Flames shooting into the air, ashes where churches once stood. The images are devastating, and the sense of loss we share with the congregations who have seen their spiritual homes burn to the ground is immediate and immense. Is this really what America is about in 1996 - 32 years after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered on their way to investigate the burning of a black church in Mississippi?
This is not what America is about, judging from the outpouring of mail the Anti-Defamation League has received since we announced in national ads that we were establishing a Rebuild the Churches Fund and would pass letters on to the victims of the arsons. Americans of all faiths feel a kinship with the victims and are outraged.
"I have lived near this little church with its beautiful garden for almost six years," one correspondent wrote. "Its daily chorus of bells has comforted me at times of worry and confusion, times of despair.... I would miss them terribly. This morning, however, those bells served only as a reminder of the music and rejoicing that has been silenced in dozens of churches throughout the South.... My heart is heavy with sadness. For you have lost a place you cherished, a place you thought was safe, a place of hope, a place of healing.... Most of all, I am sad for all of us - black and white - that we still have not been able to find a way to live together in peace."
Another of the many letters said: "Please be assured that you have the support of most Americans, despite the minority of hateful people who commit these very un-American acts. It's easy at a time such as this to believe that most people are against you. I do not believe this - most people who support you and have sympathy for you often feel powerless to make those feelings known.... I believe that the church you rebuild will have the added strength derived from your supporters (vocal and silent) across our country. One of our country's greatest strengths must be to speak out and be heard during times of injustice."
Speaking out is precisely what we all must be doing, because we all have a stake in fashioning an effective response to violent bigotry. Those church arsons that in fact turn out to have been racially motivated are hate crimes, which often intimidate entire communities, leaving them feeling isolated, vulnerable, and unprotected by the law.
Americans are a religious people, and vandalism or arson at a house of worship desecrates a place that is designed to provide a link between men and women and their most spiritual aspirations. These crimes warrant the priority attention they are now getting, and we should all join in prompt and vigorous enforcement of the laws and the enactment of new laws when necessary. More immediately, we should help with the rebuilding.
As Jews, we especially know how hurtful and personal the destruction of a house of worship is. Though it happened nearly six decades ago, the lessons of "Kristallnacht" are quite relevant today. On the nights of Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, fires were ignited across Germany in Nazi-directed "spontaneous" demonstrations, and in one "Night of Broken Glass," 191 synagogues were burned. This tragic night foreshadowed the Holocaust.
Today's arsons also have historical context, conjuring up memories of Night Riders, cross burnings, and Ku Klux Klan terror.
More than wood, brick, and mortar are being damaged; a vision of America is being damaged as well. Fortunately, it is apparent that Americans of goodwill, given the opportunity, are ready to decry the violence, support the victims, and hold firm the ideals upon which this nation was founded.
*Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the New-York based Anti-Defamation League.