When everything public is seen through a partisan lens, tragedies like the Surfside disaster still bring communities together and remind us about what is most important.
By Jonathan S. Tobin
It has become a trope of American culture that the idea of sending “thoughts and prayers” in response to a catastrophic event has become a term of derision. This is mostly related to the vain belief that the enactment of various gun control laws will prevent the mass shootings that have become so common in the United States. Though those measures would invariably not prevent such incidents from happening, the problem goes deeper than that one divisive issue.
At a time when politics has replaced the role that religion once played in the lives of most Americans, the idea that prayers or charitable endeavors to aid the sufferers are more important or even a substitute for some sort of political action is often dismissed as absurd or irrelevant. In a society which seems to value the perception of safety over freedom — as we’ve seen so clearly during the past year during which the coronavirus pandemic dominated our lives — tragedies inevitably become politicized in one manner or another. Even a deadly disease quickly became a political football last year and remains so even now, as its grip on the planet seems to be receding.
It is now almost universally believed that everything bad that happens must be someone’s fault and that anything other than assigning blame to the allegedly guilty parties is either a waste of time or obfuscation of the truth. That has meant that “thoughts and prayers” messages have become the focus of scorn rather than normative behavior.
And yet even in as thoroughly politicized culture as ours, there are still tragedies that can or at least should transcend our differences. The collapse of Champlain Towers South, a condominium in a heavily Jewish area of Surfside, Fla. is one such tragedy.
As of Monday morning, the bodies of only 10 victims had been identified and more than 150 residents — many of them elderly as well as many Jews — are still listed as missing. Federal, state and local rescue squads are working tirelessly despite the obvious dangers of such work in a collapsed structure and they’ve been joined by foreign emergency workers including a contingent from the Israel Defense Forces, which, sadly, has all too much experience in dealing with such problems. But with every passing day since the disaster occurred early Thursday morning last week, hope for the rescue of more survivors is fading.
After the rescue operations have ceased and the excavation of the ruins is completed, we may be in possession of enough facts to more accurately assess the cause of the collapse. At that point, it’s likely that some individuals or a company or agency will be blamed for a flawed architectural design or poor construction or some other instance of neglect and lack of foresight even if the fatal mistake occurred more than 40 years ago when the condo tower first went up.
But until then, the usual instincts of American culture to seek a scapegoat for disaster should be on hold. Which is to say that what those who are in pain need right now is our thoughts, prayers and charitable efforts, not finger pointing or politics.
To its credit, the south Florida Jewish community — with the help of others around the country — seems to have responded with the compassion and alacrity that is needed.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Miami and its various partner organizations are providing financial assistance to those in need, crisis counseling and social services to those affected. Rabbis are stepping forward to help families deal with both the uncertainty and grief as hope ebbs for those lost to emerge from the rubble. Synagogues are serving as collection points for supplies needed by those who have been rendered homeless. Others are stepping up to raise the funds to help the survivors and their families as well as those who are not so lucky to deal with a catastrophe. And kosher restaurants are delivering food to those who have been relocated as well as emergency workers.
The size and the scale of the tragedy ensure that it has remained a leading news item for days on end. But the question to be asked now is whether what may be regarded as a mere “human interest” story will hold the attention of the public for long in the absence of a way to exploit the tragedy for political purposes. If not, what does that say about how our society operates in 2021?
That should remind us of something that is often lost as we move from one news cycle generated by outrage or partisan talking points to another. Many of us have come to view the world almost solely through the prism of blue or red state sensibilities and to treat more or less everything that happens as proof of the wisdom of our preconceived notions and prejudices and the falsity of those upheld by our political opponents. But there are some things that are more important than what the cable news television talking heads are screaming about on a daily basis.
As much as political discourse is necessary for dealing with so many of the problems that beset us, our humanity and decency must rest in our ability to understand that in the face of tragedy, what we need most is to forget politics and just pitch in and help. Activism that seeks to use the concepts of social justice to achieve certain ends can be appropriate in certain instances, but all too often those who speak of Tikun Olam or “repairing the world” as the essence of Judaism are just putting a Jewish gloss on political agendas. But comforting the bereaved, healing the injured and providing sustenance for those in need as well as those involved in extraordinary rescue and recovery efforts is the best expression of Judaism. Prayer, tzedakah (acts of justice) and gemilut hasidim (acts of loving kindness) are always more valuable than oratory or advocacy meant to grind a political axe.
If the Surfside disaster teaches us anything, it is to remember that before instinctively deciding whether some instance of suffering can be twisted for partisan purposes the next time tragedy strikes.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of Jewish News Syndicate (JNS).