Sunday, October 10, 2010

Anti-Semitism is Alive and Well

Growing up, the first schools I attended were private Jewish schools. My family didn't have the money to pay for them, but we received scholarships based on the Chesed (loving-kindness) of the schools. I also had the opportunity to spend my summer days playing, creating art, and experiencing the beauty of rural Quebec through Jewish summer camps that were also subsidized.

I was technically among my own people, but I experienced a lot of damaging racism as a child and adolescent. The upside is that I have plenty of material to write about nowadays. I experienced a lot of discrimination as a child of the African diaspora, and an African-Canadian Jew. I did not, however, experience anti-semitic discrimination at these schools and summer camps. Being Jewish was normal and accepted.

I lived for years under the mistaken assumption that anti-semitism no longer existed outside of a few crazy people in something called the KKK. We had kosher food, people wishing us happy Hannukkah on TV, and walked down the street unafraid of attack. So even though my own mother would regularly tell stories of her time as a child prisoner at a concentration camp, and even though my grandmother still had a number on her arm, I felt all of the horror and threats were from another life, another world I peeked into and was curious about but never really worried about having to live through it.

I remember the first time I consciously experienced anti-semitism. I was in the 7th grade, 12 years old. My new BFF, an Italian-Canadian Catholic girl, learned one day that I was Jewish during a conversation. And she said, "but you're more Black than Jewish". I got so mad at her; I don't think she'd expected it. When I confronted her, she admitted she'd had a bad friendship previously with a girl who happened to be Jewish. I forgave her, and our friendship continued. Before you judge her too harshly, I'll confess I was no enlightened chasid (holy one) either; I made many ignorant and offensive remarks about her religion during our teenage friendship. We were both experiencing something new, her a girl who was not White, and who, what's more, was Jewish. I was getting to know a girl who was from a background I'd never known either.

I forgave her, but I never forgot. "You're more Black than you are Jewish." Somehow, that's stayed with me for almost two decades now. I remember the surprise I felt, thinking, "oh my God I can't believe this is happening, did she just say that"?

As I got older, I began to understand that various forms of prejudice were not dead. But I felt that anti-semitism was a negligent problem in my society. The crazy Arabs across the pond might all hate Jews (yes, I thought this way), but in North America, I felt anti-semitism was an endangered prejudice. I was so, so wrong.

Two years ago, I started working outside the Montreal area. This meant working in an area without a significant multi-cultural presence. I learned that people still use the term "Shylock" as a verb to imply someone is overcharging you. I learned that some people feel comfortable interrupting you when you're talking about a Jewish family custom to tell you that all "The Jews" (as if we were a corporation like "The Body Shop" or "The Bay", and functioned as a giant, one-minded organism) wanted to change our school system. I learned that it was ok back this up by saying, "I'm not racist, someone in my family is Jewish". I learned that administrative employees do not need to cover up the look of aversion and surprise on their face when you tell them you'll be taking a day off because it's a Jewish Holiday. I also learned it's ok to talk about how Native Americans are bums and shylocks, but that's a slightly different post.

Yep, I've learned. I've learned that anti-semitism is one tenacious mofo. Anti-semitism hasn't keeled over and died; it wasn't even hospitalized. It just had a cold the last 50 years and is recuperating at home, chatting online or texting friends instead of parading down the street in uniform.

1 comment:

  1. “You're more Black than you are Jewish.” That has been said to me many times. Or “You don’t look Semitic!”