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Confronting Anti-Semitism: If I Don’t Respond, Who Will?

Growing up as a girl in downstate New York, I never really thought about anti-Semitism, what it was and how it could infect a population. I, like many others, read The Diary of Anne Frank, and felt indignation over the injustice suffered by her, her family, and the Jews during World War II. Like many others, I believed I would have been heroic and would have hidden a Jewish family, if needed. I also believed that inside, people are more alike than different. Born in the fifties, a child in the sixties, and having reached maturity in the seventies, I could see no significant difference between religious beliefs (even though my Roman Catholic upbringing told me that my faith was the only true faith), and I felt people were people.

I never thought about the little remarks, casually thrown into conversations. You know what I am referring to, comments such as, “Jews are rich” or “Jews are cheap—always ready to cheat you to hang on to their money.” I heard the expression, I’ll “Jew him down” in order to get a better price. But I never thought of those remarks as being “anti-Semitic,” just wrong. I didn’t know where the expressions came from or how they came into being. I didn’t know how they came from deep feelings of hatred towards Jews and how they could infect the thinking of future generations.

And, I’m deeply embarrassed to say, I never thought it my job to correct anyone making these remarks until I became involved with the Jewish man who is now my husband. My first brush with confronting anti-Semitism, after having my consciousness raised, came during a training session for a job as an insurance customer service representative. As we trained together, camaraderie was high: we all needed to pass the training in order to keep our jobs, so we became protective of each other. During one break, we stood around talking about the upcoming Christmas holidays, and what we were doing to get ready for them. I spoke about celebrating Hanukkah, too, in addition to Christmas. A fellow trainee announced that he had purchased a Christmas tree that weekend, and that he got a really good deal–“Jewed him down,” in fact.

I stood there, growing red in the face, unsure how to respond. Not wanting to humiliate anyone, I waited until I could speak to the trainee alone. I told him that his remark about “Jewing somebody down” was offensive to me, that it was anti-Semitic. He looked agog at me and stated that “It’s an old Polish expression—not meant to do any harm.” I had to tell him that it might’ve been an old Polish expression, but it was based on fear and hatred, and was hurtful to me. He told me I was overreacting. No apology was made.

As the training resumed, I sat there, wondering if I had overreacted and if I should have handled things differently. I later reported my conversation to the trainer and wondered if any mention of the trainee’s remarks would be made. After all, we were going to be dealing with the public, all of the public, and a casual comment like that would wreak havoc on a nationally known insurance company. Who knew what feelings about other religions, races, or nationalities he might express? I was never approached with any information regarding this incident, but I do know that the trainee wound up examining claims, rather than dealing with insurance customers.

Looking back, the only thing I wish I had done differently was to speak up immediately when he made his remark. I think I was surprised that somebody close to my age would speak this way. I had hoped to spare him embarrassment, but now I realize that he needed to be embarrassed—and to rethink his speech. I’m glad that I let others know about his remark.

As long as remarks like that were made to me, personally, I knew how to respond. However, once I became a mother, I began to worry about how I could help my daughter handle anti-Semitic comments. What tools could I give her to respond with? Should we ignore those kinds of remarks, which is how my husband chooses to handle them? But that was not my style. I wanted to be able to educate my daughter, and to help her as much as I could.

As early as pre-school, my daughter has had to face negative remarks made by fellow students. When pre-schoolers and elementary-age children said things like, “I can’t play with you because you don’t celebrate Christmas,” or “Moses was Catholic,” I helped her to understand that the comments were made through ignorance. We told the child who didn’t want to play with her all about Hanukkah, and that by not playing with my daughter she was missing out on a really fun playmate. My daughter gave the other child, who was confused about Moses, a brief Bible lesson, after she and I discussed what she might say. My daughter told him that Moses was a Jew who led his fellow Jews out of Egypt, and that Catholics and Jews learn about him because he was a great man.

However, as my daughter reached middle school, the remarks took a nasty turn. The first incident involved changing the date of the back-to-school dance to a day other than the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It took a lot of talking and educating on the part of my rabbi and myself to convince the administration to change the date, but they finally did so. When classmates found out about the date change, my daughter was targeted. Some approached her, not to ask about the importance of Rosh Hashanah and why the date should’ve been changed, but to accuse her, as a Jew, of taking away their dance. “If it wasn’t for the Jews, we could still have our dance this Friday.” Again, I contacted the administration, and school counselors then spoke with the children.

Then, two of my daughter’s classmates told her that they didn’t like Jews. My daughter immediately went to her teacher and reported the remarks. When she came home, she told me about the incident. I asked her what the teacher had done, but she didn’t know. I followed through by contacting her principal and guidance counselor. Due to confidentiality issues regarding the students, I could not obtain any information. I stressed that this was the second incident of anti-Semitic remarks being made to my daughter in one year at that school, and I stated that something needed to be done to educate the students about anti-Semitism.

After receiving no positive response from the principal, I then phoned the superintendent of the school district and our local Jewish Federation. Working with both of them, a program in which a Holocaust survivor speaks about life during the Holocaust was brought to the eighth grade in one of our middle schools. While that was a positive outcome, it didn’t directly impact my daughter, who is in seventh grade.

This year, I will encourage the schools to present another similar program. I hope that my response has helped my daughter to feel supported and protected, as if she and I have worked together to remedy the situation.

Its every parent’s desire to protect their children, to keep them from hurtful remarks, and from physical harm. I wish that I didn’t have to educate my daughter about anti-Semitism and how to handle it. I wish that anti-Semitism was no longer a part of our lives as Jews. Never having faced it growing up, I worry about overreacting or not reacting enough.

I’m told that sometimes I’m a little too quick to respond, but I want to model a strong, fearless reaction for my daughter.

Besides, if I don’t respond, who will?

Paula Yablonsky

Paula C. Yablonsky is the co-editor of TechKnowledgies. Paula lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband, Mark Gibbons.