Talking about the Tree of Life shooting in class

Today I will talk about the shooting that happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. What follows is what I'm planning to say; it's rough and unedited, and written as though I was just talking aloud, and I may go off script. I'll update in a comment how it went. I talked about this with Connor Robinson-Arnull, and he gave me some nice ideas, so a bunch of the credit here (specifically with respect to Paolo Freire) goes to him.


My heart goes out to the victims and their families, the congregations of Tree of Life, and everyone affected by the horrible tragedy this weekend.

First, for all of you, I want to make sure that you're taking care of yourselves. CaPS has resources to help you through this should you need it, and I encourage you to go to CaPS for any reason, particularly if you feel like you can't get through this. You're also welcome to swing by and see me if you just want to talk, even if you're not sure you have anything to say. That's okay too. But I also want you to take care of each other -- look out for one another, check in on each other, be together.

In times like this, it's easy to be full of despair, and to lose hope. I've felt hopeless this weekend. For me that moment came when I realized that the oldest victim, Rose Mallinger, was about 18 years old at the start of WWII. That is, Rose was your age while the holocaust was happening across the sea, and then she died at the hands of an anti-Semite. Another member of the congregation, Judah Samet, was a holocaust survivor, born in Hungary and turned eight in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany; he was 4 minutes late and so survived. When you think about things like that, it makes the time scale seem that much shorter, and WWII doesn't seem so far away.

So it's easy to feel hopeless, and to retreat into ourselves. But I urge you to reach out and find hope in each other. My friend was telling me today about an author and philosopher, Paolo Freire, who said that hope isn't something that we feel, but something that we do, together. So right now, we have to be hopeful, together. Everyone of us will process this differently, and we need to make space for different ways to grieve, and different ways to heal, but I encourage you to reach out and take care of each other.

I'm not familiar with Paolo Freire, but after my friend told me about him, I decided to look him up, and I found some other quotes that I liked. One is: “The educator has the duty of not being neutral.” So with that as my justification, I have some more things to say.

Not only am I asking you to reach out, hopefully, to each other, but also to recognize that this act, as an act of domestic terrorism, was a political one, and it demands a political response. And by a "political response", I don't mean that we wait to hear what the politicians have to say, but rather that you consider it your responsibility to engage with the political statement that was made, and fight against it. Certainly, there are political things you can do, like vote, or call your representatives, or canvass for someone. But I want to focus on a broader notion of political and civic engagement, and that is that you need to engage with and fight against the kinds of political statements that do harm to people.

That's where it's important to be hopeful, and to not despair: you cannot see yourself as passive, as the recipient of world views and political structures that have been bestowed on you by your elders. The world is not like a gift that you get from your great aunt: one that you hate, and would love to change, but feel like it might hurt her feelings, so you wear that awful yellow sweater with the bobbles and cables... Screw that. You inherit this world by virtue of being born in it. It's yours, to do what you like with it. The people who left it to you have a responsibility to *you*, just like you have a responsibility, starting now, to those who are born after you. Most people forget that, at least some of the time, if not most of the time.

This [[shown on a slide]] is an excerpt from a Paolo Freire book, describing the role of hope in pursuing change:

Another Paolo Freire quote I found was that, "language is never neutral", though I'd be surprised if he were truly the first to say such a thing. I want to take a moment to talk about anti-Semitism, and in particular the language associated with it. Nobody can deny that the terrorist was an anti-Semite, with racist beliefs, and a desire to do harm to Jewish people. But most instances of racism and anti-Semitism in particular don't look like that. They're far more subtle, and we'll talk about how racism and linguistics intersects down the road. But with respect to anti-Semitism, it's important to recognize that not all anti-Semitic statements are obviously negative. For example, statements that Jewish people control the world, the banks, whatever... or that Jewish people are cunning... these are not positive statements, and they're not neutral either. Not only are they inaccurate or gross generalizations, statements like these license certain kinds of inferences, namely that Jewish people present some kind of threat to non-Jews. I don't think I need to be any more detailed about the threat that this carries to Jewish people, and how some people carry out their feelings of anti-Semitism. I bring this to your attention because it's important for you to understand that anti-Semitism has a particular set of tropes associated with it, and specific language that is used to other Jewish people. Language is never neutral, and statements about groups that are not grounded in verifiable facts are not "just language".

The investigation is still ongoing, but another facet about the terrorist's motives seem to be about HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that helps with refugee resettlement; note that it is one of many religiously-based groups that are official volunteer agencies that work with the government. According to reports about what he posted online, the terrorist feared that HIAS was bringing in immigrants to do violence. There are ways to talk about immigration and the challenges that immigration presents to a country, but the language that is being used these days to talk about immigrants is dehumanizing, and this language is being used by the highest officials of this administration. Language matters. The choice of words you use to describe a person matters. Language is never neutral.

[[Give students a chance to say something, like if they'd like a moment of silence or time to reflect before we start the lesson.]]

One of the reasons that the work of Paolo Freire resonated with me is that his perspective on history, namely that one cannot be a passive recipient of it, is much like what I was going to talk about today with respect to language: Just like you're not a passive recipient of history, you're not a passive user of language either.


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