also a reminder that we cannot simply dismiss the act of one person as a reflection of the individual without looking deep within ourselves at our own hearts of darkness.
On Friday, the mayor said that people can respond that this was an act of an individual, a person filled with hate, a person “who has some problems.” He asked, “Why a sense of collective shame? A response like that, it’s the act of an individual, that’s a culturally appropriate response. We believe that – it’s a very American response. I sometimes wonder, if that response, appropriate culturally as it is, isn’t at the root of the wilderness march at which we find ourselves today.
“Our inability to own our collective brokenness,” he said. “I fear that if we continue to indicate the scapegoats among us, sending them out into the wilderness for the expiation of our collective sins, that we will only continue to perpetuate the mimetic violence that we would otherwise decry. We must own together shame.”
At the same time, we must forge out a new path that turns hatred into love.
And it is here where I turn to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated just two weeks ago.
In 1957 he delivered a sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. The civil rights movement itself as led by Rev. King can be boiled down to the fifth chapter of the book of Matthew.
“Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
Martin Luther King would say: “Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
Indeed, in a world filled with darkness, on Friday we saw this embodied in the spirit that swept over the crowd in Davis and throughout the community. Today I have hope because, if we can overcome our differences, our hate and our anger in Davis, then we can transform that spirit into a movement and we shall overcome hatred across this nation and around this globe.
It is an ironic failure of the perpetrator of the hate crime that, instead of leading us to a place of anger and hatred, they point the way toward a future of unity and understanding.
—David M. Greenwald reporting