They warned me.
“They” refers, in this case, to dozens of people. My parents; my aunts and uncles; older friends who have graduated; even my rabbi. All of them warned me about the anti-Semitism I would face in college. Although I listened, I didn’t quite believe them. I would go to a college with thousands of Jews, in New York City, a city with millions of them. What kind of fool could hate Jews there?
I met him today. On my way to the farmer’s market outside my school’s student center, I passed a tall man wearing a white T-shirt and a silver, fist-sized cross. He held up a large sign, screaming in red letters, “GOOGLE IT!!!” Below that, in black: “China says Jews control America.”
For a moment, I thought I had misinterpreted the man’s message. Then, he turned around, and I read the back of his sign: “CHINA IS RIGHT.”
Despite all my Jewish history — despite my knowledge about stereotypes — despite the rage and shock that boiled in my chest, pulsating harder than my heartbeat — I froze.
What could I say to that man?
He was taller than me, tanner and visibly buffer. He hated my mere existence. He was foolish enough to believe Jews hold America hostage, dangling our country alongside stolen dollars in crooked fingers. He was so convinced of his correctness, his righteousness, that he stood outside despite the heat in a heavily Jewish area to publicize his warped beliefs.
I could not change that man’s mind in one conversation — not with the few minutes I had — and could not ensure my own safety while doing so. Though we stood in a public area, surrounded by people, he could hit me. He could kick me. He could push me backward and pretend my words were the buzzes of flies.
When I first saw the man, I walked past him in silence, as everyone else did around me. The man stood right in front of my college’s entrance, apparent to all eyes, but no one spoke a word to him. Some people glanced at the sign, then looked away; they shuffled their feet faster, uncomfortable, unsure. I took my cues from them. I went to the farmer’s market and browsed the stands. I bought a pound of honey, but skipped the apples because bruises marred their skins. I signed up for the market’s list serve and chatted with the sellers. All the while, I could not forget the man. He stood feet away from me, silent, holding up his offensive sign. I saw the glaring declaration — “CHINA IS RIGHT” — under my eyelids: whenever I blinked, the writing, red as blood, glistened before me.
What could I say to that man?
As I returned to my dorm, jar of honey in hand, I passed him again. This time, words jumped out of my mouth: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” My heart raced. I looked to see if he had heard me; either he hadn’t, or he was feigning deafness. I felt the words bubble in my throat — the accusations of ignorance, the “How dare you,” the hundreds of reasons he is wrong. But I said nothing more. He never returned my gaze and after a moment, I turned away. I walked back to my dorm fighting tears — of anger, of disgust, but also of shame.
In most of my blog posts, I state my opinions. Here, I cannot do that: I do not know what I think. I am not sure I did the right thing; I am not sure, in that situation, what the “right thing” would have been. Should I have told him why he was wrong, despite the fruitlessness and danger of that pursuit? Should I have stayed silent like the other passersby, knowing my words would sail past his ears like a cool breeze anyway? Was I right to shame the man, however ineffectually, and should I have repeated myself to make sure he heard my words? What should the people around me have done, the shufflers, who averted their eyes and kept their lips sealed shut?
I doubt one solution exists for this dilemma, a problem that Jews and other minorities have dealt with for too long. I, alone, can certainly not find an answer. As such, I turn to you to use this blog’s comments feature. What would you have done in this situation? How do you think I should’ve acted? No matter your answers, I won’t be offended; that would render mute the point of sharing and considering others’ viewpoints. I want to learn from you, as I do too rarely. Whether you have faced anti-Semitism or another form of prejudice, please, tell me about your experience, if you feel comfortable doing so. Other readers, I hope, will learn from your comments as well. The intricacies of hatred — both its substance and the fight it inspires — are things we all must, as responsible citizens, learn.
The man who stood outside my college today proved adults’ resigned warnings right. I have brushed anti-Semitism now; I will confront it, and other forms of hatred, again. Next time, I want to know what to do. We all — man or woman, Jewish or Christian — must know what to do. Otherwise, the men with offensive signs will remain, bigoted and ignorant, spreading the messages that keep hate alive. I hope we can start that discussion here, below this post. I hope we all learn something from the comments, myself most of all.