I must admit that when I first heard about a museum devoted to the Nazi Holocaust opening in Washington D.C. I was a bit skeptical about its relevance. What did the Nazi Holocaust have to do with Washington, or the U.S., for that matter? Of course, there are tangents, there always are. Millions of Americans fought in the war to liberate Europe from the Nazis. A dwindling number of Americans are refugees from the Nazi regime, and thousands of their descendants live, though they would have died or never been born if the Nazis had triumphed.

But I thought such a museum should be in Germany, or Poland, near the sites of these monstrous crimes. Why D.C.? It seemed out of place, somehow.

My thinking has changed since then. I evolved the thought that it’s precisely in a place like D.C. that we need such a museum: the powerful capital of the most powerful nation on earth can always use a sobering reminder of what power can do when it is held by hateful, inhuman, fanatical ideologues.

That place was attacked this week, by someone who carried the same political, ideological, and spiritual disease that afflicted so many Germans so many years ago. He chose the holocaust Museum as a target because of what it represents – the complete and utter rejection of the anti-semitic cancer that devoured Europe in the mid 20th-Century, and that gnawed at his own hate-twisted soul.

He came to kill Jews. He knew that this was a place where he would find Jews. Like his ideological forebears, he would deliberately single out members of that particular ethnic-religious group for annihilation.

But he didn’t end up killing any Jews. Instead, the man (I refuse to name him) killed Steven Tyrone Johns, a museum guard. Steven Tyrone Johns died so that others might live. He is a hero.

Steven Tyrone Johns was African-American, a member of another ethnic group that the shooter hated.

American Jews and American Blacks have had a long and often problematic relationship. There were Jewish slave-owners, but also many Jewish abolitionists. There is no doubt that the Biblical story of the Jews’ deliverance from slavery gave hope to those who toiled in captivity. Their sprirituals still echo with the yearning for freedom inspired from the Book of Exodus.

Jews were prominent in the struggle for Civil Rights. Segregation was offensive to the humanitarian and egalitarian strain of Judaism. Black and Jews marched together, desegregated lunch counters together, and, in Mississippi, died together.

But in recent decades the relationship has become strained. Blacks began to lump Jews in with the white oppressor. Many looked to Islam as a way to separate from the religious and cultural traditions that were imposed by the white majority. In so doing, they often acquired the anti-Semitic attitudes fomented by the leaders of the Nation of Islam, particularly Louis B. Farrakhan. Another African-American leader, Jesse Jackson, has used anti-Jewish epithets such as “Hymietown” to describe New York City. Jews, in their turn, have sometimes exhibited racist attitudes, using the unflattering term “schwartzkes”, and generally seeming to treat Blacks with contempt.

The incident at the Holocaust Museum is, in perspective, a small one. Another murder in a city that sees hundreds of murders every year. One more gun-related death out of tens of thousands in the United States every year. But somehow the cast of characters makes this significant. The shooter is symptomatic of the rising tide of right-wing violence we’ve seen since the election of the first African-American President. The place, established in memory of millions of murdered Jews, becomes the site of a hate crime, the place where an ordinary African-American working stiff draws his last breath in a heroic act of confrontation with a violent racist. It’s not some kind of parable: someone actually died. And yet if we look at the symbolism, it might be one sorrowful sigh that becomes a mighty wind of reconciliation.

Read this account by Mark Blumenthal.

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