Earlier this month, James von Brunn, the 89-year-old bigot charged with killing an African American security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, appeared for a hearing in a Washington courtroom.
Von Brunn, who faces charges including first-degree murder, hate crimes and gun violations, "appeared frail and sat quietly in a wheelchair," according to news reports. The hearing presented evidence that he was on a "suicide mission," driven to "send a message to the Jewish community" that the Holocaust is a hoax.
Not surprisingly, the judge ordered a mental competency exam.
In the hours after the Holocaust museum shooting, there were multiple, brazen assertions that American Jews were in profound danger and that the shooting was only the latest evidence of the lurking threats that ought to rouse Jews from their mistaken slumber.
That day, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a news release warning that "the cancer of hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism is alive and well in America."
The Anti-Defamation League echoed the sentiment, saying that Von Brunn's act was "not an isolated incident but ... part of a 'wave of hate' targeting Jews and others." The ADL has since warned in a national newsletter of "violent plots, conspiracies and attacks by extremists" that are "a painful reminder that the anti-Semites and racists are still out there and more prone to act out on their beliefs. The danger is ever-present, and we must remain vigilant."
The Holocaust museum shooting was a tragedy. But to assert that it proves there is a "cancer" or "wave" of hate engulfing American Jews in 2009 is absurd. Such warnings run counter to virtually every poll, study and analysis of Americans' attitudes regarding different races, ethnicities and religions over the last 20 years.
For example, a 2006 analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life of inter-religious understanding in America found that "certain historical religious divisions and tensions have largely been put aside. Catholics and Jews, for example, once the objects of widespread and often institutionalized discrimination, are now viewed favorably by a sizable majority of Americans. ... These findings strongly suggest that the United States has the capacity to overcome historical divisions and prejudices." The ADL's own flawed Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents recorded a greater than 44% decline in acts of anti-Semitic vandalism, harassment and assaults nationwide over the last four years.
Even anecdotally, the warnings are nonsense -- just talk to the Jewish people you know and inquire as to how many instances of bigotry, stereotyping or discrimination they have encountered in recent years.
Jews were once victims of bigotry in hiring, public accommodations, housing, university admissions, social clubs and country clubs, but those forms of real-world discrimination have virtually disappeared. To suggest otherwise is to make a mockery of the transformational change in American attitudes that these groups and others have brought about over the decades. Having spent 27 years as a Jewish civil rights leader helping to effect those changes in California, I can attest to those battles being hard fought but significant. But, thankfully, we are past them now.
Sure, there are bigots and racists out there -- young and old. If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the June 10 shooting, it is that, no matter how accepting and tolerant a nation of 350 million people becomes, there always will be crazies who aren't with the program. There always will be angry people, sociopaths and psychopaths who are disconnected from the real world and capable of bizarre and criminal acts. We should be vigilant and monitor them.
But the sociopathy of a relative few is no measure of where we are as a society in terms of intergroup relations, although it is of course an unfortunate reality with which we must deal.
The danger of the knee-jerk "sky is falling" reactions of the Wiesenthal Center and the ADL is that they undeservedly alarm an awful lot of folks, who are then afraid of the world around them. And when groups make such specious assertions, they undermine the credibility they need to be effective. If there were ever to be a new wave of hatred, of real "cancers" and "waves" of bigotry, they would be less likely to be believed.
The little shepherd boy learned his lesson about crying wolf; when will these groups?