See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.
— Deuteronomy 30:15
What is it with Birmingham and bombs?
There’s a fair number of people who are going to be mad at me just for asking that question. They see it as an unhealthy obsession with the past and an unwelcome counterweight to the currently popular narrative of Birmingham as a place where there is no problem that cannot be solved by attracting more chain restaurant and hotel franchises, devoting more public resources to areas that do not benefit the public directly, and building more luxury apartments, condominiums, and lofts than there are people who can possibly afford to pay for them.
What good is history anyway? Birmingham needs to be focused on the future, not the past. All history has ever done is hold Birmingham back.
Or, as our Commander-in-Chief might say (and probably has), History is for losers.
Nevertheless, the connection between Birmingham and bombs is a stubborn one. Most local residents know — whether they like it or not — at least the key points about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. Prominent black people had their houses or places of business bombed. Churches were bombed, most prominently the one at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.
Yes. That was terrible. But that was a long time ago. Birmingham is better now.
Which is true, in many ways. As it was in 1998, when a bomb planted at a Southside women’s clinic killed a Birmingham police officer and severely injured a nurse who worked there, forever altering her life.
Yes. That was terrible, too. But Birmingham is better now.
Which is true, in many ways. And yet, here we are, in the year 2017, dealing yet again with the twin specters of intolerance and hatred. Here we are, yet again, talking about bombs in Birmingham.
On Monday, February 27 — a day ago, as I write this — the Birmingham Levite Jewish Community Center, on Montclair Road, received a bomb threat. It was the second such threat to the LJCC in a week, and the third since mid-January.
All three threats came during normal weekday operating hours, forcing the evacuation of all members, guests, and staff of the community center. Also evacuated were the children, teachers and other staff members at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, and the offices of both the Birmingham Jewish Foundation and the Birmingham Jewish Federation, all of which are housed on the LJCC property.
Police found no explosives or other destructive devices in connection with any of the three threats against the LJCC. On all three occasions — the most recent of which forced evacuees of all ages out into a chilly drizzle — the community center resumed normal operations when the “all clear” was given.
To be clear, Birmingham is not the only place where Jewish facilities have been threatened in recent weeks. The LJCC was one of at least 30 facilities around the country that received threats around the time of the first incident, on January 18. Including the LJCC, a total of 11 Jewish community centers were threatened on February 20. Likewise in this week’s incident, in which centers in 11 states received threats.
All of this comes at a time when racial, ethnic, religious, and societal tensions are spiking in the wake of the ascension of Donald Trump to the Presidency — a time when minority populations throughout the country are feeling newly vulnerable, and much of the majority population is refusing even to consider the fine-print subtext of the declaration, “Make America Great Again.” Though it is demonstrably true, I make that statement with a degree of caution that is born of the realization that merely making it will cause some to cease listening.
I have been seeking perspective on this point — with widely varying degrees of seeming progress and unmitigated regression — since somewhere around 10 o’clock on the evening of Election Day last November. That search is not made easier by the intrusion of incidents such as the acts of intolerance that are taking place right here in our own community.
Frankly, I’m not sure what it says about the current state of affairs — or, for that matter, about my own personal state — that it took three bomb threats at the LJCC for me to seek perspective from a highly respected source. That would be Rabbi Jonathan Miller, who has led Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El for more than 25 years, and whom I personally have found to be a thoughtful and engaged citizen of our community.
I spoke to Rabbi Miller on Tuesday the 28th, a day after the latest threat at the LJCC. As expected, he offered some highly pertinent comments, in a conversation excerpted below:
First, can you put the incidents at the Birmingham LJCC and at other Jewish facilities around the country into some historical context?
Miller: Well, when you say “historical context,” we’re talking about 5,000 years…
[Laughs] Very true, and fair enough. Let’s narrow it down to more recent history, especially as it relates to our local community.
Miller: Start with “Bombingham,” which is how this community was known during the Civil Rights Movement, when there was such hatred and racial turmoil here. In Birmingham and elsewhere, bombs have been used not just to inflict damage, but also to intimidate people, to cause terror.
And to have this current surge in threats against Jewish facilities, or ones primarily associated with the Jewish population: What does that say about where we are in our society at this moment?
Miller: It seems that we have taken a giant step backward. No one has been physically hurt [in the recent wave of bomb threats], but we are hurting. In the Jewish community, there is a great deal of frustration and, in some cases, disillusionment. This is a really tough time.
Clearly, there was, and is, division among Jews — just as there is in Birmingham and Alabama as a whole, and in the nation at large — relative to whom they supported in the Presidential election, and their opinions of President Trump’s performance thus far, and where he may be taking the nation…
Miller: I want to say this: This is not a political problem — this is a cultural problem. That there are political divisions in this country is a given. We live in a democracy, where we’re free to have opinions about our politics and government. So we’ve always been divided politically.
The thing is, we have to be accepting of our political opponents. We have to understand that differences of opinion — and the ability to tolerate opinions that differ from our own — play a part in the advancement of society. That’s the cultural problem, and it occurs when there is a lack of tolerance and respect for people who are perceived or portrayed as being different.
As it relates specifically to the bomb threats here in Birmingham, what is your sense of the local reaction to this — among your congregation and local Jews in general, and in the community as a whole?
There is a sense of discomfort that, very frankly, I don’t think any of us ever expected to see in our lifetime. For all of us — but, I think, among young people in particular — all of this is profoundly disconcerting. I’m not sure we know quite what to make of it yet.
And it’s not just what we are seeing here, but this new wave of active, virulent, violent anti-Semitism that seems to be reflective of a segment of thought that wants to threaten and terrorize certain segments of the community. I thought that was over.
As you suggest, we’re not talking only about the Jewish population, but other religious and ethnic and minority groups as well.
Miller: Obviously, one reason that things are so disconcerting for us as Jews is because we are on the front line of attack right now. But, of course, it’s not only Jews. Black people, Muslims, gays and lesbians, immigrants — there are large segments of people who have been caught up in these acts of intolerance, and they’re the people who have always been on the front lines in times of social disorientation. We all need to realize that when things like [the LJCC bomb threats and other hate-related acts] happen, though they may be specific to one group or another, they affect everyone in the community.
We are in a very difficult place as a society. This has happened throughout history, and it’s happening now. We’re at a point where we have to ask ourselves this very basic question, which is, Can we live in community? Can people of different races and faiths and nationalities and personal beliefs live together in peace and harmony, with some shared sense of purpose?
What if the answer is, “No”? What if we can’t live together?
Miller: If we can’t live with each other, then our country is going to fray apart at the seams. If we can’t find ways to work together for the betterment of all — especially in these challenging times — that is not a good harbinger for the future here in America.
What is your feeling about that? Do you have hope? If so, then what do you say to others about why they should feel hopeful?
I always have hope, because I’m a person of faith. But I am not sanguine, either. I don’t know what is going to happen.
We’ve talked about history. Think about the people who lived during the American Revolution, or the Civil War. Think about my Jewish people, during the Holocaust. At all of those times, there were points where things appeared absolutely hopeless, that the outcome was going to be something horrible. And yet, there was hope. Hope was not allowed to die.
In trying times, we have a choice. The choice is whether to live with hope, or to live in hopelessness.
I choose hope.