In a year where white nationalists and racists attempted to inject bigotry into the public square and when a divisive election season ended with unconscionable acts of hatred, there was plenty of reason for despair in 2016.
Yet, there were also glimmers of hope: A community brought together in the aftershock of a mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Florida; a Texas campus drowning out the hateful views of an unwanted visiting white supremacist; the waves of love and support that surprised and overwhelmed the owners of a Middle Eastern bakery after their business was the target of a hate crime.
There were moments of inspiration: The more than 70 world leaders who came together to mourn Israeli peacemaker and Prime Minister Shimon Peres; the first-ever refugee team competing in the Olympics; and the outpouring of support from Arab nations in battling the wildfires in Israel.
These events and others topped the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s annual Top 10 List of Most Inspirational Moments of 2016.
“In the aftermath of hate, communities came together time and again to send a message of ‘not in our town,’” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “We were inspired and truly moved by these moments of warmth, unity, and human dignity. We were reminded that even simple gestures by one person can make a difference; that one person’s deeds have the power to change the entire world.”
Here’s the list as selected and voted on by ADL professionals.
Texas A & M Community Against Hate
When Texas A&M students and administrators learned that white nationalist Richard Spencer would speak on their campus, they knew they had a problem. Spencer had just made news for a speech he gave in Washington, D.C., during which he and his followers made a Nazi salute and he exclaimed, “Let’s party like it’s 1933!” Spencer’s speech was held in A&M’s Memorial Student Center in a room rented by a neo-Nazi sponsor. Administrators did not invite Spencer and rejected his ideology. A&M President Michael Young said, “Private citizens have a right to free speech on and off this campus.” However, he expressed outrage, and a desire to draw attention away from Spencer. He and student-government leaders put together a rally dubbed “Aggies United.” The rally gave those who wanted to counter Spencer’s hateful message an opportunity to promote respect, dignity and inclusion, and that Texas A&M does not sanction hatred or racism.
The funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, held Sept. 30, brought more than 70 world leaders to Jerusalem, including Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, both of whom eulogized Peres as an Israeli statesman and peacemaker, as well as European leaders and representatives from neighboring Arab countries. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also attended and briefly spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The gathering was a reminder that, even in death, Peres could still accomplish his life’s mission of building bridges and peacemaking.
After Attack at LBGT Nightclub
In the aftermath of the attack at the PULSE nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were murdered and dozens injured, countless vigils and demonstrations of support for the victims, their families, and the LGBT community took place in Florida. A communal pain was felt, and government, faith-based, ethnic, religious, and advocacy leaders and organizations proclaimed that being anti-gay is anti-all of us. Additional vigils took place across the country.
Restaurant Donates Proceeds
Unbeknownst to the management of Maggiano’s Little Italy, a popular Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., members of a white nationalist group had booked their eatery on the eve of a national convention of “alt-right” racists. The National Policy Institute booked the reservation using a different name, according to the restaurant; and the dinner featured members tweeting photos of people making the Nazi salute. But the story didn’t end there: Maggiano’s apologized for hosting the group and donated all of the proceeds from the restaurant sales that night to the Anti-Defamation League.
In Israel, Arabs and Jews Battle Wildfires
After brush fires believed to have been intentionally set by terrorists broke out in northern Israel, countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Russia, as well as the Palestinian Authority, offered aid and assistance. In Haifa, where Israeli Arabs and Jews live side-by-side in harmony, Israeli Arabs offered housing and other aid to Israeli Jews. And two Israeli Arab timber suppliers offered to donate wood to a synagogue in Haifa that was severely damaged in the brush fires. Walid Abu-Ahmed and Ziad Yunis supplied the wood and labor free of charge to the synagogue, saying that their faith taught forgiveness. “We are all people,” he said. I call on all citizens —Arabs and Jews everywhere —to continue to live in coexistence. We all want to live happy lives.”
Georgia Governor Vetoes Religious Exemptions Bill
In response to concerns that a bill called the “Free Exercise Protection Act” would broadly enable discrimination in Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in April vetoed House Bill 757. The measure, promoted by religious conservatives, would have empowered businesses, individuals, and religious organizations to discriminate based on their religious beliefs, including against the LGBT community and in some instances minority religions. The governor made clear that the bill did not reflect Georgia’s image as a state that fosters unity and love. “Our people work side-by-side without regards to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to,” he said at a press conference.
Community Embraces Phoenix Bakery
After the windows of a Phoenix business were twice broken in an apparent hate crime, word spread throughout the community and on social media. Posts about the broken window flooded Facebook, and an online fund-raising campaign was launched, raising more than $12,000. People started picking the Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli for breakfast and lunch. A local glass company showed up with new panes, replacing the damaged windows for free. “I’m speechless. People are full of love,” the owner, Isam Saed, told local media.
Refugee Team Competes At Olympics
In March, the International Olympic Committee came up with a plan to create a $2 million training fund and shortlisting refugee outlets for competition at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The final team for Rio included 10 athletes competing in three sports. Half were refugees from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one from Ethiopia. The refugees “have no home, no team no flag and no national anthem,” said Committee President Thomas Bach in announcing the athletes. “We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. The team of swimmers, judokas and runners competed under the flag of the IOC.
Disqualified for wearing hijab, Muslim Girl Shares Prize
In November, a 16-year-old devout Muslim girl, Amaiya Zafar, was disqualified from a boxing match in Florida because her hijab and shirt and leggings were deemed a violation of uniform regulations set by the International Boxing Association. After officials called off the fight, and her opponent, Aliyah Charbonier, was declared the winner, that result didn’t sit quite right with Charbonier. She approached Zafar and put the belt in her lap and said, “This is yours. They disqualified you. You’re the true winner. This is unfair.” The girls started hugging, and the owner of the event made sure that both girls were presented with prize belts.
New England Teens React
When two Jewish students at Marblehead High School noticed a Snapchat image of pennies arranged in the shape of a swastika posted by a fellow student, they could have ignored it or simply shrugged it off as a sick prank. Instead, they took action. Sophomores Averi Kaplowitch and Olivia Schauer brought the incident to the attention of their parents, school administrators, the local police department and to ADL. Once the incident was dealt with, the teens played a role in an effort to bring anti-bias training back to the school. The students were initially concerned that they would face retaliation from other students But instead, many students told them their actions had set an example.