The students filed into Memorial Auditorium to World War II era music. The presentation, by Professor Danny Cohen, had the unlikely title of "Hidden Holocaust History: Memories, Misconceptions & Mickey Mouse" (you had to be there for that). Sponsored by the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, the program's partner was Chattanooga's Council Against Hate. After an introduction by Alison Lebovitz, the council's co-chairman, Mayor Andy Berke offered comments that had the students rapt attention.
Berke's passion to counteract hate and anti-Semitism is personal. It dates back more than a century, long before six million Jews were killed during the Nazi-inspired Holocaust. His grandfather, born in Lithuania, was given a choice of forced labor or death. The family's town was burnt to the ground, but they escaped, spending two years as refugees trying to get to the United States. Hate that began with small villages and cartoons like today's memes, fed the anti-Semitism that erupted into the Holocaust.
How could hate grow like that? Why did good people remain silent? And what about our response to the growing hate today with attacks on places of worship, schools, universities and shopping centers? Berke spoke about our personal responsibility to counteract hate and forming the Council Against Hate in 2018. The council is dedicated to coming up with practical strategies for making our city welcoming to all and boosting the economic growth and quality of life that makes a city of hope and positivity.
"The fight against hate is never over," he said. All of us in the audience nodded in agreement. We've seen worldwide violent hate: shootings at churches, mosques and synagogues, killings in European small towns in Germany and France and in nations' capitals such as London and Amsterdam. There are tribal massacres in Kenya where extremists like Al-Shabab kill thousands and in Cameroon where murdered children lay piled up in the streets. Fueled by religious fervor, terrorists recruit relentlessly and erupt unpredictably.
How do we stop this hate? One answer is to look to people of faith who have a sense of humanity and a divine mission for peace and harmony. The power of this faith, found in so many diverse religions, shouldn't be underestimated. That's why the United Nations declared World Interfaith Harmony Week earlier this month, giving cities worldwide the opportunity to participate by signing an official proclamation. This is personal for me, so my online American Diversity Report is helping extend that week to the entire month of February, and for years beyond.
Technology aids the spread of old conspiracies and contemporary hate, but it also allows us to start a New Beginnings movement with a proclamation for Interfaith Harmony Month. Former Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford, founder of the World Conference of Mayors, and Dyann Robinson of Historic Black Towns & Settlements Alliance, signed this proclamation along with others in 14 cities in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Maryland. Mayor Berke signed the proclamation and his Council Against Hate concept is the model for expanding the project from a month to years.
Talks are underway to spread the movement not only across the country but across the world. Signing the proclamation and eager to form councils against hate are former Nairobi mayors, Professor Nathan Kahara and Dr. Joe Kavech, two leaders of Former Mayors International.
People of good faith are connecting in cyberspace and city halls, in houses of worship and universities. Let's all make this personal so that silence isn't the response to extremism, violence, and hate. New Beginnings begins in 2020.
Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at firstname.lastname@example.org.