Today’s dreadful attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue reminds us once again of just how fragile life is, and how easily it can be robbed by those who don’t recognize how precious it is. More to the point it reminds us of an ancient sickness that still haunts us today — the sickness of anti-Semitism. I’ve written about this several times over the years, including in this column originally published in the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake on Aug. 13, 2006. It is more personal than many of my columns, but it points out that we must all take responsibility when our fellow human beings kill in the name of religion.
Easy labels and hard answers
Someone called the office the other day to ask if I was Jewish.
Presumably the call came in response to my column the week before in which I had argued that Israel, like any other country, has the right — indeed the moral imperative — to defend itself from attack.
But it wasn’t the conflict between Jews and Arabs that I thought of when I heard about this call, but the conflict between Jews and Christians.
It has always seemed odd to me that some Christians cannot accept the religion that birthed them with gratitude and acceptance, but rather view the tradition that gave us not only Jesus, but also Abraham, Moses, Solomon and St. Paul as somehow a mistake of history that should be stamped out.
What’s that all about?
Well, I suppose — to keep it simple — it is all about labels.
It is about us and them. If we are right, then they are wrong, and if they are wrong they should admit it, and if they won’t admit it we should beat them up until they do.
Oh wait, that sounds just like schoolboys, doesn’t it?
But when you come right down to it, isn’t world politics just a great big version of the schoolyard, with its cliques and gangs and loners and peacekeepers and diplomats and fighters?
And maybe that’s why this recent phone call reminded me of an incident that occurred when I was in seventh-grade back in James A. Farley Junior High School in Stony Point, N.Y.
It happened in the middle of one of those games like dodge ball that are devised by gym teachers to ensure that bigger kids get to pound littler kids without hurting them too much. Suffice it to say, I was one of those little kids, so my main goal in P.E. was to stay out of the way. I can’t remember the circumstances of this particular day too well except that we were in the gym, with all those usual gym noises of kids grunting and sneakers squeaking and coaches yelling and balls bouncing and whistles whistling.
Somewhere in the middle of all that chaos, I did what I invariably did when playing in a sports contest of any kind — I screwed up. If it was baseball, I would drop the pop-up fly. If it was football I would miss the tackle. If it was shirts versus skins, I was the kid no one wanted.
But someone always wound up with me on their side, and thus had a grudge against me, thanks to the rule that “everyone must participate” no matter how much that puts them at risk of humiliation, embarrassment or just plain misery.
Like I say, I don’t remember what I did that particular day, but it caught the attention of two of the “big kids” on my team and they came over to have a word with me, sort of gentlemen to gentleman. They tried to convince me I was a sorry excuse for a human being and I tried to convince them they had the wrong guy. It was that kind of schoolboy talk.
But then it came to the inevitable question — “Are you Jewish?” — and you have to imagine this said with a sneer and a snarl, as an accusation, not as an inquiry.
I suppose I should tell you I was blessed with a rather large nose at birth, and that it was enhanced at the age of 7 when Bobbie Klementowski hit me square between the eyes with a half-full beer can from about 20 paces while we were inspecting a construction site near his house. I should tell you also that I have a dark and swarthy complexion common to those whose ancestry is somewhere in the Mediterranean region. So it was not the first time I had heard the question.
Of course, as regular readers of this column know, I am not Jewish, but rather full-blooded Italian, born Catholic, raised Methodist, and smart enough to know that there was nothing Christian about either intimidation or bigotry. So I could have just said, “No,” and been done with the whole thing. You see, if I wasn’t Jewish, we really didn’t have anything to argue about, did we? I mean, there was no disagreement about whether I was any good at sports. Everyone knew I wasn’t.
Instead, it was that underlying problem, that “Jewish problem” as Hitler called it, which was causing all the trouble. These kids didn’t really care that I couldn’t throw a dodge ball any better than a softball; they just didn’t like me because they thought I was Jewish.
In the past, I had probably always just told the bullies, “No, I’m not Jewish,” and moved the argument back to my weak arm or my not having any right to live because they owned the block.
But this time was different.
Somehow I realized it was time to stand up to the bullies, time to stand up for what I believed in, what I had been taught. No sense telling them the story of the woman at the well when Jesus brought a Samaritan woman to salvation even though the Jews hated the Samaritans. No sense telling them what Jesus told her: “Salvation is of the Jews.” No sense telling them about the Roman centurion who recognized the authority of the Jewish messiah and humbly implored him for help in saving the life of his servant. No sense in telling them about the words of Paul in Galatians when he said: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
They certainly wouldn’t understand those words, and at the age of 13, I probably didn’t either, but instinctively I knew it would not be right to deny that I was Jewish. It would make it seem that these two bullies were somehow justified, that there was indeed something wrong with being Jewish.
So God put the right words in my mouth, and I braced myself to be decked:
“What if I am Jewish!” I yelled at the bigger, tougher of the two kids. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Damn Jew,” was all he could say, as he towered over me and gave me a weak shove.
“What are you going to do about it?” I yelled again, and it turned out he wasn’t going to do anything about it. What could he do about it? I didn’t even have to remind him that Jesus was a Jew. He and his friend just evaporated, leaving me in the middle of the gymnasium as mad as I have ever been, and yet somehow calm as well. Calm with the knowledge that I had not turned my back on the six million dead Jews in Europe, that I had stood my ground against evil for one brief moment, and that anyone anywhere could make a difference if he did what was right.
But people still ask the same question, people still focus on how we are all different instead of how we are all the same, and the schoolyard bullies grow up to run the world and try to push around anyone foolish enough to stand still and take it.
And when every Jewish boy and girl in the world hears that question when they are growing up, spoken as an insult, “Are you Jewish?” don’t be surprised when they answer proudly: “What are you going to do about it?”
The question for the rest of us is a harder one: What are we going to do about ourselves?