We Are All Strangers

This past week, Jussie Smollett, a gay Black man (who is Jewish, by the way…) who is one of the stars of the TV show Empire, was brutally attacked in what Chicago police are investigating as a possible hate crime. The actor took himself to the hospital directly after what police called a “possible racially-charged assault and battery”; authorities say he is in good condition. Police received a report that Smollett was walking in the downtown Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville around 2 a.m. local time “when two unknown offenders approached him and gained his attention by yelling out racial and homophobic slurs towards him,” the city’s police department told NPR. Smollett told police that the two men beat him up, “poured an unknown chemical substance,” believed to be bleach, on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck.

As I read this awful story, I first thought about Jussie Smollett. He must’ve been so terrified, convinced he would be murdered right there on the streets of Chicago. It’s traumatic just to read about such a blatant attack. It’s hard to know how Mr. Smollett will go on after having actually experienced it.

I’ve never hated anyone so much that I felt moved to violence. I despise the alt-right people who spread calumnies against Blacks and Jews. I loathe those people who propagate antisemitism, hatred of Moslems, racism in any form, and all neo-Nazis. But I don’t dream about beating them or killing them.

How did the alleged perpetrators justify their wanton and unprovoked violence against this Black gay man? Who are these people? What motivates such unforgivable violence against another human being?

Bernard Golden writes that “Acts of hate are attempts to distract oneself from feelings such as helplessness, powerlessness, injustice, inadequacy, and shame. Hate is grounded in some sense of perceived threat. It is an attitude that can give rise to hostility and aggression toward individuals or groups. Like much of anger, it is a reaction to and distraction from some form of inner pain. The individual consumed by hate may believe that the only way to regain some sense of power over his or her pain is to strike out at others preemptively. In this context, each moment of hate is a temporary reprieve from inner suffering.”

Historically the victims of this phenomenon are those who are perceived as less powerful, on a lower rung of the social order. We Jews know this syndrome all too well. Regarded as outsiders and strangers, we often felt this misdirected rage and hatred over two thousand years.

We know the heart of the stranger because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. If we are human, so are they. If they are less than human, so are we. We must fight the hatred in our hearts.

And how do we do this? There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

How do we spread this message? How does a culture morph from projection to a more sophisticated sense of inclusiveness? How do we live with the other when the other reminds us of our own shortcomings?

I don’t pretend to know any answers here. I can only continue to embrace my credo of unity. I can only continue to teach about oneness, about honesty, about reaching for a greater good. I can only keep trying to see that when I react negatively to another, that it may have less to do with that person, and much more to do with me.

I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or brutalized like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace. And we promise to continue to work for change by supporting leaders with a shared vision of inclusion, who, through their otherness, know the hearts of others as their own. There is no us and them. We are all strangers looking for peace.

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