The year 1939 saw an upheaval the likes of which the modern world has rarely experienced. German troops marched into Poland that September, ushering in a world war that would ultimately change the maps of Europe and the Middle East, lay waste to vast swaths of land spanning three continents and wipe out millions of Jewish families and entire Jewish communities.
There are those who argue that conflict on the scale of World War II will not happen again, that the seeds of territorial discord and the virulent hate that marked the regime of Adolf Hitler were unique for that time and place. The world of today, they point out, is vastly different from the world of 1939. Information is available on a global scale, with the democratization of news affording those in the slums of urban India the same access to the marketplace of ideas as the college-bound American teenager. And colonialism, that hallmark of 19th-century geopolitics, is a thing of the past; in its place, self-determination has become the order of the day for all of the world’s ethnic and political groups.
Such claims, though, aren’t exactly true. And even if they were, the kind of hate that enabled whole swaths of seemingly cultured Western Europe to either stand idly by while the Nazis exterminated Jews – or helped them do it – still exists today. One need only look to the shootings in Overland Park, Kan., for proof, but a march of thousands of neo-Nazis through the streets of Paris last month and the firebombing of a synagogue in Nikolayev, Ukraine, last weekend also indicate that the world in 2014 might not be as different from the one in 1939.
The question, of course, is what do we do about it? Seventy-five years ago, a group of Baltimoreans had an answer, joining together to form the Baltimore Jewish Council, which, as you’ll read in the pages of this week’s JT, is still going strong. What this group saw back then was a need for a unified voice from the Jewish community to respond to a sea of anti-Semitism. In later years, that voice was needed on such issues as the nascent State of Israel, the civil rights movement and the fate of Soviet Jewry. We hear that voice continue in the corridors of power in City Hall and at the statehouse in Annapolis.
But while the BJC continues to portray a unified front in the non-Jewish world, the need for unity within the Jewish community has never been stronger. The global Jewish community may never agree on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the preservation of religious rituals, but judging by the invective employed in letters to the editor of late, it is clear that we need to employ the same tolerance of each other that we demand from the non-Jews around us.
As a group, those who argue against a two-state solution are not bigots. By the same token, those who backed the peace efforts of the Obama administration are not, by virtue of their stance, irreligious lunatics. It is possible to have an honest difference of opinion, whether in the realm of politics or in religious fervor. If a peaceful, more tolerant world is what we seek, let’s not forget that the real work begins closer to home.