Message from the Provost: Remarks from Oct. 30 Tree of Life Synagogue Vigil
On Tuesday, a vigil was held at UIC on the east campus quad to honor and commemorate those who lost their lives in a synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend. I spoke at the vigil and several people have asked me to share these remarks with the wider community, which I am doing in the spirit of community and healing:
As we remember the senseless murder of the 11 people who lost their lives in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I wanted to reach out to the UIC community not only as your provost and on behalf of the UIC Administration, but also as a Jewish, first-generation American, the product of parents who each left Europe as children in the 1930’s — my mother from Nazi Germany to escape fascism and virulent anti-Semitism, my father from England to escape war.
There are so many ways to look at what happened on Saturday in Pittsburgh. We can see this as a product of the gun culture in which we live, and we can compare it to Las Vegas, or Parkland, or here in Chicago just last weekend. We can see this as an assault on places of worship, as this is at least the third house of worship to be shattered by gun violence in the past few years, and compare it to the historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, where 9 people perished, or the 2017 shooting in a church in Texas that killed 26 people. We could see this as another manifestation of the mental health crisis in this country, a crisis that we have not come to terms with as we must — with dedicated resources, the way we dedicate money and resources to diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Or we could see this simply as what it appears to be — the violent expression of antisemitism, antisemitism that has and likely will always exist, since it seems to have always existed, but recently, has been given a new license to rear its ugly head again in our current political discourse, as it did in Germany in the 1930’s. It is a reminder to all of us, as if we need it, that hate has many forms; that the “other” can appear in many guises, whether Black, Latinx, Muslim, gay, trans, Jewish, and so forth. And to people who hate, it almost does not matter at which variety of “other” they aim their hate, the root of the hate is the otherness, not its particularity.
This brings to mind a quotation by Martin Niemöller made famous after the Holocaust. And this is what he said:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
In this community at UIC — this wonderfully diverse, mosaic of a community — we must take this as a time to mourn for and with the congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, just as we mourned for those in that historic black church in South Carolina; and just as we continue to express outrage and mourn for the families separated at our border; and just as we remember Matthew Shepard, whom we were reminded of again last week as he was interred in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., 20 years after his senseless killing in Laramie, Wyoming for the offense of being gay, of being other.
We can also take this opportunity to reaffirm who we are, and what we must do every day, in order to live in a community of mutual respect. We must acknowledge that it takes work to remain as a community. We know the work involves an understanding that not all hate is manifest all the time and that we must be vigilant because much is hidden just below the surface.
Our vigilance must also be founded on an understanding that words matter, that civility is not just politeness and good manners; it is part of the social glue that allows everyone to be themselves and to flourish, because we are all connected and always will be. We must recognize and act on the fact that no matter who we are and how we identify ourselves, the “other” must not be the object of anyone’s hate, but of their love, of their warm curiosity, and of their welcoming embrace.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said from the Birmingham jail, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Provost & Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
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