To: The Campus Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: January 24, 2022
As I talk to other university presidents around the country about the events in Colleyville, Texas and their effect on our campus communities, a primary theme that emerges is the need to teach history and establish context. The old adage proclaims that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Especially for our students who may not have a visceral feel for the Jewish diaspora of the 19th and 20th centuries, from pogroms to the Holocaust, history provides at least a partial means to come to grips with the trauma of hostages held in a house of worship on the Sabbath day, a travesty emblematic of the rapid rise in violent anti-Semitic attacks around the world.
As scientists and engineers, seminal achievements resonate because they build on rich traditions of discovery. We appreciate that the direct detection of gravitational waves was a breakthrough because we know of Einstein's predictions from general relativity a century ago and the half-century quest to build the most sensitive detectors ever invented. We are awed by the creation of coronavirus vaccines in record time with prodigious life-saving capabilities because we know of the many years of fundamental messenger-RNA research that made them possible. Yet, as much as we stress the benefits of learning in a diverse community, where we value others for their individual life stories, experiences, and perspectives, I fear that we do not understand sufficiently deeply the attention that must be paid to resist the societal inclination to devalue the other, to stereotype human beings who do not share our personal background or experience. We see this in Colleyville, we saw this in Charlottesville and Minneapolis, and we will see it again.
Learning the lessons of history and being able to contextualize disturbing events in terms of past renditions and attempted interventions will not alone make us feel safe. But it provides a starting point for assimilating facts and parsing experience. It creates the conditions for connecting to broader community. As members of the Caltech community, a community dedicated to the creation of knowledge and to the education of the next generation of leaders, we have a special responsibility to engage with one another, to learn from one another, and to support one another.
We also have a special responsibility to act. The Torah portion at that Sabbath service on Saturday, January 15, 2022 was from the Book of Exodus, describing the crossing of the Red Sea as the Israelites fled from Egyptian slavery. Three millennia later, Jews in Colleyville and across the United States relived the actions taken to seek freedom. At the same time, we celebrated the January 15 birthday of the modern-day freedom fighter, Martin Luther King, Jr. We are reminded that history is not passive, but requires our active participation if we wish to live our values and realize our aspirations.
The terror in Colleyville cuts very close to the bone with regard to my own family history. I am disappointed, but not surprised, to see virulent anti-Semitism rear its ugly head, even in the United States. It is my profound hope that the Caltech community can draw strength from the lessons of the past to counter the current trends of polarization and intolerance, and to act together to create the conditions where every member of our community can thrive.