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Honest Analysis of a Troubling Subject

by  David A. Lehrer

September 16, 2009 | 1:18 pm

I have an op ed in today’s Los Angeles Times on the subject of hyperbole in the civil rights arena. It focuses on the “sky is falling” rhetoric that accompanied the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington last June.  It is a subject that I am all too familiar with, having worked in civil rights for over three decades.

I have long believed that honesty and accuracy in representing the dynamics of inter-group relations is the best policy. Exaggerating the threats that exist ultimately does no one any good and, in fact, is dangerously counter-productive.

Over a decade ago, in August, 1999, when Buford Furrow invaded the North Valley Jewish Community Center and many were sure that militias and other extremists were on the rise, I wrote in the Times that:

The message to be drawn from Furrow’s rampage is not that extremists are about to overtake America, or that Jewish and other minority institutions ought to become fortresses, or that hate crimes are on the rise, or that anti-Semitism is increasing. The message is these attacks are acts of violent desperation on the part of those who are not succeeding in swaying the world to their views. What we must never do is allow them to dictate how we run our lives and view the world
The threat posed by these groups is one of isolated violence, not of a meaningful political movement.
Exaggerated fear and predictions of an America overcome by hate are the responses that the Furrows of the world hope to elicit. We must not offer them that victory. 

As today’s op/ed makes clear, my views have only been reinforced by developments and trends over the past 10 years,

For example, the Pew Center’s recent study of inter-religious understanding in America found that “certain historical religious divisions and tensions have largely been put aside. Catholics and Jews, for example, once the objects of wide-spread and often institutionalized discrimination, are now viewed favorably by a sizeable majority of Americans….these findings strongly suggest that the United States has the capacity to overcome historical divisions and prejudices.

……. the sociopathy of a relative few is no measure of where we are as a society in terms of inter-group relations; it is an unfortunate reality with which we must deal.

The danger of the knee-jerk, “sky is falling” reactions of Wiesenthal and ADL is that they undeservedly alarm an awful lot of folks, who are then afraid of the world around them. And when groups make such specious assertions, they undermine the very credibility they need to be effective. If there were ever to be a new wave of hatred, real “cancers” and “waves” of bigotry, they would be less likely to be believed.

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