An old joke:
An old Jewish man rides his bicycle on his way to work past the Nazis who chase him, yelling slurs against the Jews. Then one day they knock him off and beat him up. “Filthy Jew!” They scream.
“Oh the bicycles, the damn bicycles” the old man swears after the beating. The Nazis look at him, puzzled. Then a few days later the same thing happens. He’s riding by – they knock him off and beat him and again, at the end of the beating, he swears at the bicycles. “Damn Bicycles! Damn Bicycles!”
On the third day, one of Nazis stops in the middle of the beating and says, “Wait, you keep swearing at the bicycles, why the bicycles?”
The old man looks up and asks, “Why the Jews?”
So last week, Alexandra, our 14 year old, was in her middle school study hall when she noticed that the kid next to her, Robert, had something written across his knuckles in marker.
Alexandra has been raised to be proud of her heritage and that women ought not be soft-spoken when they observe injustice.
Wash your hands. My Jewish daughter insists.
I’ll pass. He responds.
The kid next to him on the other side asks if it bothers him that he’s insulting other students.
No. He answers – as cool as you’d like.
Maybe I should tell Ms. O, Alex suggests.
Maybe you should, he taunts back.
But she doesn’t. She just asks to change seats and the teacher obliges.
Sitting across the room -- another kid suggests, you should tell Ms. O.
So after the bell rings when the kids pile out to go to lunch, she does.
Ms. O is ticked. They have, after all, just finished a module on “injustice” and the school marquee regularly announces events related to Tolerance and Diversity. Word spreads quickly up to the principal. Robert is hauled out of lunch and into the principal’s office.
As is consistent with policies at our local public schools, I’m not privy to what punishment Robert collected, but I understand there were police at the school. They take death threats seriously these days, Columbine, VA Tech and all. Alex’s friends say Robert was given in-house suspension and not allowed around the rest of the student population.
I’d to believe this was isolated – but just last week, another kid, on her bus, called her a Kike. Totally different kid. “I’m handling it,” Alex had insisted. And then a girl in one of her classes etched a swastika on the inside of her arm. “She’s not so bad,” Alex said.
Let’s back out for a minute. Alex is not one of those kids with a bull’s-eye on her forehead. She isn’t socially awkward, isn’t physically unusual. In fact, she’s verbal, quick, and has a bunch of friends. The only thing that really makes her different is that she’s Jewish.
The reality is that there are bigots everywhere, and I don’t want Alex running to the principal every time she encounters one. Instead, she has to learn how to respond. Last year, when a kid was calling her a “dirty jew” every time he saw her, she snapped back, “That’s right, I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it. Are you proud of being a jerk?” He backed off, and now I think they may actually be friends.
And let’s not forget that these are eighth graders. Any difference is grist for attack and maybe one of the developmental stages we must all grind through is learning to defend ourselves from bullies and those who would use any of our characteristics to beat us down in that Lord of the Flies world that is Middle School.
But this kid with the knuckles was different. There’s threat there. Violence.
At first I thought – oh, middle of Pennsylvania. It might be that it’s this region of the country. Small town America. Mostly rural and parochial and white. Many of these kids have never been on an airplane or to New York City, only three hours from here.
But I think it’s something worse.
I think what happened to my daughter is just the surface. That all over the country -- the ultra-right is swelling again. I’m not talking about the Tea Party. I’m talking about ultra right wing nationalist racist nut-jobs.
If you look through our history – during every economic recession or depression – 1870’s -- 1930’s – 1970’s – 2010 -- the Klan and groups like them rise when the ignorant look for simple answers to economic woes. It’s the blacks. It’s the immigrants. It’s the Jews. Recent reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center show that Pennsylvania has 28 such hate groups -- but they are growing all over the country.
And then we have the credit default heroes. Many in this society associate bankers and finance with Jews. While the reality is that we were recently ripped off by people from every ethnic group – it’s convenient to pick one -- and who better than the Jews? There are, after-all, many Jews in finance.
The irony is that racism appears to be flourishing just as science is showing us that race doesn’t exist. When you analyze DNA you find that we are mostly blends – it’s not possible to look at our underlying blueprint and split us into categories.
But this is all intellectual.
Nearby, there’s a 14 year old kid who thinks killing Jews is a good idea. And we’ve got a family history that includes concentration camps – so I know better than to overlook anti-Semitism. There’s a less intellectual part of me that wants to fight – to arm and strike first – Israeli style. But there’s no answer there. He’s probably just a screwed up kid doing the best he can with anger he can’t control and my daughter and my people are easier targets than his Mom or step-dad or the new baby in his house (yeah Robert – I’ve done my homework) or whomever he’s really angry at.
So I’ve got nowhere to go with this hyped up -- shoot back -- electric juice keeping me up at night.
Damn Bicycles. Damn Bicycles. Damn Bicycles.