A few weeks ago, one of my son’s best friends drew an art project that featured a Swastika. This boy is an otherwise sweet child; he has spent time with my entire family and knows us all well. Both boys are in the sixth grade.
As my son told me what his friend had drawn, he fought back tears. His friend was old enough to know what it meant — how it was hurtful — the horrors it had stood for. He was angry, too. He confessed he had said a bad word. He felt betrayed.
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I pressed his hand. We went for smoothies. I told him I understood how hurt he felt, but the truth is that I don’t really understand.
I’ve never been a target of hate speech of this sort. My sons’ father (my former husband) is Jewish, and I was raised and am Christian. We have always observed most major Jewish holidays as well as the Christian ones. The boys have always identified as members of both faiths.
While I’m in the fold — the inner circle — of the religious majority, the souls I love most in the world have been hurt — intentionally and unintentionally — by cruel, insensitive comments, symbols and acts of anti-Semitism that are now on the rise throughout the country. Churchgoers around the world this Sunday will hear that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus (my sons have heard this in more than one church service). My children read the news, including stories of Muslim temples or Jewish cemeteries desecrated. It worries me; it terrifies them.
When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer makes comments that Hitler did not attack his own people with chemical weapons, we wonder whether he has forgotten an entire swath of history or just never knew it in the first place. My sons’ paternal relatives were persecuted (or killed) in Europe and Russia. Our family knows these stories, this history — feel it viscerally — and yes, the gas chambers employed chemicals.
My sons’ Jewish heritage has mostly been a source of joy (not to mention presents). Not surprisingly, they’ve regaled their friends with stories of receiving gifts for both Christmas and Hanukah. But as my boys entered school and began discussing their heritage with broader circles of friends, I began to realize that my academic and cultural appreciation of Judaism could — like the privilege that accompanies the color of my skin — be turned on and off. Theirs… not so much. Their Judaism is central to their being, to their identity. And it could be used against them.
“Mama, is it WEIRD that I’m Jewish?”
“Mama, am I going to HELL?”
“Mama, did the Jews kill Jesus?”
Through next Tuesday, Jews around the world will continue the celebration of Passover, a feast commemorating freedom from bondage in Egypt and of the new life brought by Spring. It is also part of the Seder tradition to remove drops of wine (or juice) from one’s celebratory cup to remember the pain caused by the plagues — and the death of their oppressors’ firstborn.
That is a ritual that feels so relevant today, and our Haggadah (Seder guide) called us to be aware — not just of historic racism and tyranny – but of that in the current day, and in which we are complicit.
Around our table last night, we hosted Jews, Catholics, Methodists and secular humanists. It was lovely. We prayed for peace and for freedom from oppression. And as I think on the religious divisions and hatred the world over — with a front row seat to my boys’ hurt and feelings of confusion over these questions — I’m called to be the “righteous Gentile,” first in my own household, then to Jews around the world whose history has been forgotten (or ignored) and to those of other faiths who are being persecuted or marginalized.
There is nothing so heartbreaking as trying to comfort one’s child through the pain of senseless rejection. And once you’ve felt vicariously the religious discrimination aimed at your own child, such discrimination becomes intolerable from anyone, anywhere. I will never quite know what hurt my children experience at the sight of a Swastika on a classmate’s paper — nor will I experience the fear and pain of Muslim refugees stopped at our borders. But my small insight into our senseless bigotries, coupled with the privilege I enjoy, challenges me to be a fence around those who are targeted. And not just the ones who are my own flesh and blood.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore is a tenured associate professor of Law at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Georgia. There, she runs a law clinic representing indigent prisoners, teaches Law & Literature and raises two curious and wonderful boys.