When charged with putting down on paper my thoughts on what, as an 18-year-old, gaining the right to vote means to me, I planned on talking about the value of democracy. I planned to share my thoughts on just how precious the democratic process is and how fortunate we are to live in a democracy in a world increasingly trending toward autocracy. I planned to focus most on the flaws in American democracy and why my litmus test when looking for candidates to support was not their views on any partisan social or even economic issue, but their support for measures that we need desperately in order to purify the democratic system by which we address those partisan issues.
Then, tragedy struck at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Eleven lives were lost and a holy community was desecrated. Anti-Semitism was weaponized as a Jewish community was victimized.
I can find no original words to describe just how horrific, how unspeakable the events at Tree of Life feel. During a Shabbat morning bris, no less. No celebration of the creation of life should ever be marred by the destruction of life.
I still believe that purifying our democracy is the most important issue on the ballot this November, for only a truly free and fair democracy can be trusted to pursue justice and heed the will of the American people. I still believe that the Electoral College’s power should be eliminated (we’re not as far off as you might think), that gerrymandering must be combatted and that voting must be made easier, not tougher. Yet I also believe those are conversations for another time.
The sad reality is that anti-Semitism, or prejudice of any form, cannot simply be voted out at the ballot box. Yet as I see it, the Tree of Life massacre required two ingredients in addition to pure, unadulterated hate: the belief that such hatred can be justifiably acted upon in so deadly a manner and access to lethal weaponry.
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That final element represents the most direct opportunity for redress. I wholeheartedly believe that the weapons of war we call assault rifles have no role in a civilized society. The Tree of Life gunman carried an assault rifle into a holy community. Never again should this occur in the United States of America. Let’s ban these weapons and implement greater safeguards to prevent other firearms from falling into the wrong hands.
I find the other element of this tragedy, the gunman’s belief that he was right to back up his hatred of Jews by committing murder en masse, to be just as profoundly impactful, but less easily solved. The dismal truth is that a willingness to use violent force without just cause is not limited to this lone, crazed gunman. The alleged murderer, Robert Bowers, seemed to draw inspiration from the president of the United States himself, despite claiming he did not vote for Trump. Bowers sourced his resolve to carry out this heinous crime in part from the belief that Jews, and in particular HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), were helping to bring caravans of immigrant “invaders” into our country. President Trump has called the caravans an “assault” on the country. Unwarranted xenophobia of the sort that leads to murder should not be present in the Oval Office as well.
That xenophobia becomes weaponized when public leaders toss both reverence for the truth and civil respect out the window. Once again, one need look no further than President Trump himself. His lack of regard for the value of facts and truth needs no summary, but his lies about the migrant caravan deserve special scrutiny in light of the Tree of Life gunman’s motives.
President Trump has claimed that the caravan contains “unknown Middle Easterners” and that it is funded by Democratic politicians, two assertions with absolutely no basis in objective fact. Those claims almost mirror Bowers’ belief that, “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” Bowers’ willingness to go to such vile lengths to enforce his ideology are not unique to him, either. Trump, who has himself been accused of anti-Semitism, just this month said of Greg Gianforte, the congressman who assaulted a reporter in 2017, “Any guy who can do a body slam, he is my type!”
I do not intend this as a hit on Donald Trump, although I certainly consider his flaws to be profound. Rather, my message is that we must return to the basics. Just as we must strengthen democracy to maintain its efficacy, we must also support political leaders who put truth and fact before party and partisanship. Respect for those different from us must become a core value of American governance.
I cherish my right to vote this November as an opportunity to stand up for my values. I do not even consider these principles to be political in nature. I see them as human values. I hope you agree. In light of the Tree of Life massacre, we must rebuild our political culture from the ground up. It starts Nov. 6.
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