Ed. — This appeared in the Sunday, June 7, print edition of The Independent News.
BY ISRAEL ZOBERMAN
VIRGINIA BEACH — What a year it has been, and it is not yet over. I was awakened early in the morning by my mom, a nearly 100-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in Israel. She was deeply concerned for America. Amid a devastating and debilitating pandemic – with more than 100,000 losses of American lives and widespread economic hardships exposing dangerous social fissures and inequities – we are now also facing a civil eruption.
It takes us back to the tumultuous 1960s of the civil rights struggles. Recent events have created a perfect storm for a nation with a burdensome legacy of persisting racism, though strides have been made. However, it is also a challenging time of opportunity to right wrongs and create a more perfect union.
The disturbing image of a white police officer pressing his knee on the neck of George Floyd, an African American man who was begging in vain for his life, will indelibly be etched in our nation’s aching memory. It is a searing symbol of black and universal oppression.
As a family member of the Holocaust’s surviving remnant of European Jewry, the horrifying way George Floyd died evokes the evil of Nazi treatment of its helpless victims. It is a trigger of pent-up anxiety, pain and frustration for peaceful civil protests, as well as disturbances in multiple American cities, including in Hampton Roads. There has been looting, burning and vandalizing.
Four synagogues and also kosher stores were damaged and defaced in Los Angeles. Such a troubling scene reminds us of the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at whose monument in Norfolk on January 17, 2000, I was privileged to offer a prayer.
The most vulnerable people already in distress are the ones to pay the highest price of infrastructure destruction of essential services. A well-meaning response can turn into self-inflicted wounds with participation of outside agitators from both the far left and far right.
On the same weekend of the unfolding tragic events, America so ironically celebrated its renewed heroic space adventure. In Virginia Beach, we observed the first anniversary of the mass shooting that left 12 people dead and four wounded at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center’s Building 2.
How quickly can a peaceful protest march in a representative democracy turn into a mob violating those very noble principles for whose sake it was aroused in the first place.
I well remember walking the Virginia Beach Oceanfront as a volunteer police chaplain and witnessing the police officers’ harrowing challenge to prevent a large crowd from rioting. It behooves all concerned to note that counter acts of violence only serve to postpone progress and provoke fear at large, providing an opening for over-reaching authoritarian rule and the curtailment of freedoms in the guise of public safety demands.
Some 2,000 years ago the Rabbis taught us that “without basic respect for government people would swallow one another,” and, indeed, the rule of law for equal protection of the weak and powerful is an absolute requirement and the veneer of civilized conduct is regrettably thin. Attacks on law enforcement personnel is illegal and undermines society. The Rabbis also wisely counseled us “to seek peace and pursue it.”
This is the true point of our present American discussion. This is the high time to revisit our urgent need for criminal justice and police reform. We have been made painfully aware again of the high stakes for America’s societal compact and the potential erosion of cherished values and ideals.
Following the 1989 Greekfest riots in Virginia Beach, the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission, of which I am a proud member, was established operating closely with the city’s police department to the public’s benefit.
I highly recommend that other cities do likewise. Sadly, a peaceful march in Virginia Beach on Sunday, May 31, turned violent with vandalized business stores at the Oceanfront. But the demonstration in our community began as peaceful protest, and that message of peaceful change can guide us.
America’s challenge is turning the unleashed raw energy at this time of cross- roads into a positive source for repairing broken bonds and reestablishing mutual trust, which are so essential for moving us all forward.
Our dream remains one American family gloriously diverse and gratefully united, tapping our divine potential to be a blessing collectively and individually. Together we shall turn pain into promise and turn violence into Shalom’s vision of peace.
Rabbi Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founder of Temple Lev Tikvah in Virginia Beach. He is past national interfaith chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, or JCPA.
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