I’m the great-granddaughter of immigrants, three times. Each set of great-grandparents left the Old Country fleeing oppressive regimes, fearing war, or looking for a place to start a family. As for my remaining set of great grandparents, who have been in this country since before the Civil War, they operated a “Jew store,” a dry goods store in Memphis, Tenn. They faced their own struggles being Jewish below the Mason-Dixon Line.
I’ve been the target of anti-Semitism, in spite of growing up mostly unaware of the stereotypes about Jews being stingy with money, running Hollywood and having big noses. I encountered ignorance, but I took it at face value.
As a minority living in way upstate New York, it seemed my role to inform and educate my friends and classmates about Judaism, a role very much reinforced every December when my mom (or the moms of the other two Jewish kids in my grade) would come into our classroom, show off a menorah, teach the kids the story of Chanukah and play dreidel with M&Ms.
I brought my friends to synagogue for holidays, or just because it was Sunday morning, and we’d have a sleepover. I had to deal with the school administration’s annual skepticism about needing to be absent on the High Holidays, but I always made up the work. No one shunned me if I picked cheese pizza over pepperoni.
Just one time, when I was assisting my mother during the Chanukah presentation in my brother’s classroom, did one boy raise his hand and ask, “Why did the Jews kill Jesus?” Mostly, it just stunned us into silence while my mother groped for an answer. At least openly, I was more stigmatized for living in a pink house than for any practice of my religion.
Not that I haven’t experienced anti-Semitism. It’s still here, and it’s still frightening.
In 2002, I was living in Pittsburgh, very much on my own and, as a recent graduate from prestigious Brandeis University, highly unemployable. Some kind old lady at the bus stop asked me — innocently enough, I thought — which church I attended. Saying that I did not, I had taken the bait, as she suspected. She asked if I would help her read her mail. Due to macular degeneration, she had difficulty with the small type. She would even pay me.
I dutifully went to her apartment, ready to be helpful. As we got started, in her little brick apartment building full of old people, she warned me not to go around telling people I was Jewish. I shouldn’t need someone to tell me that, she continued. Even with her failing eyesight, she could spot a Jewess in plain daylight. And then she went on about the JAPs living in her building. So I left, a bit stunned.
When the JCC a mile from my house, where my children attended preschool for two years, is evacuated due to a bomb threat. When the Jewish Federation building a half-mile from my parents’ house does the same. When there are swastikas on New York City subway cars. When Jewish gravesites are defiled in my adopted hometown. When the alleged leader of this country — the only one I have ever called home — intimates that perhaps we have done it ourselves to try to drum up sympathy for anti-Semitic incidents, I can no longer simply be stunned. I have to make sense of it somehow.
This is no longer personal. This is not about being Jewish alone. This is not about the Muslim travel ban alone. This is not only about the hostility projected onto immigrants. This is not about perpetrating hate speech at a little girl’s birthday party. This is not about hate crimes on trans folks or black men wearing hoodies.
This is about a major failure of individuals to be recognized as people. The people orchestrating the bomb threats, the ones railing on Facebook against immigrants, the ones yelling at refugees to go “home,” the ones emboldened in their use of swastikas — fail to see their targets as human.
A refugee is a person.
An immigrant is a person.
A black man is a person.
A Jew is a person.
A person who is genderqueer is a person.
A woman is a person.
I want to scream it from the rooftops. But what would it do? In the letters I’ve written, emails I’ve sent, phone calls I’ve made to my senators, whose mind am I changing? What good does it do?
I read or heard somewhere that instead of asking a child, rhetorically, “What’s wrong with you?” we should ask, “What happened to you?” I’ve been reading a bit of philosophy with my ninth- and 10th-graders, one of whom had to write about her idea of original sin. Babies can’t be born evil, she decided. So something has to happen to them. Something has to happen to form a neo-Nazi, a racist, a hateful ignorant politician.
Aside from true psychopaths, regular people can and do recognize right from wrong. They understand pain, and the pain of others. I think they’ve forgotten that the others they’re harming are people, too. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 showed how quickly and easily people can take on a role of privilege or power to dehumanize their inferiors. Without. Any. Reason.
They’ve forgotten how alike we are — that their ancestors were immigrants, too. That they came to this country seeking religious freedom or economic opportunity, or relief from oppression. They’ve forgotten how to treat neighbors, because they don’t look upon women, blacks, gays, refugees or Muslims as human.
They’ve forgotten that babies cry all night no matter the color of their skin. They’ve forgotten that no one likes to take out the trash. They’ve forgotten that parents of all genders and creeds step on Legos and curse in all languages of the world. They’ve forgotten that a hot shower at the end of a long day feels good no matter what your citizenship status is.
I’m beginning to understand the true meaning of catharsis, as my ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Carroll, taught the concept. I write because the words and emotions come bursting out of me, and cannot be held back.
Abi Nathan is a speech-language pathologist at AIM Academy in Philadelphia.