On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 30, like the previous two mornings, we awoke — as did so many others in our city — laden with grief and despair for the loss of 11 innocent neighbors, for the crushing burden to their families and for the profound damage done to our community. These emotions were punctuated with a sense of frustration at the hateful discourse that has been enveloping our nation. It is a discourse intent on dehumanizing other people, be they Democrats or Republicans, African-Americans, migrants from Central America (documented or not), gay, transgender, rural or urban, Muslim or Jewish.
Scientists who study this kind of hate speech observe that by dehumanizing the other, we create an environment where it is acceptable for people to perpetrate violence against each other. As Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha stated so eloquently at the vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, hate, wherever it is found, begins with speech. This point was reinforced by the editors of the Jewish Chronicle, who noted that the words the president regularly uses against the press and his political opponents “can lead to no good.”
But this is at least as true for the many other groups of people President Donald Trump chooses to diminish, including Central American migrants, Muslims and transgender people, to name only a few. The president’s denunciation of anti-Semitism is a good first step, but it is not enough, because we are all fully human and deserve to be treated as such. That is why we found ourselves so disheartened to learn that the president would come to Pittsburgh. Not because we may disagree with his policies, but because the language he chooses to use has real and serious consequences, for us and for others.
When we learned of the “Pittsburgh Loves All Our Neighbors” event that afternoon, we decided that it might help us express the fears we have about our nation and how we all speak about each other. The event was set upon Jewish values of peace, love and respect, and was one of the most remarkable events either of us have ever attended — surrounded by at least 1,100 (according to Pittsburgh Police) neighbors, grieving, despondent and looking to counter the narrative of hate that has enveloped us. As we all gathered, with barely any notice, to walk peacefully through our streets, we sang gently together, as if we were cleansing our neighborhood of hate, tipping the balance back to love and respect.
That we did this as the president of the United States was only blocks away, provided a moving counterpoint to the cynical, hateful speech that so often accompanies him. Towards the end, as we passed the police station on Northumberland, we showered the first responders with a rolling wave of applause and appreciation, 1,100 people deep. This feeling of love, of home, of peace, of appreciation, and of a coming together of friends and neighbors from the beautiful diversity of people that is Squirrel Hill buoys us.
We will always remember the lives of those who were so brutally murdered, the first responders who rushed to the scene and our extraordinary leaders who came together so purposefully, with grace and strength, in this moment of unimaginable horror.
We will also remember with deepest gratitude the organizers of “Pittsburgh Loves All Our Neighbors” for knowing how to replace our anger and frustration with a dignified display of Myers’ call for respectful speech, with a willingness to stand up for love, decency, and civil discourse.
Hence this article. We find ourselves compelled to correct the inaccurate portrayal of “Pittsburgh Loves All Our Neighbors.” That at a moment of true crisis this community should rise up peacefully to declare that hate has no place in our neighborhood is not merely an event that deserves to be witnessed by this paper, but is one which should be echoed and amplified on its editorial page. Instead, the silence has the effect both of diminishing the power of the moment and of denigrating the organizers who worked so hard — and so successfully — to produce an event in the service of peace and mutual respect.
We have, together, as one diverse community, experienced a hell that no one should ever have to go through, and we have shown unity, love and compassion at the hardest moment. It didn’t matter what shul we went to, it didn’t matter whether we went to a shul at all, and it certainly didn’t matter what political party we belonged to.
Let us please continue to speak with each other, to ask respectful questions of each other, to try and learn why someone thinks something or did something, and above all, continue to see each other as fully human, and not as some caricature of the “liberal-left” or “conservative-right.” We have much to gain if we learn to listen to each other, and so very, very much to lose if we cover our ears and fail to listen. PJC
Brian Cohen and Ilyssa Manspeizer live in Squirrel Hill.