I met Sam Woll many years ago through the Detroit community advocacy, an expansive community that is intellectually, religiously, politically, and ethnically diverse. It is a community that has at various times welcomed and embraced me, and with which I’ve sometimes found myself at odds over specific subject matter. But it’s a strong community that has been forged of the fires that built this city, that rebuilt this city, and that will continue to build this city. Sam was vital in that effort.
I can’t say that we were friends (except on Facebook) and I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. But hearing about her death on Saturday— even evoking a visceral sense of disgust as I type this- was an utterly shocking thing. As this tragedy made its way into national news media, I immediately started getting texts from friends and colleagues, asking if I had known this person or what I thought had happened. I don’t know what happened. No one seems to know what happened. The police don’t know what happened. To that end, they may at some point. It’s likely that this investigation will actually get the attention it deserves– from a police department that has in recent years boasted a clearance rate in murder investigations of as little as 33%– but that doesn’t mean we know anything.
There is something that is perhaps more horrifying about knowing than about not knowing, something I talked over with friends Saturday evening as we attempted to process what had happened. If this was an act of anti-Jewish violence, it was horrific. If it was a completely random act of violence, it was also horrific. Just in a completely different way. Our brains are inclined to try and categorize things. This is natural. It is sometimes agonizing to not be able to precisely categorize something. It also not as though proving that this wasn’t an intentional act of violence against a Jewish person– solely because she was Jewish- makes it any less tragic. There are no correct answers for how to process grief.
Social media fora blossomed with kneejerk reactions, as they are wont to do in the age of rapid dissemination of information and disinformation. No way this is coincidental in the age of antisemitic violence, one commenter declared. Of course, it’s possible that it was completely random. These days, there seems to be no shortage of random violence. While I was in downtown Detroit for the ULI Larson program last Thursday, a passerby smacked one of the members of our group in the face for absolutely no reason. He was fine, but we were all shaken up. Violence is ubiquitous– traffic violence, gang violence, domestic violence- and we are constantly confronted with it as we struggle against the current of a society whose social fabric constantly feels like it’s fraying ever more.
Certainly, I am disgusted by even the prospect of someone being brutally murdered as an act of anti-Jewish violence, similarly to how I’ve been disgusted at acts of anti-Arab violence. I’ve noted that in this current iteration of the political crisis unfolding in Israel, I’ve seen a lot of utterly disgusting comments from both sides of the conflict in ways that I feel the need to call out, including disgusting comments made by people whose side I’m probably more sympathetic to as a matter of the question of political power. Working on research for a separate article about Israel and Palestine has led me to a lot of challenging, new ideas, and I’m going to try and continue fighting for the exchange of challenging, new ideas– that we might one day be rid of this kind of despicable violence, whether we are talking about imperial violence against Palestinians, indiscriminate terrorist attacks against Israelis, or attacks against Arabs or Jews anywhere in the world solely because of their race or religion,
I didn’t know Sam terribly well, and I don’t know that she would know me by more than my name. But I do know that she dedicated herself to solving problems, to bringing people together in a community she loved and valued, and to bringing light into a sometimes extraordinarily dark world. I also know that she valued the kind of diversity that is present in our community, and that she worked every day to value that diversity. No one deserves the horrific fate that befell her. And so all we can do is hope, pray, or in whatever way work toward the kind of reconciliation and justice that we know Sam worked on every single day.
יהי זכרה ברוך