By Murray Lee and Sam Jefferies, board members of the American Jewish Committee-Seattle region
A little more than a month ago, the COVID-19 crisis was seen as an East Asia problem. Two weeks ago, here in the United States, it was viewed as a Seattle-centric issue. Yet as the public health crisis unfolds at a dizzying pace, we are reminded constantly that viruses don’t recognize borders. This pandemic, and the economic recession accompanying it, will touch every country and every community. Our response should be guided by shared humanity and compassion, sound science, and medical expertise. And we must reject fear and xenophobia unequivocally, wherever we see it.
For some of our friends and neighbors, this emerging situation has taken on a fresh urgency. Anti-Asian violence and prejudice has spiked around the spread of the virus, much of it directed against the Chinese American community. In the Seattle area, Asian Americans have been verbally assaulted at Costco, in schools, and elsewhere. Orders from Chinese restaurants have fallen precipitously, even as the Seattle community has stepped up to support small businesses. This is simply unacceptable. While government bodies, including the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, have stated officially that “the risk of COVID-19 is not at all connected to race, ethnicity, or nationality,” it is up to each of us, as individuals and as community members, to live our values and speak out in the face of prejudice.
The Jewish community is no stranger to prejudice and scapegoating, and our organization, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), was proud to join 71 other Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, on a Letter of Support to Our Friends in the Chinese American and Chinese Communities last month. For more than three decades, AJC has maintained its Asia Pacific Institute to foster stronger relations between the American Jewish community, Israel, and countries such as China, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea, sponsoring cultural exchanges and advocacy missions across the Pacific Ocean.
In the past, AJC has partnered with Chinese American and other Asian American groups to advocate for the passage of Senate and House resolutions expressing regret for congressional approval of the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Laws dating back to 1879 and 1904. We have condemned racist accusations of dual loyalty directed against Chinese Americans, accusations which are frequently leveled against the Jewish community, as well.
Yet at this critical time, we recognize that old relationships and actions are not enough. We stand firmly committed to supporting our neighbors in this time of need, and to pairing actions with our words wherever necessary. We also remain committed to listening, and to seeking a better understanding of the challenges faced by our Asian American neighbors. Our support will be neither conditional nor prescriptive.
The AJC was formed after the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, when anti-Semitic violence led to the deaths of 49 Jews. Immediately, the Chinese community reached out to support the Jewish people in their time of need.
As noted by Winston Lee, president of the United Chinese Americans of Washington in a recent exchange with AJC Seattle, “In this difficult time, we must come together to face the challenges, and fight for our common destiny and common humanity.” If we do so, we will emerge stronger than ever, united against the forces of prejudice and hate which seek to divide us.