Yesterday, 88-year-old James W. von Brunn – a notorious anti-Semite/Holocaust denier, racist and hate site Webmaster – was politely helped into the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC by a security guard – whom he promptly shot and who died shortly afterwards. This elderly hatemonger, with the end of life well in sight, felt compelled to take his shotgun (which, as a convicted felon, he shouldn’t have had in the first place) and continue his vitriolic battle against all things Jewish and African-American. The FBI astutely labeled this an act of domestic terrorism and said “We know what he did, now we have to find out why he did it.” Duh?!
It is important to note that the guard – as much a hero as any soldier on the front lines of war – was named Stephen Tyrone Johns. He was black, 39-years-old, had worked at the Museum for six years, was known as Big John to his colleagues and was appreciated by everyone who works there for his courtesy and friendliness. He lived in Maryland, had gotten married about a year ago, and had a son. If he had not literally used his own body to stop von Brunn, one can only imagine how many of the thousands of Museum visitors von Brunn might have gotten.
This appalling incident came on the heels of President Obama’s Middle Eastern/European trip, during which he said and did some very sensible, sensitive, important and difficult things. But today, when he responded to the Museum shooting by saying he was “`shocked’ and saddened,” he confirmed for some Israelis and other Jews that on a fundamental level, he just doesn’t get it; he doesn’t understand that the most virulent kind of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are not only alive and well, but growing. Which is why the president’s call for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is not well received in some Jewish quarters, where the prevailing sentiment is that compromise is a direct road to annihilation. An excellent explanation of this position is expressed by Mitchell Bard in his essay Did Obama Learn the Lesson of Buchenwald? on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.
Although I champion the president’s position, I’m frankly shocked that America’s first black president, a man who understands language and uses it well, wouldn’t know better. Chris Rock, on his most recent HBO comedy special, talks about racism at one point. I’m about to paraphrase here, because I don’t have a transcript, but the “language” is accurate. He says it always surprises and irritates him when a black person says he’s “shocked” by a racist incident. “I’m ready for some kind of racist bullshit anytime, anywhere,” he says. “If I was being interviewed by Regis Philbin, chatting and saying `Yeah, I’m in Madagascar 2 and it’s great,’ and all of a sudden Regis jumped up and stabbed me in the neck yelling `Take that, you lousy nigger!’ I’d say to myself `I shoulda seen it coming’.”
Also yesterday, in the parallel universe of the arts, there was a program carried by many PBS stations, America At a Crossroads: Stand-Up Muslim-American Comics Come of Age. It was interesting and entertaining and, not surprisingly, a good deal of the humor was grounded in the difficulty of just being a Muslim-American in post-9/11 America, where everywhere they go, everyone they meet, thinks they’re a terrorist. And this weekend, on the PBS program Sunday Arts, there will be a segment about “Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam,” part of a current presentation at the Brooklyn Museum entitled The Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas Festival. Apparently, politics, media and the arts are joining forces (synchronicity in action?) to give us a more positive, sympathetic image of Muslims in general and Muslim-Americans in particular.
Bill Maher, at the end of his wise and funny documentary, Religulous, says “Religion must die if humankind is to live.” As you no doubt know, Mr. Maher believes that traditional, organized religion is the root of all evil, violence and stupidity. But whether or not the world would be a better place without religion is a moot point, because it’s not going to happen. For the record, James W. von Brunn is not a Muslim or a person of any faith, so far as I know. But most people want and need a religion to make their lives manageable. Like it says in the old Scottish folk ballad, All My Trials, “If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.” People of all faiths want to practice their faith and preserve their history, their future – and their sanity in a crazy world.
Unfortunately, some people of some faiths want to obliterate all people of certain other faiths – and Jews have good reason to feel endangered in this regard. I think it’s a good, helpful thing for Americans, who are so often so ignorant about so many things, to learn more about Islam, the fastest-growing religion in this country (and the world) today. But it also wouldn’t hurt for more people to learn and understand more about Jews – including our well-intentioned president, who perhaps doesn’t fully comprehend the depth of Jewish fear and anger, and the potency of Israeli resolve.