I was eight years old when I first learned about the internment of Japanese American during World War II. My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Mui, assigned my class a family legacy project. She shared her family history as an example. She was Japanese American and I learned that her parents had been relocated and forced to live in Manzanar in the 1940s. I was horrified. As a Jewish child, I knew about the Holocaust even at a young age. I falsely believed that Jews were the only people hated and feared and forced to live as subhumans during World War II. I was wrong. It was then that I realized that anti-Asian hate runs deep in this country’s history.
While anti-Asian sentiments have a long history in the United States, there has been a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, at California State University, San Bernardino, recently surveyed police departments in sixteen major cities across the country. They found that anti-Asian hate crimes had more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. Many of these attacks have occurred right here in our own backyard, in the Bay Area.
The Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI for short) Reporting Center collects testimonies of Asian Americans who have been attacked. In reading their reports, I read about a San Francisco mother who was putting her baby in the car when someone drove by and told her to, “go home!” I read about a Livermore woman who was grocery shopping for the first time since the start of shelter in place. Another shopper approached her and shouted, “Get out of my way! You don’t speak English!” One Santa Clara man reported, “My wife went in to buy milk and my children and I were off to the side waiting for her outside in the parking lot area. A group started yelling, ‘Look, it’s a Chinese – he’s got Corona!’ They made hand gestures as if they are holding a rifle pointed at me.” Of course the clearest recent attack came in the Atlanta area on March 16th when a man entered 3 massage parlors and murdered 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women.
Increased attacks like these are no coincidence. For the last year, political leaders have been scapegoating Asian Americans for Coronavirus. On March 16, 2020, the President of the United States first tweeted about the “China Virus.” A recent study by researches in Sacramento analyzed almost 700,000 tweets and almost 13,000 hashtags from the last year using either #covid19 or #chinesevirus. The study found that 19.7% of hashtags with #covid19 showed anti-Asian sentiment, compared with 50.4% of hashtags with #chinesevirus.
These statistics prove that words, even words as seemingly trivial as tweets, hold power. This is something that Jewish tradition already knows. Bereisheet teaches that God actually created the world through speech. Our Torah reads, Vayomer Elohim, “God said…let there be light.” One of our morning prayers, Baruch Sh’amar declares: “Blessed is the one whose word called the world into being. Blessed is the one who created the world. Blessed is the one who speaks and it is done.” While our texts tell us that words can create good, we also learn through Jewish tradition that words can destroy. One of my favorite Jewish tales goes like this:
A woman repeated a story (gossip) about a neighbor. Within a few days everyone in the community knew the story. The person she talked about heard what had been said about her and she was very sad. Later, the woman who had spread the story learned that it was not true. She was very sorry and went to a wise rabbi and asked what she could do to repair the damage.
After giving this some thought, the rabbi said to her, “Go home, get one of your feather pillows, and bring it back to me.” Surprised by the rabbi’s response, the woman followed his advice and went home to get a feather pillow and brought it to the rabbi.
“Now,” said the rabbi, “open the pillow and pull out all the feathers.” Confused, the woman did what she was told to do.
After a few minutes, the rabbi said, “Now, I want you to find every one of the feathers and put them back into the pillow.”
“That’s impossible,” said the woman, almost in tears. “The window is open and the wind has scattered them all over the room and blown many feathers outside. I can’t possibly find them all.”
“Yes,” said the rabbi. “And that is what happens when you gossip or tell a story about someone else. Once you talk about someone, the words fly from one person’s mouth to another, just like these feathers flew in the wind. Once you say them, you can never take them back.”
Aside from knowing that words hold immense power, Jewish people also know what it feels like to be blamed, feared, vilified, and targeted for being different from what society deems “normal.” Prior to the Holocaust, the Nazis blamed Jews for Germany’s economic and social problems. Antisemitism rose and led to the murder of 6 million Jews. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center recently wrote about recent attacks against Asian Americans. He explained that these horrific attacks do not occur in a vacuum. “They rise from the same climate of xenophobia, bigotry, and white supremacy that led to hate-fueled killings in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and too many other communities. A society that vilifies one minority group is a society that deems it acceptable to vilify all minority groups. An attack on one is an attack on all.
I was eight years old when I first learned about Japanese internment during WWII. Since then, I’ve witnessed the targeting of different groups at different times. It’s an old story in the United States.
Shabbat is a time reminiscent of God’s original creation. We chant during Kiddush, zikaron l’maaseh bereshit, or “Remember the acts of creation.” During this creation, God uttered the world into being. Through our words this Shabbat and beyond, may we mirror God and utter a more curious, tolerant, and beautiful world in which differences are appreciated and all feel safe. May we defend the Asian people and the women in our community. May we educate ourselves on this history of Anti-Asian rhetoric and law in the United States. May we become familiar with terms that may help us better understand and describe the plight of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. May we admit that a problem for one minority group is a problem for us, too. Not only because Asian Jews exist within our Jewish spaces but also because we deserve to live safely in this country and world. The attack in Atlanta last week was a wakeup call for me. Let us transform it into a battle cry for continued diligence in creating a society we’re proud to call ours.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be so.