Sunday, August 26, 2007

Civilized Anti-Semitism

Anyone who has watched the movie "Borat" will acknowledge that within its humor lies the deeper lesson which Sasha Baron Cohen wishes to portray: inside every civilized American is an anti-Semite, just waiting to get society's permission to express his/her true beliefs, those beliefs they share with their bar buddies or their families, those statements that are not politically correct to be heard by the general public.

I love to travel, and as much as I enjoy seeing new places, I look forward even more to meeting people of a different culture and background, and finding that common ground in a brief discussion, or over a cup of coffee. When I used to take the Shuttle between New York and Boston in college, I would often find myself in conversation with the passenger next to me, sharing life stories and exposing skeletons in closets; I have that kind of face and give off that kind of energy, I suppose, the billboard that says, "tell me your stories, I will listen."

For today, I want to focus on several incidents that were less pleasurable, and reminded me that wherever I go in the world, there is someone who hates me or misunderstands me simply because I was born into the Jewish nation, and live in the Jewish homeland. It stands as an important lesson for all of us, that in this enlightened and civilized age, old hatred runs deep.

In my first week at Chiropractic school (1993), during orientation, one man in particular repeatedly approached me, not to speak to me but to gaze at my forehead. After several uncomfortable moments, I asked him why he stared at me so intently, and he answered simply, "I am looking for your horns." He had grown up on a farm in the middle of Canada, and had never met a Jew before, and could not understand why I did not resemble Satan. I patiently explained the origin of the myth of the horns, quoting to him the passage in the Old Testament that described Moses' ray of lights, beaming from his face after he had his encounter with G-d and received the Ten Commandments. I also explained that the modern reference derives itself from the sculpture of Moses in Rome, the artist could not have free standing marble rays of light, and so attached them to the most likely and easiest area, the forehead. This fellow student ended up becoming a close friend, we worked as volunteers in an Ojibwe/First Nation (Indians, for the politically incorrect) clinic together, and all it took was a bit of education.

I won two tickets to Switzerland from a chocolate contest, and my friend and I went to that stunning country for one week (2001). On the train in Grindelwald, we presented our tickets and passports to one of the conductors; he looked at our two passports - One Israeli and One American, but issued in Jerusalem - nodded his head and as he walked off, clicked his heals together and did the "Sieg Heil" motion with his arm. I reacted immediately, and said to my friend, "He just Hitlered us!" But she did not see it and we dismissed it at the time.

Later, my friend and I were in Zurich on an English tour of Chagall windows in a Protestant Church. Of the five windows, four had completely Old Testament content, and only one window portrayed Jesus in any way. The guide said at one point, "And here we see the Jewish window, called so because it is dominated by the Jewish color, yellow." Not wanting to display immediate belligerence, I raised my hand and asked politely, "Though I am not aware of any official Jewish color, wouldn't you think the colors would be blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag?" She replied that I knew nothing about art, and that the Jewish color was most definitively yellow.

Inspired by one of my all time favorite movies, "Field of Dreams," I stood up, called her a "Nazi Cow," and for the sake of the rest of the group, explained that the Nazi's assigned yellow stars to the Jews, before they exterminated them; and that the Swiss ought to know, because they got rich during WWII by stealing the Jews' money. And that I in fact had a degree in art and art history. No one in the tour group seemed shocked or surprised, and I thought at the time that a few people were thinking what I dared to speak aloud.

In Istanbul (1998), on a tour of a Sultan's palace, the Turkish guide made several minor anti-Semitic statements. My friend Ami, unable to hold herself back, asked the guide about the Turks' role in the Crusades, and about their occupation of the land we now call Israel; the man answered that he had no idea what she was talking about, and that she ought to go back and study her history.

This past week in Jordan (2007), Ali the Petra guide kept speaking about the Nabateans and the Fertile Crescent, mentioning every country along the ancient Spice Route except Israel. Ed, the American Jew from Philadelphia sitting next to me inquired Ali about this omission after it appeared several times, and Ali answered that technically, Israel did not exist then. Neither did Jordan, technically, but never mind.

History is told by those who survive it, and contrary to the belief proliferated by the Nazis, the facts do not change if you tell the lie enough times. Anti-Semitism, alive and well in our lifetime and only growing stronger, cannot be tolerated. We must all be on guard to protect our heritage and our history, and to not misconstrue the facts to suit political purposes.

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