My husband and I passed through St. Louis twice last week. We interacted with supermarket clerks, airport personnel, rental car employees and assorted people waiting on line with or sitting near us. A fair number of those people were African American. To a person, they were helpful and cheerful.
The question I wanted to ask was, “What do you think of the Ferguson riots?” that took place within a few miles of that very airport. I couldn’t think of a way to ask the question graciously in a few fleeting moments. I also doubted that an unknown stranger should expect an honest and thoughtful response.
Yet, here is my guess. I think that the hard-working people we met had not spent the previous night rioting. I think that Al Sharpton and associates embarrass them and that their sympathies are with storeowners who saw years of work destroyed rather than with looting thugs. The employees we met may very well resent having been stopped by overly aggressive police on occasion and if that hasn’t happened to them, they probably know others to whom it has. They probably have encountered unpleasantness based on their race. Yet, could it be that while they don’t think racism is dead, they might think that incidents like Ferguson increase rather than decrease their being viewed suspiciously? Could they be worried that the rioters, media and governmental response are going to make their lives worse, not better?
Why do I suspect this? Since I have no first-hand experience of racism, I can only look at the situation through the prism I do have. I know that the majority of Israelis long to live in peace with their Moslem neighbors. Polls show that 68% of Israeli Arabs oppose the recent wave of terror attacks and 77% would choose to live under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule, given the choice. Most of these same people do not feel that they are treated fairly and harbor mistrust for the Israeli government. Still, they want things to improve not to get worse.
When a long-time Arab worker attacks Jews in Israel with gun or dagger, his fellow peace-desiring Arabs lose jobs, are viewed with more hostility and are treated less well. Could we expect anything different? When one Arab boards a bus and detonates a bomb is it possible not to sympathize with the bus driver who doesn’t halt for an Arab at the next bus stop? The rules may say that he must stop, but people’s emotions have to change before rules matter.
In a less dramatic example, a Jewish woman recently made a scene when she found a swastika shape in wrapping paper put out in Walgreens for the Chanuka holiday. The swastika was not readily apparent. When I looked at a photo, I had to read instructions for spotting it before I could see it. Now, the Holocaust and Nazi Germany bring forth, and should bring forth, great emotion. I do not know this woman’s history and she may well have been psychologically impacted by having survivor parents or grandparents. Nevertheless, her isolated severe, and probably completely unfair, attack made the headlines and caused Walgreens to withdraw the paper. My response is sadness and embarrassment. It does me no good for others to hesitate to do business in Jewish neighborhoods for fear of inadvertently offending anyone. It does none of us any good when every email, remark, look and action needs to undergo censoring lest someone gets offended.
There is real anti-Semitism growing rapidly in the world. It was even loudly proclaimed among the heavily white and incredibly foolish marchers in Seattle who claimed to be protesting Ferguson. There are real racial discrepancies and problems that face the African- American community. There are real concerns about abuses in police departments and federal SWAT teams. Yet, bludgeoning others with cries of racism and anti-Semitism through false and misleading reporting, “gotcha” attitudes and hysteria leads to more problems rather than to solutions.
A small number of people, whether known as mobs, criminals or terrorists have always been able to destroy the work of the majority of decent people. Right now with the administration, universities and most media egging on bullying forces, we are in great danger of this nation splintering apart, and of hatred and divisiveness increasing as gender, race and religion are used as battering rams rather than celebrated as parts of the amazing complexity of humanity.
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