“You Jewish son of a @#$%,” a boy taunted my brother on the school bus one day as I sat nearby.
I was 14, my brother, Kevin, 16. The comment made us seethe, but we let it pass. Then a few weeks later, my family, the only Jewish one in our neighborhood and rural Ohio school, woke up to find swastikas etched in wax on our home windows and cars.
This time, my family did not let it pass. My parents contacted a deputy sheriff, who was friends with my brother through Boy Scouts. The deputy sheriff went to the doors of the boys we thought were responsible. None admitted to the anti-Semitic act. My family could have told our school, but did not. This was in the late 1970s before it was popular for schools and parents to directly confront anti-Semitism, racism, and other acts of intolerance.
Now a parent, I read about Mel Gibson’s latest insensitive comment about Jews and wonder how to help my son cope with anti-Semitism and prejudice better than I did during my childhood. Gibson, according to several news reports, quipped, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” in response to a script co-writer’s comment that he was Jewish. Gibson also is in hot water with another Jewish screenwriter for an angry rant that allegedly included anti-Semitic remarks.
I’m heartened that the media is not simply letting Gibson getting away with making offhand comments about Jews. My 4-year-old son, frankly, would not understand any of this. But at some point in life, he will hear a comment that maligns Jews and wonder why people hate him so. The slur may come from a famous person or worse, from someone he knows.
I do not criticize my parents for not reporting the swastika incident to my school. Our school, at least from the 1970s into the early 1980s, showed little interest in teaching students the importance of respecting all religions. Instead, the school forced religion upon us, through pastors who preached at Easter and Christmas assemblies and through Bible study classes once a week in elementary school.
After our house was covered with swastikas, I was angry and ashamed, ashamed somewhat that I was Jewish, ashamed that I did not know how to fight back against such ignorance. For I think the boy who taunted my brother and the boys who likely put swastikas on our house were more ignorant than anti-Semitic. Gibson, an actor I admittedly adored during his Lethal Weapon days, may be a combination of both.
I look at my son and want to protect him from hearing anything derogatory about his religion, but know I cannot. How should he respond to a direct insult about his faith? Do not shout back, I will urge him as he grows older. But do not take it in silence, either. He should tell the person that it is wrong to malign someone else’s faith that way. If the person brushes him off, he should tell an adult. He should always tell me and his father.
If I sense as a parent that some of his peers are not tolerant of other faiths or races, I plan to act to educate rather than focus only on my son. So many resources exist now that did not during my childhood. We can teach our children by showing the 2004 documentary, Paper Clips. Eighth-graders at a rural school in Tennessee collected paper clips for each of the 6 million people killed in the Holocaust. They also created a museum about the Holocaust.
Last night was Yom Hashoah, the international Holocaust Memorial Day. I sang as part of a chorus in a concert at Temple Emunah in Lexington, a Boston suburb. Guest speakers came from Facing History and Ourselves, a course used in schools internationally to teach children how to fight prejudice with compassion. The students learn about the Holocaust and other examples of genocide. They watch videos like one the temple congregation was shown last night – The Power of Good – about Nicholas Winton, who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis.
It may be too late for Gibson to reverse many Jews’ opinion of him. It’s never too late to teach our children well.
Last night, a soloist sang author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s words: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.” The words haunted and comforted me. How much I want to teach my child not to be indifferent. How much I want to make sure that I never stay silent when I must speak.