Confront intolerance, or violence will be close behind

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, vandals attacked two synagogues in Bangor.

While the motivations of the culprits might never be known, the harm caused by the assault goes beyond their tasteless scribbles. Three juveniles were arrested Wednesday, and the investigation continues.

The graffiti was simplistic in nature – easy to create and familiar, even for someone with no political or historical perspective to frame their actions.

The synagogues were defaced with spray-painted swastikas, crosses and the number 666, which has become a well-known symbol of the “devil” in pop culture and religious mythology.

According to reports in the Bangor Daily News, graffiti has been on the rise across the city, and there’s some speculation that perhaps the graffiti on the synagogues was not motivated by ethnic or religious hate.

The Jewish community tells me that the Bangor Police Department has been engaged, open and helpful in its efforts to confront the problem as it tries to sort out what happened and why.

Even in the minds of the criminals, there might not be recognition of the seriousness of the crime that was committed.

But these acts can only be viewed for what they are – hateful and violent. And they must be judged not as individual acts but as the leading edge of a problem that must be confronted.

In 2008, the U.S. State Department presented a report to the U.S. Congress that discussed contemporary anti-Semitism around the world and characterized the danger that it poses to everyone, not just Jews.

“Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest forms of malicious intolerance and violates the precepts of human dignity and equality that are fundamental to a free and peaceful society. History has shown that wherever anti-Semitism has gone unchecked, the persecution of others has been present and not far behind,” wrote Gregg J. Rickman, special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

“Defeating anti-Semitism must be a cause of great importance not only for Jews, but for all people who value humanity and justice and want to live in a more tolerant, peaceful world. Together, we must continue our efforts to monitor and combat anti-Semitism in all of its forms wherever and whenever it occurs.”

Whether it was intended or not, the attacks on the synagogues sow the ground for the growth of anti-Semitism and hate.

For generations, hatred of Jews was the official position of church and state alike until it culminated in the Holocaust, which was the attempted systematic extermination of European Jews by Nazi Germany.

And though generations of people have made the pledge of “never again,” the State Department has identified growing anti-Semitism around the world, in places with large Jewish communities and places where the Jewish communities are small.

“Anti-Semitic crimes range from acts of violence, including terrorist attacks against Jews, to the desecration and destruction of Jewish property such as synagogues and cemeteries. Anti-Semitic rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and other propaganda circulate widely and rapidly,” the State Department reported.

It is the small act that gives permission to the larger act.

At my house, my kids like to push the boundaries of what’s OK. They’ll push the limits on dessert, TV, bedtime and appropriate language.

And during those times of weakness or weariness when I haven’t responded, you can bet that the next transgression pushed the line a little further.

If we allow the intrusion on Bangor’s synagogues to go past, unremarked upon, things next time could easily become worse.

As a former journalist, I’m a staunch defender of the freedom of speech, even when that speech is spiteful. But speech stops on the stairs of the synagogue and the edge of the paintbrush or spray of the paint can.

This was a cowardly act, and it deserves our outrage. Anything else falls short.

Tom Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor
to serve in the U.S. Congress. He put it this way: “The Jewish people have seen, over the years and over the centuries, that hate prepares the way for violence. The refusal to expose and confront intolerance can lead to crimes beyond imagining. So we have a duty to expose and confront anti-Semitism, where it is found.”

During Yom Kippur, Jews are called upon to repent their sins and to forgive the sins of others. This year, as Yom Kippur comes to an end, there are some people who need to repent.