The tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand, again strikes all of us personally, and not only because we recoil from the recurrence of brutality. We are increasingly aware of terror’s relentless proximity. Certainly New Zealanders, priding themselves as insular and inoculated from the poison of human slaughter, have been initiated into the messy consequences of populist racial and religious hate. As Kathleen Belew observed in her 2018 book “Bring the War Home,” the new white nationalism is transnational, targeting countries with large white populations. We are not much different, really — we thrive in the delusion of distance until it is no longer sustainable. I am told that among our neighbors in Hackensack are relatives of a victim who did not survive the attack on mosques in far-away New Zealand.
As I was listening to speakers at the prayer gathering at Teaneck’s Darul Islah mosque, I couldn’t help but imagine its possible violent disruption. Now that sacred space is violated space, now that the confidence in the security of our homes and houses of worship is shaken, I am sure that others in that hall were feeling the same way.
Could it happen here?
Appeals to peace and to a common cause marked the vigil, but one speaker made it clear that we live in perilous times of centrifugal forces — when a rabbi and an iman walk into a bar, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s a press release. It was heartening, perhaps news, to see a full house here, as elsewhere, when Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, and members of other faith traditions came together to remember for the future. But I wonder: Were we in the process of renewing our commitment to peace? Or having devoted two hours to commemoration, were we self-satisfied with our transient demonstration of solidarity, believing that we have done due diligence?
The underlying question that refuses to go away is this: How much longer will we remain bystanders? We owe it to Holocaust witnesses for redefining bystanders as tacit collaborators rather than as mere spectators detached from crime scenes. By remaining on the sidelines, those who did not intervene were incriminated because they abdicated their moral responsibility to intervene. When Holocaust memoirs emerged in the 1960s as a collective reminder of lethal disintegration and the consequences of onlooker-inertia, bystanders, in their judgment, mutated fully to accomplices.
We are at the crossroads of proximate terror and bystander futility. Some argue that we are on the way to responding to acts of social injustice, pointing to this past weekend’s prayer gatherings and recent demonstrations by more than one million students in 125 countries who struck for climate; to the Standing Rock Sioux protest, women’s marches, and the March for Our Lives students’ national protest against gun violence; and to organized movements, such as Black Lives Matter, the Occupy movement, and voter registration drives during last fall’s midterm electioneering. Others assert that these acts are merely episodic, abetted by the online environment of metastasizing memes that saturate our overstimulated attention spans. Studies suggest that social media are too diffuse to nurture thick relationships conducive to common purpose and too momentary to promote perseverance.
Yet we extract hope from one movement that changed everything — the civil rights movement from the mid-1050s to the mid-60s. We give credit to the peerless moral leadership of Martin Luther King Jr, who cannily framed the struggle for social integration in nonpartisan, transcendent terms: “I just want to do God’s work.” He chided bystanders, remarking indelibly, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
But perhaps just as significant is what scholar Robin Kelley termed “hidden transcripts.” The conventional iconography depicts blacks confined to the back of the bus; by contrast, we have nothing similar to show how black passengers saw it from their perspective. As Kelly argued, their hidden experiences amounted to nothing less than the preconditions of social transformation. They were seated apart but also together, and that instilled a sense of kinship. They seemed compliant but felt contempt for whites’ arrogant injustice. In this setting, blacks acquired a sense of congregation that paved the way for political movement.
The legacy of episodic gatherings, like the one at the Darul Islah mosque, will surely fade as our daily routines resume their prominence. But still it is potent, for it embodies another congregation in the making.
In an earlier piece written after the Tree of Life synagogue tragedy I ended by writing that it is time to step up. In response, readers asked why I wasn’t more specific. Beyond periodic post-tragedy demonstrations, just what would make a lasting difference? We cannot be more specific, perhaps, because the dynamics of congregation are hidden and formative. Or maybe it’s best not to be prescriptive. As terrorism and other acts of injustice that threaten our civic well-being grow closer to us and as our reflexive responses over time converge, we will know what to do.
Dennis Klein, Ph.D., is a professor of history and director of the master’s degree program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Kean University. He lives in Teaneck.