Holocaust Museum Shooting: Racism and Reaction

Police and security officials are seen in front of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Wednesday, June 10, 2009. Authorities say at least two people have been shot at the museum. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Police and security officials are seen in front of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Wednesday, June 10, 2009. Authorities say at least two people have been shot at the museum. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Charles Dharapak - AP)
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Rabbi David Saperstein
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Wednesday, June 10, 2009; 4:00 PM

Police are confirming that the suspect in the shooting today outside the Holocaust Museum in Washington is identified as 88-year-old James W. von Brunn, who decries Jews, blacks on rambling, racist and bitterly anti-Semitic website.

Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism was online Wednesday, June 10, at 4 p.m. ET to discuss racism, anti-Semitism and reaction to what happened in the nation's capital today.

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Rabbi David Saperstein: I'm Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The killing today at the Holocaust Museum is a tragedy for all those affected and a tragedy for our nation that such a terrible act should occur at the site of a museum dedicated to teaching the lessons of the devastation and destruction that man's inhumanity to man can cause. It adds even deeper resonance to this tragedy.

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Washington, D.C.: Rabbi Saperstein, are you familiar with the anti-Semitic writings of the suspect?

Rabbi David Saperstein: No, I have heard that he has written or published a book about Jewish conspiracies indicating that his anti-Semitic act today is part of a long pattern of his life.

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Fairfax, Va.: What is the reaction in the Jewish community to what happened today at the Holocaust Museum?

Rabbi David Saperstein: We have heard from Jewish leaders from many of our own 900 reformed synagogues across America how deeply pained that this should have happened at the Holocaust Museum and that an innocent human being has died and others were injured. The prayers of my community go out to the victims and their families.

This represents something else that is perhaps distinct to Jews in America compared to other groups. Other religious targets may be subject to vandalism or even discriminatory acts, but there are few other religious institutions that day in and day out must be concerned about acts of terrorism in the form of bombs, gun attacks, etc. On many levels Jews have been and remain the quintessential victims of religious intolerance and hatred in western civilization.

I say that knowing that today Muslim mosques have been targeted for vandalism. We just had a murder take place against a doctor in a church this past week and others are subject to acts of prejudice, but the notion of an entire community being concerned that their house of worship, their institutions might be targets of violent acts anywhere in the country still haunts American Jewry today with all of the successes that America's freedoms have brought to us.

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Wheaton, Md.: Some have called this the "Obama Effect" - that Obama's presidency has brought out white supremacists in greater number, making them angry, etc. Do you subscribe to this theory?

Rabbi David Saperstein: People who are racist and embittered with prejudicial hatred will find any excuse to justify their acts of violence. To blame those who represent in who they are and to advocate for tolerance, equality and inter-group cooperation for the acts of those who resent such messages is to turn the moral relationships on their head.

I know that is not what the questioner is at all suggesting and it is true that the president's clear statements on equality will evoke resentment, prejudicial and often violent reactions from the bigots, but that should never be used to justify stifling the messages of equality, tolerance and justice that this president is espousing.

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San Diego, Calif.: Rabbi Saperstein, should synagogue and church groups in, or soon to visit D.C., avoid the site for a short time?

Rabbi David Saperstein: To do so would be to give in to the haters and violent extremists. Across the nation there have been very, very few acts targeting the museums. Within minutes of this event these museums in cooperation with local law enforcement move to step up security and protection. There are no guarantees whether we are crossing the street or standing up to fanatics by refusing them their victories. I really hope that people will continue to go to these museums over this next week, not only for their own merit but as an act of solidarity for what they represent.

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Rochester, N.Y.: How would you like to see the administration and Congress respond to this tragic event? How can we address and seek to rectify this problem?

Rabbi David Saperstein: A combination of steps is called for. First, within the context of our homeland security efforts ensuring that houses of worship including synagogues and other Jewish institutions are afforded enhanced security. Second, to ensure that the moral, political and civic lessons of the Holocaust are taught in our communities, our schools and our civic institutions.

The Holocaust museums across America play a vital role in such activities and above all, ensure that the messages of tolerance, inter-group understanding and respect and equality are messages that our political and religious leaders articulate with consistency, passion and effectiveness.

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Claymont, Del.: Do we have to worry about copycat crimes of this nature?

Rabbi David Saperstein: No one can guarantee that they will not happen, and so in the aftermath of such events stepped up security at similar institutions is called for. But in the past copycat efforts involving violence have been, thankfully, extremely rare. We hope and pray that will be the case regarding this event.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Rabbi Saperstein, What, in your opinion, causes an individual (this or any other) to cross the boundary from intolerance/prejudice/hatred to violence? We saw this line crossed recently in the killing of the doctor in Kansas. While this case is, arguably, quite different, there seems to me to be a commonality in the fact that the suspect in each case crossed the threshold between verbal/written expression of intolerance/hatred to aggressive expression. Thanks.

Rabbi David Saperstein: This is a most vexing question. Psychologists and educators have long sought ways of identifying those who might step over the line. It has proven to be very difficult and while we continue to urge our schools, religious institutions and political institutions to inculcate model and, where necessary, enforce limitations on violence as opposed to non-violent respectful argumentation and discourse, we know other steps must be taken, including more vigorous law enforcement and prevention efforts against terrorism.

Finally, I would point out that while people who favor gun control and oppose gun control are equally outraged by this abhorrent act, easy access to guns allows those who do step over the line to wreak far greater damage.

Again, our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. We as a nation must act together to do everything possible to ensure that such tragedies do not occur again.

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