At this holiday season which symbolizes freedom from bondage, “Let my people be free” is a statement that is as relevant as it ever was. My wish for all humans is that they be free of the fear that is inspired by words of hate. May you all be inspired by words and acts that heal.
A letter with a return PO box address arrived in my mailbox the other day. “Most likely another appeal for support from a worthy institution,” I thought. Surprise, surprise! It was a letter from Sister Gemma Del Duca, the founder of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill. Originally from Greensburg, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1975.
The letter was in response to a note I wrote in reply to a correspondence from Seton Hill a while ago. It took several months for it to reach Sister Del Duca, who is a widely known speaker and educator, primarily teaching Catholics about the Holocaust. My note remarked upon the coincidence that a well-known philanthropist from New York City, Dr. Ethel LeFrak, had recentlly donated a sizeable sum to the department of Holocaust Education at Seton Hill. It so happens that I was associated with a LeFrak organization for 23 years while in New York. In her letter, Sister Del Duca invited me to the next Kristallnacht program at Seton Hill in the fall.
Sister Del Duca’s letter was a ray of light from sunny Jerusalem. But as I researched Sister Del Duca and the work she has been doing, I soon came across voices of opposition, dark voices who label her as “The Kapo Nun,” and Israel, Yad Vashem and all other institutions that work to ensure that the facts of the Holocaust are not forgotten as “counterfeit.” These are the voices of the “radical traditionalist Catholic movement,” that I have been told is a tiny group within the Church, but still 100,000 people worldwide.
I am reminded once again how important it is to keep one’s antennae sensitized to speech that could lead to violence. When individuals like Sister Del Duca create powerful institutions like the National Center for Holocaust Education we must be aware that voices will rise up to dispute them. If we are complacent, thinking that these voices will never again become influential enough to inspire violence, we may be committing our children or our grandchildren to life in a world where such violence against many minorities in many societies is once again taken for granted.
March 14, 1942: At Ilja, Poland, Jews set to labor on a farm join Soviet partisans in a nearby forest. In reprisal, the Germans shoot old and sick Jews in the streets, then herd more than 900 Jews into a building that is set ablaze. All inside die. 
I had family in this town, and it was in the area where I operated as a partisan.
The front page of the March 4, 2013 New York Times features a large photo: “Huge Pakistan Explosion with Shiites as Targets. Firefighters fought a blaze in Karachi, Pakistan, after a bomb attack on Shiites outside a mosque killed at least 45 people.“ The article goes on to report that at least 149 people were wounded.
Daily reports of massacres against civilians in Syria over the last two years tell us that over 1,000,000 people have been been turned into refugees, forced into neighboring countries, exposed to the cold, undernourished, their lives disrupted. I think of the lasting effects on generations deprived of normal growth and development, nourishment, and a stable environment in the early stages of their life.
The most frightening aspect of all of this is that the world, as represented by the UN, is powerless. One would expect masses marching in the capitals of the world showing their abhorrence, pain and condemnation and pledging to cooperate in wiping out this plague. But there is only silence, acquiescence.
Think about it: these crimes are committed against co-religionists! Imagine if the perpetrators ever got the upper hand either by ballot or by force! What should those of us viewed as infidels expect? Sound the alarm! A tsunami of hate could be on the horizon.
The headline in the New York Times was “Danish Opponent of Islam Is Attacked, and Muslims Defend His Right to Speak.” After a would-be assassin narrowly missed the head of Lars Hedegaard, a well-known anti-Muslim commentator, Denmark’s Muslim leadership chose to defend his right to speak, no matter how much they disagreed with the message and condemned his attacker.
Denmark is at the heart of Europe. Like many other European countries, it has a sizable Muslim minority. And Denmark’s Muslims have been at the center of a controversy about free speech that began in 2005 with the publication of an opinion piece in Jyllands-Posten that included a group of cartoons depicting Mohammed. That publication led to protests and riots worldwide and eventually resulted in at least 200 deaths according to an article in the New York Times.
What is interesting to me is that this is a situation where Muslims actively chose to accept and work within the societal norms of the country where they live. They chose not to demand that Islam be treated differently than other religions, working within the system to express their own opinions and fully supporting the rights of a man who recently told the Danish Parliament “I don’t have a problem with Muslims but do have a problem with the religion of Islam.”
It is very encouraging to me that there are elements in Muslim society who are learning to adapt to the countries in which they live. This is the essence of the immigrant experience. The law of the country where one lives is the law that one must follow. Violating those laws under the banner of religious or any other imperative is simply not acceptable.
In every democratic society speech in its many forms is always considered an appropriate way to express and influence opinions. I encourage you to notice and actively celebrate momentd like this one where opponents come together to peacefully analyze and resolve their differences and join in condemning those who would use violence no matter which side of the debate they represent.