Gary P. Zola and Marvin F. Thomas, Opinion contributors
Published 8:50 a.m. ET May 26, 2020
The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee famously theorized that the rise and fall of every great civilization depends on one simple formula: “Challenge and Response.” According to Toynbee, the future of a civilization pivots on how it responds to unforeseen challenges – unanticipated, unexpected events that severely disrupt the status quo.
No sentient American can deny that our nation is presently confronting an array of daunting challenges. If Toynbee’s theory is valid, the rise and fall of the American nation will depend upon the way people respond to the public health crisis, and, of course, to the economic tsunami that has come in its wake. Future historians will one day assess this moment as either the beginning of America’s decline or, hopefully, yet another example of American renewal and rebirth.
One critically important aspect of America’s response to the challenges we currently face will be gauged by the amount of benevolence that flows through society’s veins. Will Americans prove themselves to be kind, fair and compassionate people determined to actualize the ideals enshrined in our nation’s founding documents? Or will the unprecedented suffering brought on by this pandemic unleash a new torrent of bitterness, resentment and senseless hatred that makes a mockery of a “patriot dream that sees beyond the years?”
To be sure, America has always been Janus-faced. We honor our country as the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” yet our nation’s history is marred by a legacy of slavery, bigotry, violence, racism and xenophobia. On the one hand, Americans are enormously generous, self-sacrificing and courageous people. Yet, we frequently behave imperiously, venerate greed, and mistake self-centeredness for independent thinking. Times of fear and uncertainty inevitably stimulate a misguided impulse, which drives us to finger-point and blame someone or something for the difficulties that have come upon us. So how will Americans respond to the challenges that COVID-19 has placed in our laps?
This question has not yet been answered. A host of statistical studies confirm what we read in the newspapers and see on the T.V.: scapegoating, xenophobia, racism and antisemitism are notably increasing. Asian Americans whose families have lived here for generations are being told to “Go back to China.” They are being accused of “bringing the virus” to the United States. Doctors and nurses of Asian descent have been spat upon and physically assaulted.
The nation’s legacy of structural inequality has resulted in black Americans suffering disproportionately from viral infection and death. On top of this inequity, black Americans continue to face prejudice and danger. As one black writer confessed: “The fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting COVID-19.” Last month, in a confluence of discrimination and the threat of contagion, the Baltimore Police Department announced that it was investigating one of its sergeants after a video recording showed the officer repeatedly coughing as he walks past a crowd of black public housing residents.
Of course, one of humankind’s oldest expressions of senseless hatred – antisemitism – has also intensified in the wake of the epidemic. Last month, 30 protesters picketing the home of Dr. Amy Acton, the director of Ohio’s Department of Health, carried a sign that read “Jewish Leaders – John 7:1,” a verse that could be used to suggest that Jews plotted Jesus’s death. A few days earlier, an Ohio legislator accused Dr. Acton of being a “globalist” – a famous and centuries-old antisemitic trope that falsely maintains the existence of an international Jewish cabal that aspires to world domination.
The governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, who, like Dr. Acton, happens to be a Jew, was recently subjected to protesters carrying signs that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Set You Free”), the very words that adorned the entrance of Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp. Nazi slurs have also been hurled at Jared Polis, the first Jewish governor of Colorado.
If, as we face unprecedented health and economic challenges, we hope to make our country’s foundational conviction that “All men (and women) are created equal” a reality, then now is the time to vigorously denounce racism, xenophobia and antisemitism. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, speaking at the “March on Washington” on Aug. 28, 1963, reminded this nation of the most important lesson he learned from his life in Hitler’s Germany: “America must not become a nation of onlookers! America must not remain silent!”
Dr. Gary P. Zola is executive director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives & Professor of American Jewish History at Hebrew Union College. Bishop Marvin F. Thomas is presiding bishop of the Second Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes the Kentucky and Ohio Central Indiana regions.
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