Donald Trump's election as US president has coincided with a spike in hate crime rates. After the midterms, survivors and social justice advocates say they see reason to be optimistic, but more work must be done.
The statistics are startling. In 2017, hate crimes across the United States spiked 12.5 percent, the fourth consecutive year these rates have increased, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The US saw 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, a 57 percent increase from the year before, and the largest single-year increase on record, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
And then on Saturday, October 27, the US experienced its deadliest anti-Semitic attack to date, with the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that left 11 people dead.
"I would like to think this is an aberration," said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which on November 8 hosted the "Courage Against Hate" awards in Washington, honoring people who had survived or stood up to hate crimes and social injustice. "However it happened, again, in a backdrop of over the last year a 57 percent rise in incidents."
"We know that hate is like an infection, and like any infection it can spread, unless you intervene," Greenblatt said. "In particular, hateful rhetoric can metastasize into harassment, into vandalism, violence or worse."
Derek Black, an honoree at the award ceremony and former white supremacist who has since left his family, abandoned that ideology, and spoken out against xenophobia, said that he recognized the Pittsburgh shooting as being "whipped up by language that my family advocated, that I once advocated, and that is increasingly advocated in more subtle ways in more mainstream outlets."
After the midterm elections, though, it's possible there may be a check in place on the rise in hateful rhetoric.
The political push
On November 6, the opposition Democratic Party won back a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, effectively curtailing the total power of the majority Republican Party and the president. A president who, as Greenblatt put it, tends to "repeat the sort of rhetoric and conspiracy theories circulating among extremist circles."
After the midterms, Greenblatt said, the new Congress needs to stand up for the values enshrined in the US Constitution: dignity, equality, respect.
"We need leaders to lead across the board," he said.
"I think the president is irresponsibly and frequently quite intentionally trying to stoke racial animus," said Black. "I think that is far beyond irresponsible, I think it is a terrible political philosophy that I hope more Americans see through as time goes on."
Susan Bro was another honoree at the gala. She's the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed when a white supremacist deliberately drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters during a far-right political rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Bro has since co-founded the Heather Heyer Foundation to fund social justice causes.
"I'm relieved that there's a little more checks and balances in place," said Bro of the midterm results. But she cautioned that people should not get complacent. "We as citizens cannot stop. Just because we've elected people into office does not mean we can stop what we do. We have to hold them accountable, hold their feet to the fire."
"There's definite reason to be somewhat optimistic," said Black, "because I think in general people want to figure out ways to connect with other Americans, they want to figure out ways to de-escalate some of the levels of affective hatred that exist."
Eva Moses Kor was just a girl in Romania when she and her twin sister, Miriam, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Both of them became part of the twin experiments that the Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele conducted. After the war, the girls initially stayed in Romania before eventually emigrating to Israel, and then back to Europe. Since the mid-1980s, Kor has spoken out about her experiences and said politicians need to take responsibility for their actions.
"I don't think that they realize how their actions carry tremendous results and can be bad or good," said Kor. "They were elected to do the job of the people, rather than getting some political points. If they don’t get along, look at Auschwitz as the next place that will happen somewhere. Because if we don't get along, we are weak and we're not going to survive."
The power to forgive
Forgiveness was a central part of the stories of two of the night's honorees. Rais Bhuiyan was shot in the head by a white supremacist mere days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He survived, and his attacker, Mark Stroman, was sentenced to death. Bhuiyan started a campaign to save him. Ultimately that effort was unsuccessful, and his attacker was executed.
"The only conversation we had was only eight minutes long," said actor Bobby Naderi, interpreting Bhuiyan's story from the stage at the Kennedy Center, relaying how the two men talked just before Stroman was to be executed. "He said to me 'I love you bro,' and then there was a click and the phone went dead. What do you say to a man who just called you brother?"
Bhuiyan has gone on to work for former President Barack Obama and founded the nonprofit World Without Hate.
Kor was hesitant to discuss politics, and instead talked about her initiative to promote forgiveness and bring people with different ideologies together.
"I see things from the perspective of an Auschwitz survivor. It's a little bit different. Yes we have problems. I don't think they're problems we cannot solve," she said. "I think even Nazis can become friends."