Jews must say “Je suis Charleston”

A memorial service on June 18 for the victims of the Charleston shooting. | Supplied by Nomader [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In light of last week’s shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., we need to extend the same solidarity to Charleston that was given to the victims of January’s Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks.

The phrases “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), for the satirical Parisian newspaper, and “Je suis Juif” (“I am a Jew”), for the victims of the shooting and hostage crisis at a kosher supermarket, were trending everywhere. The church shooting is one where we should advertise the phrase “Je suis Charleston”. The phrase does not just mean solidarity with Emanuel AME, but encompasses the entire town that united and shared each other’s sorrow. We should be no different.

Last Thursday, Rabbi Leonard Matanky and Rabbi Mark Dratch of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) released the following letter:

To the Members of the Emanuel AME Church,

As fellow human beings created in the image of God, as fellow Americans, and as members of a people that shares the experiences of discrimination and murder based on faith and ethnicity, we, the largest collection of Orthodox Jewish rabbis in the nation, express to you our outrage at the murders of nine of your brothers and sisters, including your pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

We extend to you, and to their families, our deepest expressions of condolence and pledge to work with you, and other people of faith, to bring an end to violence and discrimination, and to the hatreds that so many of us hoped had waned which have returned with virulent force. We act in the spirit of consolation that came to us in our recent time of need, when Palestinian terrorists entered a place of worship during services and massacred four rabbis, and letters of support came to us from fellow Americans.

May the prophecy of Isaiah be fulfilled for you and your community, “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted (30:26)” and “Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end (Isaiah 60:20).”

While I agree with most of the statement, last year’s shooting at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood shouldn’t be why we extend our empathy to Charleston. I don’t say “Je suis Charleston” because of what happened on that tragic November day.

Yes, a place of worship should be where we fear God, not fear for our life. However, we should act in the spirit of the phrase “v’ahavta l’rayacha ha’kamocha” (“Love your fellow as you would yourself”). We as Jews should be sending our condolences because we believe in the sanctity of life and, morally speaking, it’s the right course of action that we give our condolences to not only Jews, but all innocent people who are victim to suffering.

In the Yom Kippur service, we recite the following phrase from Isaiah: “And I will bring them to my holy mountain, and I will gladden them in My house of prayer… for My House will be called a house of prayer, for all nations.” Co-existence is a must. Whether or not we should forgive the shooter (and personally, I do not) is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the people who lost their lives.

Those congregants were reported to be very friendly and, as Breitbart News’ John Hayward wrote, “When a historic black church welcomed a white youth into their prayer service, they made a statement no murderer can erase.” The lives of the congregants may be lost, but the case for the love and peace that they exhibited still lives.

On the day of the incident I Facebook messaged a friend of mine, Avi Kirshtein, who lives a 40-minute walk from the church, and asked him what it was like in Charleston. He replied, “It’s a crazy situation,” adding that “it’s not looking good here.”

Kirshtein told me that, though he doesn’t personally know anyone associated with the church, “I say it’s tense more because the fact that racism is so alive and well that something like this can happen in one of the friendliest cities in the country. I say it’s bringing people together because collectively we as a populous [sic] don’t want to give this criminal what he wants: a race war.”

Kirshtein added, “For the first time in my life, I as a Charlestonian am embarrassed to say that I am from Charleston.

“The fact that such a heinous crime could take place in my city definitely puts a sour taste in my mouth. There is definitely a deep sense of discomfort in Charleston. At any social gathering, the church shooting is all anyone can talk about, but all anyone can say is that this crime is truly disgusting, and they can’t believe something like this could take place here.”

Regarding the RCA’s letter, Kirshtein said the message in the statement is “more reflective why we as human beings should sympathize.”

“As Jews, I believe sympathy is not enough. We need to empathize,” he said. “Just 70 years ago, Jews, our close relatives from a few generations ago, were being executed for their race and religion. Let’s remember that racism is not a foreign concept to us by any stretch of the imagination.”

Racism is not a foreign concept. Ditto diversity and tolerance.


Jackson Richman is a student at The George Washington University.

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