There is a world, we can’t always be.13 (There Is A Light) by U2
I think that for many Americans such as myself, the past five years have seemed like prejudice and intolerance’s big comeback. That isn’t to say that it ever really went away. Having grown up in America around the turn of the millennium, surely we’ve witnessed those events when hate reared its ugly head on a grand scale. How about 9/11, when all of a sudden our friends, neighbors, and sadly even our family members became openly hostile towards Muslim-Americans? Who can forget about the whole Astroturf “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy nine years later? Or when the whole debate about gay marriage erupted, and the fact that it was even a debate?
Clearly, hatred was brewing under the surface.
But we lived in a society that at large that knew what the problem was and supposedly had a good handle on it. Of course, racism was those black and white pictures of segregated public spaces. It was something that happened in our grandparents’ generation. If anyone tried to pull that today, we would publicly shame them. Off the top of your head, how many public figures can you think of that our culture has already disowned in this manner? We’ve endeavored to erase troubling content from the media we consume. We’ve promoted folks from every color of the rainbow to our society’s most prominent positions.
So what’s the problem?
I think what went wrong is society ignored those people for whom the status quo isn’t working, and who need change the most. Instead of conceiving of anti-racism as simply being anti-racists or a host of empty gestures towards targeted groups, wouldn’t it be better if anti-racism translated into benefits for members of targeted groups in practical terms? The problem isn’t that racists exist (though it would probably be nice if they didn’t). The problem is that the powerful elite realized just how much racism works to protect their power, so they did whatever necessary to fan the flames, and unleashed the racists upon the rest of us. What I would like to propose here is an alternative vision for us to get behind, and the experience I had to corroborate it; a vision that we can reject their hateful messaging in favor of, a vision of our own betterment.
My Workplace Ordeal
Guard your innocence from hallucination, and know that darkness always gathers around the light.13 (There is a Light) by U2
When I was 23, I had just graduated with my BFA in Graphic Design. I was living in New York, working my first job out of college. To date, it was by far the worst job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some bad ones. I was stuck working in the crummiest of local print shops where we were supposed to produce pretty much anything the gullible public was willing to buy. This meant we just pulled graphics off of Google Images, and slapped it on whatever product the customer wanted us to print.
I was regularly subjected to the business owner’s erratic mood swings, tantrums, harassment, and overall unprofessionalism. I have enough stories from this ordeal to warrant its own article, but it suffices to say that as I stated before, his mood swung like no one I’ve ever met, and though that does inherently imply that there was roughly half of that time when he was indeed cheery and easy-going; none of his good moods spared me from the demotions, reductions of pay, and suspensions I was regularly subjected to during the course of my ten months of employment with him. There weren’t any other opportunities at the time that were coming through for me, so I was in a position where I didn’t have any other choice.
One day in the shop, I was wrapping up my work before I was scheduled to leave, and I just casually said to him, “Before I go, let me calculate my hours that you owe me for,” in exactly the way that I had been accustomed to doing up to this point, never having had it be an issue. And then he snapped “NO! YOU CALCULATE YOUR HOURS ON YOUR TIME!”
So, whatever… I obliged.
I waited until I was off the clock, and then I sat and made an account of my hours for him, which I then turned over to him. He handed me the money, but as he did so, he began yelling and cursing at me like a madman during the course of several minutes as I stood there. Part of what he was yelling about was that I supposedly left out an important piece of information when speaking with a (potential?) customer earlier, even though he was the one that actually spoke with the customer (yeah, this is what I had to deal with day in and day out).
Part of his tirade was about my overall performance, and part of what he wanted to get back to was me taking a moment to write down my hours when I’m still on the clock, which all of a sudden was now an issue. The point that he was trying to make to me was that I’m supposedly not conscientious about my job, but I’m so conscientious when I want to be, like when I want to make sure I’m paid.
And then he said to me, “All Jews care about is money. Yeah, they care about their own money.”
I didn’t even bother to tell him that I quit.
I never showed up to the shop after that–and the only time he heard from me again was when the NYS Division of Human Rights contacted him.
I know the world is done13 (There Is A Light) by U2
But you don’t have to be
I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves
Are you tough enough to be kind?
Do you know your heart has its own mind?
Here’s the part of the article where you probably want to read that my former employer got what was coming to him. You probably want me to tell you that the NYS Division of Human Rights assigned a lawyer to me, and that I cashed out on a hefty settlement. Not to disappoint, but nothing like that wound up happening. Apparently there is a minimum amount of employees your (former) employer has to have in order for the NYS Division of Human Rights to actually care (as of 2013). I would be alright, because soon enough afterwards I found a better job where I was paid better, treated better, and overall much happier.
But this isn’t an article about my former employer, or the racists like him. “Why are people racist” or “what makes a person racist” have always been the less interesting questions for me. I’ve (unfortunately) known enough racists to tell you that such people are really messed up in the head. None of what I’m trying to say is meant as an insult to people that suffer from mental illness.
Please understand that I’m not at all being rhetorical when I say there has to be something seriously wrong with you to be a full-grown adult who is racist in the 21st century in a country that is as developed and diverse as America. There are also the people on top, for whom maybe there isn’t anything mentally wrong per se, but who know exactly what they’re doing when they exploit racist sentiments to pull the strings, in pursuit of their own agendas. That certainly ties in with where I’m going with this. People are racist because there is something mentally wrong with them, and for too long, that is where we left it, because it would seem like this was a mental health issue, and not a societal issue.
The question I would much prefer to have answered is: what is it that makes this, unlike other mental issues, one that not only doesn’t obstruct the ability of the racist to get by, but even allows the racist to prosper? Why do non-racists and good people in general too often find themselves indulging the racists? My question isn’t “why are there racists,” but rather “why are there victims of racism,” or “how do people still fall victim to racists when we all know that racism is wrong?” If my former employer was the sick one, then what is it that put me in the position of being disadvantaged by him?
Let’s start with some of the reactions that I received when telling people about my experience. Some people told me with a straight face how typical it was for someone of my former employer’s ethnicity/religion to hate Jews, completely unaware of the irony of what they were saying. Another response I was told is that any effort of mine to sue him would be in vein, because apparently no one cares about racism against Jews anymore, and pretty much the only racism they’re going to care about is racism against Blacks. The subtext here was that somehow this was all an inter-minority competition, and the Black community stole the spotlight, at the expense of Jews such as myself.
And no one had anything to say about how many other jobs turned me down because I am a Shabbat Sabbath observing Jew whose one day of the week that I can’t work is Saturday (and there were many). It was easy to make my former employer the big bad guy here (and by no means do I have somewhat of a good opinion of him), but what about all those other employers who wouldn’t even give me a chance to begin with? If we are to speak completely in practical terms, which of these two evils is actually better for a Jew like myself? In New York State, discrimination of this sort is illegal but unfortunately not easy to prove, and therefore not very enforceable.
I think what many people were not quite understanding is that it isn’t like one day I went to work, and I had a run-in with Antisemitism. It wasn’t just one thing he said to me, and that was the extent of my Antisemitic experience. The whole time I was working for him was an Antisemitic experience–all ten months of it, even if it only took him until the very end to say something blatantly Antisemitic. It suffices to assume (by which I mean we have a ~4,000 year old pattern of this behavior) that his treatment of me up until that point all stemmed from his Antisemitism, every day that I went in to work for him. All I needed was for him to ultimately say something that narrows it down to Antisemitism.
Part of the blame I want to place on ourselves, us as the Jewish community. For a long time, we’ve set the bar of ally-ship too low. Given our history, you might say we were desperate for allies. You think that you’re an ally because you’re pro-Israel? By the way, I think it’s great that you’re pro-Israel, and by all means, continue to be pro-Israel. And by pro-Israel, I mean pro-peace, pro-indigenous rights, pro-prosperity for Israelis of all ethnicities, pro-having a beneficial and respectful relationship with our neighbors, and pro-hoping for a future that isn’t perpetual warfare for our people.
But don’t think a lot of us don’t notice that many of you professed “Israel supporters” are supposedly in favor of Israel, not because of Jewish people whom you don’t particularly care about, but rather out of spite because you hate Arabs and Muslims, and by extension the Palestinians. When the same people that say they like us are anti-Muslim or racist toward Arabs, Blacks, Mexicans, or anyone else, many of us in the Jewish community rightly don’t view this as progress. On the contrary, we say to ourselves ‘nothing has changed, except they found somebody else to be the “new Jews.”’
Thank you, but we don’t need this kind of ally.
To best illustrate my point, there was that time that the self-proclaimed “most pro-Israel president ever” wasn’t so pro-Israel that he was compelled to protect the Children of Israel within his own borders. I don’t want to know how the shooter who murdered Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg could hate Jews so much. I don’t really care. I don’t even care about who he voted for president. In one of “President” Trump’s more recent televised appearances before the tragedy, he was alerting the public that George Soros (who is a Jewish Holocaust survivor) was using caravans of Mexicans to orchestrate an invasion of America. The shooter literally stated this same story as his reason for carrying out the shooting. What I want to know is why did so many Americans vote for this president, and what does that tell us?
So bizarre is the Antisemitism in this day and age that the Antisemites have divided into competing camps, and each camp hates the other camp possibly more than they hate Jews (if only they knew how much they have in common). If you confront the Antisemites who’ve latched on to the American Right, they’ll try to convince you that they’re not Antisemitic, and that in fact, it’s the Antisemites that they identify as being on the Left who are the “true Antisemites.” And if you confront the Antisemites who conceive themselves as being part of the American Left, it’s the same story; they’ll tell you that they’re not Antisemites (often followed by “we’re just anti-Zionists”), and that it’s the Antisemites on the Right that I should really be worried about. And it seems like each side wants me as a Jew to actually care about the ideological underpinnings behind their Antisemitism.
To me it all just sounds like I’m being asked to choose which species of bear I want to be mauled by. Each side has different details in mind for my execution, and I’m genuinely supposed to care who gets to have their hand at it when either outcome results in me dying slowly and painfully. It’s all rather insulting to say the least, to suggest that I should want to give my blessing to the side that is conspiring against me, just because they’re against the other side that is also conspiring against me.
As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t different kinds of Antisemites. To the Antisemite, there is only one kind of Jew, and to me, there is only one kind of Antisemite.
Volunteering In Israel
If there is a dark13 (There Is A Light) by U2
That we shouldn’t doubt
And there is a light
Don’t let it go out
The job I was hired for after my ordeal with my Antisemitic employer allowed me to save up, and take off for Israel. In Israel, I participated in a volunteer program that changed my life. It was a four-month program in a northern Israeli patch of woods called Sha’ar LaAdam–Bab Lil’Insan, and the program was called Project TEN Harduf. In the program, we worked on a number of different fronts. The program involved organic farming, sustainable living, assisting handicapped individuals in the nearby assisted living residence, and teaching English in the nearby Bedouin grade school by us, as non-Israeli Jews.
In Israel, there are Jews and Arabs on the ground who are building bridges between communities and making an attempt to reverse the legacy of racism that has divided the peoples of this land, and I had the privilege to participate in this endeavor. I was able to experience what it was like to live among people whom on the surface come from a radically different background than my own, and find them not to be all that different after all.
The locals invited me into their homes, and I experienced first hand their warmth and hospitality. Why should one ever deprive himself of this just because he can’t get over the fact that they are Arab and he is Jewish? And yet for too many, they will never open themselves up to the possibility. Because of the connections I formed, the locals and I were given the chance to appreciate just how much we had to teach each other. It felt liberating to level the barriers between our respective communities. It felt like a family reunion after ages of being strangers, and indeed that is what it was: a reunion of the Semitic family. In the process of the reconciliation that we were initiating, volunteering and making friendships with Israeli Arabs has been such a profound experience, it makes a lot of what calls itself religion these days seem like kid’s stuff.
“Religion” is often blamed as the reason why the Israel-Palestine conflict continues. But if peace were the thing that Muslims and Jews were religious about, the conflict would be over, and peace is what we would have.
Indeed Kabiya, this particular village of Israeli Arabs was one that was clearly not only already receptive to receiving Jewish volunteers, but one where the population had a friendly and cooperative relationship with Jews and Israel at large, and even sends virtually all their men to the Israeli army. I’m well aware that beyond the parameters of the program that I was involved in, there is an entire population of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs who are going to need a lot more than good vibes and my personal endorsement that we all stop being racist against them. I’m not trying to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict in just one article; I’m trying to galvanize resistance against the forces that keep us all fighting.
About the Author
Clifton lives in Jerusalem, Israel. He continues to study and live Judaism and the Hebrew language. His interests include astrology, tradition, history, foreign language, linguistics, literature, calligraphy, cartooning, and community service. He uses his writing, as well as his fine art to channel his interests.