I invited an acquaintance over for supper, and as she walked through the door, she wrinkled her nose and remarked, “You people use so much garlic.”
I was at a loss as to how I should respond, so I said nothing. However, the recent massacre of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh sharply brought my friend’s words back to me. I now believe that these not-so-subtle disdainful comments that separate people should not go unanswered. But what should I have said?
“You people,” divides us. Remember when Ross Perot unsuccessfully used those words during his bid for president in 1992?
As a Jew or member of any minority, we must not let divisive words be used without consequence. On November 4, 2018, the online version of The Forward revealed that the State of New York invalidated an anti-Semitic vanity license plate with the initials GTKRWN.
I had no idea what that acronym stood for, and it horrified me when I found out: Gas The Kikes, Race War Now. Thanks to Jay Firestone, who infiltrated an alt-right community and wrote about it in Commune magazine, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic of Queens contacted the Motor Vehicles Commissioner, Theresa Egan, and requested that the plate be cancelled. The words were a form of hate speech that incites violence, and the agency took appropriate action.
In the past, I have tried to be pro-active when my family felt the sting of anti-Semitic actions or words. I regret that I made no moves when a neighbor boy once told my son that he should have been burned in the ovens, too. I knew the boy’s family was openly anti-Semitic, and I felt inadequate to the task of confronting them. I felt so guilty that later, when a minister’s son accused my daughter of killing Christ, I took action.
I called upon the family and told the father what had happened and how this had upset my child. Sternly, the minister called in his son. “Stevie, didn’t I always tell you that we killed him, too?”
Even though the results were underwhelming, at least I tried. Then when my younger daughter’s two fourth grade classmates opined, “We wish Hitler had killed you. You should have burned in the gas chamber,” I reported the incident to the teacher who subsequently contacted the parents. What happened after that escapes my memory. Nonetheless, in this situation, I knew that I personally could do nothing other than turn to a higher school authority, and in retrospect, that was a good move.
No one should make back-handed criticisms of another’s ethnicity. I’m more convinced of this than ever before, so back to my original question: What should I have said to the acquaintance who said that my people used so much garlic?
I welcome your suggestions.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who is on heightened alert to not ignore racial, religious, or ethnic slurs against anyone.
Visit my website, The Gallery of Folklore and Popular Culture: https://flpcgallery.org