Whether it's protesting Islam at a mosque or trying to bar a Satanist religious group from participating in public city council meetings, Phoenix has made national headlines continually in the last year for acts of intolerance, bigotry, and hate. And as Phoenix Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz explains in a letter to the editor, this isn't the image he wants his city to project to the world.
Like many who live in Phoenix, let alone Arizona, I am a recent transplant. Although I was not born in the Grand Canyon State, among the cacti, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and dry heat, I have quickly been able to call Phoenix my home.
It’s wonderful to see all the potential that Arizona, and Phoenix in particular, has to offer: the revitalization of historic corridors, growth in opportunity for young people, and arts and cultural events that highlight the heterogeneity of our bustling metropolis.
Most important, especially for people raising a young family like myself, there is hope that the city’s best days are yet to come.
For all the beauty and diversity I see, however, there is a pernicious side that sometimes emerges in our city. Since I was appointed by Mayor Stanton as a city commissioner on the Phoenix Human Relations Commission, I’ve seen it manifest in many forms: anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia against refugees, a certain recalcitrance to engage in meaningful dialogue across ethnic and racial groups.
Recently, I came across an announcement that there will be a white supremacist skinhead music festival in Tonopah later in the year, and it gave me pause. Any First Amendment arguments for the allowance of such a gathering, notwithstanding, how could such an abhorrent gathering take place? And considering all the beauty that this state displays to the world, how could something so ugly exist?
At times, it is not easy to reconcile living in a place where there are individuals who promote hate and bigotry over love and understanding. In the past year, there have been numerous instances of unvarnished prejudice in Phoenix that have, sadly, made headlines: bikers who protested during prayers at the Islamic Center, a pastor encouraging violence against the LGBT community, and a certain callousness toward the plight of innocent refugees attempting to flee violence and find peace in the bountiful land of America.
These examples, while certainly not indicative of the greater population of Phoenix, nor of Arizona, are still troublesome obstacles in the quest for a community enlightened by the virtues of tolerance and acceptance.
Is this the sort of community we want to leave to our children?
In the Talmud, one of the central texts in Judaism, there is a passage that underscores the determination for those who seek out other views in order to comprehend the knowledge inherent to all cultures:
“Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
I see in these words the precepts of an opening toward a grander vision for the greater Phoenix community. In our struggle against hate, let us espouse an ethos of pluralism; where there is a gap in empathy, let us find the resolve to overcome societal myopia; when the forces of baseless animosity are hurled toward our brothers and sisters, let us make our voices known that we will not stand idly to watch their dignity violated.
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Whether it’s Muslims, Jews, African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, recent immigrants, refugees of all stripes, veterans, the homeless or members of the LGBTQ community, we are all bound by our common humanity to rise above the petulant hatreds that are intended to divide us.
We are a community that is becoming increasingly committed to the dignity of all populations, sensitive to their needs and their aspirations. We want to be a beacon for others to emulate. We want to shake off the fettered image of this state as backwards. We want to rise from the cultural ashes to be a relevant and respected metropolis. Let’s start today.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of nine books on Jewish ethics and was named one of the top 50 rabbis in the country by the Daily Beast. He serves on the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash.