In just five weeks last year, the Jewish community was rocked by two violent outbursts: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the anti-Semitic rampage of a Jewish-owned clothing store in New York City's Harlem.
Both incidents, desperate acts by vengeful men, should make our blood run cold. They also should underscore the notion that irresponsible rhetoric can incite tragic action.
As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us especially remember that point. Indeed, King understood all too well that words can easily lead to peaceful as well as bloody ends.
Although hotheads were no scarcer in his era than today, King's emphasis on civil disobedience rather than vigilante tactics was a steel lid on a seething cauldron of passion — both black and white.
His words were the outpouring of a mature, sensitive individual who used rhetoric thoughtfully and responsibly to advance his cause.
Of course, individuals can just as easily use their mouths to provoke the violence that King sought to prevent.
As we have seen with Rabin's assassination, our community is no less immune to the seductive powers of hateful speech than any other group whose leaders espouse vicious discord.
The lesson here is straightforward: Whether stamping the imprimatur of Jewish law on political views or passing off a personal agenda as communal activism, each one of us who tolerates the savaging of a human being is complicit in that savagery. Malevolence is not a spectator sport.
As Jews we tend to hold African Americans to a similar standard by comparing their actions to the examples set by King.
In our eyes, hatemongers such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan or the so-called black leaders that allegedly instigated the bloodbath in Harlem — which left eight dead, including the gunman — miss the mark by a long shot.
Their brand of extremism and hate repudiates any strides they have made in the name of civil rights.
So why then, do we not apply this same standard to ourselves?
Extremism among Jews is not new, and we have certainly embraced our own false prophets. In-vectives and epithets, whether hurled at individuals or across community lines, are anathema to our collective psyche.
Jewish tradition, social mores and an abiding respect for the dignity of others serve to inhibit reckless emotion.
Thus, when vicious rhetoric begins to explode around us like Roman candles, it is our obligation as Jews to tone down the fireworks. We must soften the voices of dissent and disavow those who are intolerant toward others.
For even though our tradition fosters debate, it eschews demagoguery, and those in our community who spew it must be isolated.
If we Jews are to learn anything from misguided messianism, it must be that we need to cultivate a new sensitivity to our own extremism. It is a lesson that King, a student of the Bible, took to heart early on.
We cannot tolerate the kind of depravity that preceded Rabin's death, no matter how firmly we may have opposed his policies or perspective.
We can never stoop to branding any Jew a "traitor" or a "Nazi."
We cannot abide the kind of escalating vitriol that leads to a call for bloodshed.
Such vindictiveness puts us in league with the demagogues who inflamed Harlem crowds to "get the Jew" and "make him suffer."
Ideologically or sociologically, murder is murder.
Words can hurt and even kill. Those who employ them as weapons must be held accountable for whatever action — or reaction — they engender.
Any leader who resorts to hate as a vehicle of persuasion must be made to surrender his or her stewardship, to abdicate his or her position.
And those who would respond to such stridencies, whether directly or indirectly, must be shown that they are outside the bounds of communal acceptability.
If we now look to the African American community and wonder, "Where are the moderate leaders?" — the voices of reason and moderation, can we do no less within the House of Israel?
King's approach, still embraced by mainstream black America as the road map to a just and equal society, is rooted in our own Jewish value system.
As we celebrate his birth, let us look no further than our own tradition to appreciate King's message of moderation. And let us take his views to heart as we seek to heal wounds inflicted from within and without.