by Mimi Schwartz (Princeton, NJ)
As an American Jew—the child of German refugees—overt anti-Semitism was my parents’ old world, not mine. There’d be an occasional remark here and there, but everyone gets that in multi-ethnic New Jersey. No big deal, I thought, until 500 anti-Semitic flyers were posted on the walls and kiosks of the college where I’ve taught for twenty-two years. That was a shock. Some had swastikas leaning on Jewish stars. Some had a picture of Hitler and of an Israeli soldier, both of equal size. Its caption read: “How many millions must die?” Some had the Christ-like figure of crucifixion paintings, but instead of the expected cross, the arms were draped over a Jewish star, evoking the imagery of Jew as Christ killer. The caption read, “Stop the Murder. Free the Palestinians.”
The flyers were taken down quickly (someone said they’d been posted “without going through school channels”), but a Rally for Harmony was organized in response as way of saying communally: “Hey! You can’t do that around here.” I expected good campus support, especially from those, both Jew and Gentile, who were involved in the school’s Holocaust and Genocide Program, because a central question of those courses has been: “What would you do if…?” Until the flyers appeared around the college, the need to answer had seemed hypothetical.
“Anti-Semitism like that is gone now!” students in my Holocaust through Literature and Film course proclaimed three months earlier while examining a Nazi flyer, circa 1934. It showed a black-haired, fat man with a long hooked nose handing candy to two blond children, and the translated caption read: “Jewish sex fiend passes out sweets with sinister intent.” People don’t believe such rubbish anymore! That’s what the majority of my class (who were white, Christian, early twenty-ish, and first-generation college) had assured me.
They repeated this conviction (although more tentatively) after watching “The Long Walk Home,” a film about the African-American bus boycott in Montgomery, 1955. And again (although with even less conviction) after “School Ties,” a movie set in a rich New England prep school in the 1950’s, where the kids turned against a newly imported football star once they found out (after a winning football season, their first) that he was Jewish.
I show these movies interspersed with Holocaust films to connect past with present. Otherwise it is too easy to be self-righteous about what those Germans did way, way back then. Gradually, student platitudes about tolerance give way to personal stories about bigotry: from not being served as a Black at Denny’s after the prom, to picking on a Jewish roommate who hogged the refrigerator with Kosher food, to shrugging off Polish jokes from fraternity brothers when you are Polish.
The initial tellers are African-American, Hispanic, or Jewish, but then everyone jumps in, sharing injustices they have observed, been victim of, or taken part in. The conversation becomes less guarded. We argue about harmless joking vs. ugly prejudice, moral responsibility vs. risking your life, and what would you do if it happens again. As long as I can keep honesty mixed with civility, everyone keeps listening to one another.
A second shock, regarding the flyers, was that my friends on the political left were boycotting the rally. The 500 flyers were, they said, a non-issue. The real issue was Israel as “The Occupier” with a totally unjustifiable policy. Citing the right of free speech, they were more upset with the college administrators, whom they accused of oppressing the students who posted the flyers.
One colleague—and friend of twenty years—said that taking the flyers down was an outrage, a conspiracy. (I suddenly hear “Jewish conspiracy.”) “All the flyers did was display Palestinian suffering,” she said, practically spitting the words out. “So what if they didn’t get official permission, a mere technicality, an excuse meant to appease the Holocaust powers who were organizing the rally.” ( I suddenly hear “Jewish power.”) She wasn’t going near the rally, which, she said, would be “totally controlled and scripted.”
“But this rally at least admits to a college problem,” I said, swallowing anger. She shrugged. “You didn’t find the flyers offensive?” No response. “The Jew as Christ-killer, the ways the arms are spread out, as if nailed to a cross?”
“Gee, I didn’t get that!” she said, her eyes widening on an earnest face. “I saw it as the figure in the Pieta, you know, a mother suffering for her dead son, like Palestinian mothers.”
This is a professor whose walls are lined with history books. Are you really that naive? I wanted to yell. And what about Israeli mothers who are suffering? And don’t the Israelis have the right for self-defense?
We were saved from the end of friendship by the bell ringing for the next class. “Well, many people here feel the flyers are anti-Semitic,” I said and backed away, feeling betrayed. So this is why my Dad left Germany, I thought, hurrying off, my heels echoing on the red floor tile. People like me, cautiously silent. People like her, self-righteous and unpredictable.
“Okay, okay, I may be over-reacting,” I conceded over lunch to another colleague who dismissed my analogy to Nazi Germany as Jewish paranoia made worse by my parents’ narrow escape. True, I was haunted by whether I’d be as smart as my father who saw the danger signs early enough. The story of how he’d attended a Hitler rally in 1931 and told my mother that night, after seeing thousands of arms raised in adoration, “If that man gets elected, we leave!” had been repeated to me, over and over, as a survival guide. And here were 500 “signs”—posted!! So why weren’t my friends seeing them?
“You can be against Israeli policy and not be an anti-Semite,” said this colleague evenly (he happened to be Jewish), as we ate tuna sandwiches, his bushy beard catching a few crumbs. Weaned on anti-war rallies of the sixties, he has been re-energized by what he sees as another version of the injustice of Vietnam: the same military/industrial complex, the same First World capitalism vs. Third World poverty. Only now Israel is the colonial oppressor. “The Israeli leaders have no credibility, not when they keep building Jewish settlements on Arab land,” he said quietly.
“No argument about that!” I replied. My belief in the security and safety of Israel doesn’t make me pro-settlements, a distinction that keeps getting lost in the ‘for-or-against’ polarization. “So are you coming to the rally?” I offered him my bag of chips as extra enticement, now that we’d found common ground.
“No, it’s a fraud,” he said.
“But not having a rally is worse.”
“The flyers weren’t anti-Semitic in intent, you know. One of the two kids was in Jewish Studies.”
I wanted to shout: Would you say that if those who had hung the Willie Horton posters said, “It’s okay. One of our publicists is Black!” But I thought reason might still make him come to the rally, scheduled in thirty minutes. “Well, if we don’t support a harmony rally, the extremists rule—whatever their stand,” I said.
He shook his head. “No one will say what he really thinks!” and he stood up to go. “Besides,” he said, turning to walk away, “I have a class, a review session.” He waved.
“So bring them!” I called. His was a social history course, after all.
I headed for the rally, thinking about Saul Friedlander’s book, Nazi Germany and the Jews. One of its main premises is that the early silence of the universities as a moral guardian of society helped to make Hitler feel he had “a green light to proceed.” I would send my colleague the quote that struck me most:
“… When Jewish colleagues were dismissed, no German professor publicly protested; when the number of Jewish students was drastically reduced, no university committee or faculty member expressed any opposition; when books were burned throughout the Reich, no intellectual in Germany, or for that matter anyone else within the country, openly expressed any shame.” (P.60)
I always wondered what those German professors told themselves in order not to act. Was it some rationalized sense of justice that let them ignore the images of Jew as sex fiend for a higher cause? And do my colleagues ignore images of Jews as Christ killers for some similar impulse of Right?
The new flyers that appeared on the kiosks were of Palestinian women weeping for their sons, daughters, and the lost land that was their birthright. No swastikas and Jewish stars (someone nixed that), but they made a strong case for justice for the Palestinians without knee-jerk images of hate. That, to me, is what free speech on a college campus is all about: the right to argue your position without the crutch of insult that prevents real listening. Free speech is not hate speech, I tell my classes whenever someone uses fag, Jap, cunt, kike, fatso, to make a case. And everyone seems grateful, as if the venue for open expression is safer with limits.
Only sixty or so (out of 5,000) gathered for harmony in the D-Wing Circle on a blue-sky day before finals week. A Muslim student in T-shirt and jeans came to the open mike to say, “We need to think of ourselves as human beings first, not as Jew, Christian, and Muslim first.”
A Jewish student with a yarmulke stood up to proclaim, “We are all God’s children.”
An African-American woman said, “We must overcome our differences and treat each other with respect.”
A man with a turban said, “We are all Americans who seek peace.”
After each speech everyone applauded vigorously, despite words that sounded like Hallmark cards. We knew the alternative from other campuses—shouting, pushing, even fistfights—and that 7,000 miles away, the lack of commitment to these words of harmony keeps feeding the tragic spiral of Israeli/ Palestinian violence.
There were students from the Jewish Student Union, the Muslim Association, the Hellenic Association, the Asian Student Association, the International Club, the Women’s Coalition—fourteen groups in all. There were two-dozen administrators and faculty members —some acting officially; others, like me, representing one citizen. Five of my students showed up, which was better than none, I suppose, given upcoming exams and that many probably never saw the flyers before they were taken down. The President didn’t show either, a delayed Board meeting, someone said.
Around the concrete wall of the circle were colored signs—Civility, Freedom, Communication, Dignity, Respect—the kind we hang in kindergarten classrooms to teach young children about how to behave. For six-year-olds, they are new words to be taken seriously, executed daily. For adults, their worn, tired repetitions make us impatient. Yes, yes, yes, but….
But within the walled circle for harmony they seemed to frame what might explode. A colleague who loves Plato and Aristotle came up to me and whispered, her face red with anger: “I’m here to support anyone who tells Israel to get the hell out of Palestine!”
“Hey, this is a harmony rally,” I reminded her, managing to swallow Jerk! “We are here to put salve on some wounds.”
“A waste of time,” she said, and left.
I thought how her rage, like mine, if spoken into the open microphone would turn the Rally for Harmony into Cable TV cross-fires of yelling and sound-bite slogans of good and evil that force you either to cheer, boo or change channels in disgust.
At least words like “We must treat each other with respect” keep people connected like bonds of communal prayer or the daily “I love you’s” we tell our mates even when we feel wronged. By themselves these words do little except to hold off permanent damage; but without them, there is little chance to lay the foundation that might turn self-righteousness into something more meaningful, as happened in my class.
I was about to leave when my lunch friend, the activist, showed up. He was “only passing by,” but wanted me to know that he was planning a series of real forums next semester to discuss the Middle East and its repercussions. He and another faculty member were drawing up a list of speakers to lead discussions on the history of the region, American policy options, religious and cultural differences, Zionism vs. Racism, first amendment issues.
“Great!” I said, feeling more optimistic.
‘Forum’ in the Greek spirit of the word suggests ‘insight,’ not to ‘incite’ as a rally does–even a harmony rally. And in a forum-style atmosphere, I could try again to convince my colleagues of their blindness to those anti-Semitic flyers. And maybe Muslim students would be more open about bigotry against them on campus. And we could debate free speech vs. hate speech. And Israelis and Palestinians could be invited to describe their respective homeland’s needs and suffering and fears.
I was on a roll of optimism, imagining people becoming reasonable.
But then the harmony rally ended, and someone began ripping down the bright pink, green, and yellow signs. “Stop! I’ll take them!” I yelled, knowing that wherever we meet, we’ll need to hang those signs again– Civility, Freedom, Respect, Dignity and Reason—and to keep looking at them.
Mimi Schwartz is the author of Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, which won the 2008 ForeWord Magazine Book Award for memoir (and soon to be released in paperback). Other books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, a marriage memoir, and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). Her short work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The New York Times, Tikkun, Jewish Week, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, among others. Six of her essays have been Notables in Best American Essays and she just won a 2008 Pushcart Prize in nonfiction. For more information, go to http://www.mimischwartz.net/
This essay, which appeared in slightly different form in Tikkun Magazine, is reprinted here with permission.