June 25, 2001Share this story by E-mail
Everywhere you look, there are banners, books, pamphlets. "Lest we forget." "Never again." "Close the door on hate."
You would think that racism and anti-semitism and prejudices based on skin color, class and faith are pretty much something that the human race has learned to control, has learned to get over, has learned to dismiss in favor of a more even-handed way of judging one's fellow human beings purely on the merits of who, not what, they are.
Picture this: American suburbia, somewhere in Florida. Pretty, ordinary houses, all in a row, neat lawns bordering concrete driveways into double garages, the occasional bay window, trees, flowers, backdrop for American Dream 101. "We hold these truths to be self-evident....all men are created equal." The words positively echo down these leafy streets.
In the back yard of one of these houses, a white-haired woman is watering her garden.
All of a sudden she is addressed by her next-door neighbor, a strapping young Caucasian male, of an age to be her son, maybe her grandson.
"Listen, you f***** Jew. I'm only going to tell you this once, and turn your f*****Jew face towards me when I am talking to you. If you call the cops one more time about my dogs barking, I will deal with you. You don't know me. I know how to deal with you. Why don't you go back to Miami, where all the rest of the f***** Jews are. We don't need you here. By calling the cops, you started a war. You have a war on your hands now."
She took it for as long as she could. After about the fifteenth time he called her a f***** Jew, in the backyard of her own house, she went inside and did call the police. Their response to this incident is that they were "working on it." But the basic vibe was that there was no real harm done. They are calling it freedom of speech, or maybe they just don't want to invoke a riot. They made it clear that they will not intervene until and unless someone gets killed or hurt. The Jewish family in question contacted the Jewish League, and a social worker came to talk to the lady who had been abused. Her advice boiled down to, "Why don't you move to a more civilized neighborhood?" The FBI can't do anything, like the police, until someone gets killed. The idea seems to be, get yourself hurt (preferably fatally so) so that the authorities have an excuse to do something, or else move. Otherwise, the bully may continue to bully you at his whim.
On the one hand, having a law that proscribes the utterance of so-called "hate speech" is a dangerous precedent. It opens the doors to witch hunts and pogroms of its own. It is easy enough for people to start pointing fingers and whining, "He called me a nigger/a wop/a f***** Jew" and expecting authorities to come bustling up with handcuffs telling the other guy, "All right, put your hands into these pretty bracelets right here, and nobody needs to get hurt." Think back to McCarthy and the rabid anti-Communist hunts - accused people saving their own skins by denouncing others as Reds. People losing livelihoods, reputations, lives because of what is, after all, an ideology - just the same as Democracy is an ideology. Like fire, ideologies make good servants and bad masters; allow yourself to become driven by one and you no longer have free will. It is not, should not be, a jailable offense if you mouth off at someone.
On the other hand, where DOES one draw the line? Does someone really have to die before the authorities will come in with some action? I've heard that line - "We can't do anything until the other party DOES something" - far too often for comfort. While it is true that people who say, out in public, "I'm going to kill you" very rarely actually do so, it is also true that if they keep on saying it, especially if they say it in some sort of cowardly manner like anonymous notes or phone calls, they may, just may, actually mean it. But the incident in the Florida suburb did not involve a threat of murder, merely a declaration of war. All the same, and especially in the case of Jewish survivors of the Nazi years, throwing their Jewishness in their faces is pretty much psychological warfare to begin with. I once read a shattering story about a man who returned, with his ex-Auschwitz-internee father, to Europe on a journey of laying old ghosts. Or so they hoped. In a hotel somewhere in Poland, they came back from an expedition and asked for their key at the reception desk.
"What's your number?" the receptionist asked innocuously enough.
Even after having watched his father's eyes grow more and more haunted as they approached the site of Auschwitz, the author of the book in question was appalled to see his father automatically raise his arm and offer, as a response to the receptionist's question, the fading tattoo of numbers on his wrist.
So what is the story behind the neighborhood dogs which triggered that attack on the Jewish housewife back in Florida?
The dog-owning neighbors moved next door to the Jewish family about four months after the Jewish family in question moved to their house from, yes, Miami. The lady of the new household, let's call her Debbie, introduced herself to her neighbors as a member of a motorcycle gang who "liked to make everybody's business her business." The biker lady's neighbor wasn't really interested in becoming her buddy, but remained polite and diplomatic at all times. After all, they had to live next door to one another.
Debbie and the man who was introduced as her fiancé, let's call him Carl, made themselves at home - on their property as well as their neighbors'. Whenever they needed to drive their van or their motorcycles around to their backyard for maintenance or repairs, they would do so across the Jewish neighbors' lawn, or the lawn belonging to the people on the other side of them, because a large tree on their own front lawn precluded their driving across their own. The other neighbors eventually tied a string along the length of their property bordering the bikers' yard, to keep off their vehicles. The Jewish family finally did the same. Both strings were cut and removed several times. About a year ago the Jewish household planted a row of palm trees, on their property, along the length where it bordered with the bikers' yard. Debbie came out yelling, "You can't plant those there! How are we to drive our van into the back?" Her fiancé joined her outside and after a consultation they just announced, loudly enough to be overheard, that it wouldn't be too bad - they would just have to drive over the plants.
Eventually Debbie and Carl cut down the offending tree on their property, put up a fence, and acquired a couple of dogs. These dogs would be let out to "do their business" typically at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. The dogs always barked, inevitably, waking up the entire neighborhood. Debbie would never let an occasion go by, when she encountered her Jewish neighbor, to scream at her not to harass her dogs by "addressing" them - which, aside from the occasional "good doggy," her neighbor never actually did. Other neighbors called in the police more or less immediately for noise control; the Jewish neighbor didn't because she felt the dogs would get used to the neighborhood eventually. The dogs did not. After several months of this, even the Jewish neighbor called in the cops.
Cut to the incident in the garden, and Carl's neighborly comments.
"My hope," the Jewish lady to whom this incident happened, "is that legal action should prevail in making [Debbie and Carl] accountable for slandering me and shouting racial slurs at me. I am not going to take this any more. I've survived being persecuted by the Nazis; my husband's family was executed in the gas chambers. We've had enough."
The incident described here took place on a late afternoon in May 2001. Practically yesterday. They premiered a movie on the life of Anne Frank on TV in late May, and people sat back and watched and nodded sagely at each other - shocking, sure, but nothing like that could happen in today's day and age of peace and tolerance. Certainly not in America, in any event. And yet, the Florida Incident cannot be an isolated one - or the authorities would not be acting so blasé about it. In other words, prejudice is alive and well and out on the streets, and often it is too scary to do anything to stop it, lest you draw the attention of the bullies and the blasphemers onto yourself, and they find something to persecute YOU with.
Another recently released movie was Disney's megabuck Pearl Harbor - depicting an incident which triggered, as the movie blurb would have it, "the dawn of a nation's greatest glory." But the patriots who glory in that "glory" never bother mentioning another thing that the Japanese strike triggered. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, half a century ago, Americans reacted by creating concentration camps - there is no easy euphemism for these - for anyone Japanese (or of Japanese descent). People who had lived in the United States for forty years or more were rounded up and sent to camps where Uncle Sam could keep an eye on them - women, children, old people, interned for the sin of having oriental skin and slanted dark eyes. America never went to war because of Hitler's Final Solution of the Jewish question - that was a European problem. America went to war because some hot-shot Japanese pilots caught America's best and brightest with their pants down and, well, a piece of dialogue from Pearl Harbor the movie (which was sunk by the critics just as decisively as the American warships in the real McCoy) says it all - a young American pilot is heard to say, "We don't want to die, we just want to MATTER." And unless America entered the war and was seen to "punish" Japan for what it had done, those American kids would never be able to say that they mattered. But that was what it was - crime and punishment, not a moral high ground. At that time, America was no stranger to a second-class human being. The South was full of them, poor black families with no real hope of ever shaking free of the grinding poverty which was better than barbed wire at keeping them "in their place;" the poor quarters of any American inner city were full of them, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Armenian, Serb, Chinese, Polish, immigrants who had followed America's "Give me your hungry and your homeless" beacon and who had landed on dreamed-of shores only to find that the tales of streets being paved with gold had been greatly exaggerated.
And yet, these immigrants made their way as best they could, and spent a generation or two in America learning how to belong there. Some of them never quite made it; but their children, they like to think, did - the kids who grew up chewing gum, collecting baseball cards, going to the prom, speaking with the native American drawl their immigrant parents never quite managed to acquire. The kids whom their parents thought safe, because of all these things, from the prejudices and insults heaped on the parents' generation back in Europe's troubled ghettoes and shtetls.
Not so, apparently.
The incident related above, from the full gentle flower of American suburbia, is not ancient history. Prejudice is alive and well, brooding under rocks like a scorpion, ready to inflict its poisonous sting at the least of pretexts.
Just a reminder. "Lest we forget."
Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2001. All rights reserved.
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