Violence and tragedy are two words that could not escape our vocabulary this week. In the midst of deadly events in France, Beirut, and Mali, there was a tragic terrorist attack in Israel – the death of five individuals, including 18-year-old American student Ezra Schwartz –that was barely acknowledged by political leaders in this country.
All we can think about is Ezra at age nine, Jessica’s rambunctious, outgoing, and carefree camper. The camper who had so much energy, excitement, and passion. As he grew up, he devoted himself to his studies, his family, his friends, and his community, which included summers at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. His commitment to the Jewish values of Tikkun Olam, translated from Hebrew as “repairing the world,” were evident in his last hour of life, when he was shot on his way to deliver food and care packages to Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
Religious persecution, as evident in the case of Ezra and the Israelis who lost their lives last Friday, is ever present. This oppression is not reserved for any particular religious group. Muslims across the world are discriminated against because a percentage of their population are associated with the Haram State and its radical Islamic ideologies. The most recent terrorism across the world has not only revitalized the power of government surveillance and trampled on civil rights, but has catalyzed the rise of religious intolerance in this country. Over half of U.S. governors oppose welcoming Syrian refugees into their states. Some Presidential candidates have urged the U.S. to implement a surveillance system that monitors all Muslims and mosques in this country. What our political institutions fail to recognize is that Syrian refugees are not terrorists. Muslims are not all Islamic extremists. Narrow beliefs make the United States a country filled with religious discrimination, oppression, fear, and hate. We are a country unprepared to manage, accept, respect, and discuss religious diversity.
We write all of this to say that religious oppression and persecution is a real yet overlooked component of our “diversity” dialogue in this country, and a lot of this falls on our current political leadership, or lack thereof. Despite the horrifying scale of the brutal attack on Paris, terrorist attacks occur daily or weekly in Israel, making this absurdly commonplace. What is clear is that within the U.S. and most countries, there is a lack of religious understanding, compassion, and acceptance. The question should not be “Do Jewish lives, Muslim lives, Black lives or [insert oppressed group here] matter?” but rather “how can we understand why lives matter?” If religion is essentially a life-affirming moral code to guide behavior, who is going to lead the sociological and political dialogue that will bring all of us closer together?
We call upon our political leaders, and those who aspire to be our political leaders, to declare that religious and racial intolerance is unacceptable. We call upon them to lead us to a place where Americans can unite around common themes of understanding and compassion. And we call upon our leaders to unite peace-loving countries against radical forces that seek to destroy our values, lifestyle, and freedom.
Written by Jessica Levin Rittner and Dr. Richard J. Levin.
Jessica Levin Rittner is a Candidate for a Masters in Public Policy (MPP) and Masters in Business Administration (MBA) at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
Richard Levin is an Executive Coach and Leadership Developer.