I had a great conversation this week with some sharp and articulate moms. It was not the first time I’d had this particular conversation, and not the first time I’d seen other parents raise their eyebrows and look doubtful, as I told them that anti-semitism was alive and well, right here in our practically perfect little town. It is practically perfect, as I’ve noted in numerous posts (here, here, and here, from the archives). However, you will never hear me interviewed on the news saying: “things like that (Insert various heinous things) don’t happen here…” Never. Things happen, everywhere. Even here.
So as we we discussed the recent arrest of two students, 14 and 15 year old, on charges of vandalism and some other charge that equaled “hate crime,” at one of the newest and shiniest elementary schools in town (a school that one of the alleged vandals attended), and the desecration of the new synagogue, which is still under construction, conversation landed on the fact that these kids carved or painted swastikas at the school and all over the synagogue. The other mothers were shocked, and someone stated that these kids “must have gotten that at home.” Another adult I was talking to, earlier in the week, had gone so far as to say “their parents should be prosecuted as well!” Um, frankly, I don’t think so. While it is possible that these kids live in homes where they are exposed to prejudice and hate, I don’t assume that to be true. I’ve learned over many years of parenting Jewish children, that anti-semitism, racism, big bold hate rhetoric, is alive and well… with kids who we all see as “very nice.” These things don’t just come from kids who are in any particular kind of home, or come from any specific background. And more importantly, I’ve learned that often their parents have no idea that their kids talk or act this way.
I have no idea who these particular kids are, who committed these acts. I don’t know their families, and don’t presume to know what kind of homes they come from. It’s sad that they are so young, and acting out in such destructive and mean ways, but beyond that, I know very little about where that comes from. My three children have all had swastikas drawn on their binders, and even carved on their desk (once). They have all been called: “stupid Jew, funny Jew, cheap Jew, dirty Jew, best Jew I know,” or numerous accolades followed by “for a Jew.” I can’t say honestly, that it doesn’t still burn me on the deepest levels, as a mother. However, my kids have assured me that “this is just the way it is.” They have repeatedly urged me not to get involved or “make a big deal,” as it will only cause more issues for them. “He/she was only kidding,” I’ve heard way too many times. Ha. Ha. I fail to see the humor.
On three occasions when I did get involved, when parents were called and conversations were had, I found distraught parents, who were as shocked as me that their child would launch such foul language at anyone. One father, stood at my door (with his son and wife) and became tearful, explaining that he had grown up being persecuted, and was mortified that his child would ever call my son a “stupid Jew.” That boy, was a really good kid; he still is. They are still friends. His parents are true blue, good to the bone. I believed that father when he told me this, because I have come to understand that our kids are exposed to so many things that we are often unaware of. That they say things when they often have no idea about what the words they use mean.
I’m not excusing it. Not in any way. Hate is hate, and if you don’t know what you’re kids are saying or carving, you’d better wake up and figure it out. The boys who damaged the elementary school may have thought they were being funny: tough guys, who weren’t really doing anything “that bad,” but they committed an act of violence upon every young child who attends that school. Those children now know that strangers can come into their school, the place where they learn and socialize and grow, and destroy their things. Those boys destroyed computers, furniture, and art work that children took pride in; they defiled walls and desks with swastikas and inappropriate images. The children at that school had to wonder: Who would do that, and will they come back?
The new synagogue, still incomplete, is a source of pride to Jewish residents of my town. We have worked hard to build it—to raise the funds, and see the first new synagogue in more than 100 years, to accommodate our growing congregation, and have a place for our Jewish kids to learn about their faith, and heritage. Swastikas—all over the site. What were these boys thinking? Did they intend to instill fear and a sense of hatred toward Jews, in both locations… or did they just think this was a kind of graffiti that they’d seen other places? And most importantly, Where did they learn this?
As the clever group of women that I was with expressed their shock that my kids have experienced such blatant anti-semitism throughout their childhoods in this town we love so much, another Jewish parent assured them that her children had experienced the same things. It is not that often that I have that kind of back up. There are not a lot of Jewish parents where we live, so I’m not usually having this conversation with another parent who can say “us too.” More than once, I’ve sensed that someone thinks that somehow my kids exaggerated, or that maybe they did something that provoked that kind of rhetoric. As someone who did not grow up Jewish, I continue to be shocked at how easily anti-semitism slips from lips, how it is excused and tolerated, even by very intelligent, compassionate people, who would not tolerate the N word, or blatant racial prejudice.
Sometimes I wonder whether it is that there is still a subtle and intrinsic belief, on the part of some people, that Jews don’t really count as a persecuted group— as people who are singled out for prejudice. The Holocaust, while taught in schools and viewed as a horrific event (by most intelligent people), is also seen as an isolated event, carried out by a maniacal man… who somehow bullied an entire nation into committing atrocities on the most horrific of scales. It is often overlooked that other nations did not do much to stop it, or to call it out, until things were very clearly beyond question. At the time, and through much of history, Jews were already viewed as many of the names and labels that Hitler used to bring his country on board. Those names and stereotypes were openly used in the US and many other places around the world. The subject of Israel today, a predominantly Jewish nation, often includes a subtext that suggests that the Israelis are difficult or unreasonable. Ok, I am fully aware that there are enormous complexities to that discussion… Been there, seen that, and only in the smallest of ways… but enough to make me think differently, and look at that picture through a little wider lens. But still, when discussing the issues in the Middle East, I often find myself uneasy, when I sense that some of the counter arguments stem from a passive anti-semitism, wrapped in political rhetoric.
I suppose I’ve digressed here; it’s a slippery slope. Parenting is tough. It is the hardest and best job that I’ve done in life, no doubt. It’s filled with the highest of highs and some of the lowest of lows. I’ve learned that it is a very short while that our babes are truly living entirely in our orbit. From the time we drop them at kindergarten, until the time they are truly “on their own” (as if we ever truly accept that “truly”), they begin to see the world through so many other eyes. They have teachers, religious leaders, media and friends, helping them determine what they think and how they will behave out in this big world. Each day they are gone from us for at least 6 long hours, where they are being impacted and informed on all kinds of things that may or may not gel with what we’ve taught them at home. They may or may not be exposed to all kinds of small injustices and unkind words, that are slipped in out of our sight. Our kids do not always bring those things home for discussion, but they filter them and figure out on their own what to do with the material.
So, whenever I hear people saying” that we should look at his/her home,” or “we ought to hold his/her parents accountable,” in response to something a young person has done, I stop and remember the instances when I have seen all kinds of kids say and do things that I find entirely reprehensible, and their parents were equally hurt and mystified. I see why it is easy to look at it that way; I once assumed similar reasoning. We all want to compartmentalize bad things, and find the ways that it can’t happen to us. The boys in the Steubenville rape case must come from horrible homes, right? The whole town somehow breeds that, or so it has been widely suggested. Kids who say racist things must have heard those things at home, yes? If all of that is true, we can safely assess that our own kids will never be the guilty party, because we are good parents, who don’t teach those things… right? However, again, I have learned that many apples do fall far from their trees, and the proof is not always in the pudding. Sometimes the pudding tastes nothing like the original recipe, and we are left to ask… then why?
Share your thoughts in the comment section. Weigh in. Then hit Like. Just do it. Thanks. Feel free to visit the Tales From the Motherland Facebook page, and hit like.