Arson fires: A heated wake-up call

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The arson fires that have swept at least 37 Southern black churches in the last year and a half are a heated wake-up call.

Racism in this country is alive and festering, and those who advance it will stop at nothing to voice their vitriol. The fires are not only a black, Christian or Southern issue. Such violent, hateful assaults on the fundamental American right to worship should wrench the hearts of Americans of every race, religion and geographical region.

That includes Jews.

Freedom to worship without the ability to pray in safety is meaningless. As Americans, we must condemn the fires as assaults on equal rights, and as affronts to democracy.

National and Bay Area Jewish organizations have set up funds to help rebuild the churches, and we encourage financial support of those funds. We also encourage support for pending legislation that would make it easier for federal law enforcement officials to prosecute arsonists. Congress is currently considering such legislation — the Church Arson Prevention Act.

As Jews, we have historically been victimized by the same violent racism now being directed against Southern blacks. On Kristallnacht, the 1939 night of broken glass, Jewish property in Germany was destroyed and synagogues desecrated.

But while a history of anti-Semitism certainly heightens our empathy for victims of the Southern fires, some Jewish leaders have framed the need for a Jewish response almost solely in the context of anti-Semitism.

"It is very, very important that the Jewish community not be so arrogant and naive as to think that this could not happen to a synagogue," one national Jewish leader said following the fires.

We believe fanning the flames of fear in order to elicit Jewish sympathy for a violation of another group is misguided and, hopefully, unnecessary. We'd like to believe that most Jews can see beyond the prism of their own experiences to comprehend the terror plaguing others.

It's true that the fires point to a level of intolerance in this country that could easily extend to Jews. But that intolerance could easily strike other groups, as well — gays and lesbians and immigrants, to name a few.

In the end, the fires spark the issue of fundamental human rights. It is in this spirit that we should act.