How to Respond to Hate

A couple of weeks ago, my sister and her husband, Shoshana and Ari Simones, came home from vacation to find a swastika and “JEW” spray-painted on their mailbox and on the fence beside their home.

This is in Phoenix, Arizona. This is in 2017.

This is a symbol that represents a policy of extermination of Jews through mass murder. It’s not nice to discover that someone who knows where you live wants to see you killed.

“We’re not afraid, we’re not ashamed”

A first instinct is to want to make it disappear as quickly as possible. A kind neighbor covered it with paper, and after calling the police, even tried to get it cleaned up before my sister and her husband got home. Although it’s probably good that she didn’t.

With great bravery, strength, tact and intelligence, my sister and brother-in-law decided to leave up the graffiti and go public.

With help from the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, Shoshana and Ari began talking to the press — AZ Central, ABC 15, Fox 10, 12 News, and more — making sure that the coverage always noted this was not an isolated incident, but part of a spike in anti-Semitic acts in Phoenix this year. Eventually the story went national, reaching the USA Today. “We’re not afraid,” my sister said, again and again. “We’re not ashamed. We’re proud Jews.”

The response from the community, at every level, was a rebuke to those who would intimidate and threaten Jews or other minorities. From the very beginning, to their credit, the Phoenix Police Department took the incident seriously, referring it to their special bias crimes unit, and the FBI stepped in as well. And the mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, gave Shoshana and Ari a call to express his support. At a more local level, neighbors sent flowers, came by to ask if there was anything they could do, sent notes of support. Strangers became friends.

“I definitely smile when I see it”

Of course, my sister and brother-in-law weren’t going to leave up a symbol of hate forever. But rather than cover it up as if nothing had happened, they decided to throw a party, inviting the community to come and repaint their mailbox with messages of love and inclusion.

From a symbol of hate, Shoshana and Ari brought the community together and created a symbol of joy. “I definitely smile when I see it,” my sister told AZ Central.

It’s notable that in the middle of all this, after Shoshana and Ari said they’d leave up the word “JEW” and write “PROUD” above it, someone — presumably the perpetrator — came in the middle of the night and covered over the graffiti with what appeared to be the same black spray paint that had been used in the first place.

It’s impossible to know why. Perhaps the perpetrator felt ashamed. Maybe it was a local kid whose parents got mad and made him cover it up. Or maybe the perpetrator was angry that his act, far from creating the intended fear and intimidation, was turning into a rallying point of support for Jews.

My friend Alena Tansey works for USAID, has been stationed in conflict and post-conflict regions like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and studied genocide prevention at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I talked to her about what happened, and she said that the best response to hate crimes isn’t to ignore them, and it’s not to be shocked, either. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge that these things happen, see any larger pattern that they might be part of, and then do whatever possible to empower the victims and disempower the perpetrators.

Which is exactly what Shoshana and Ari had done, and I couldn’t be prouder.

Do a mitzvah

Shoshana and Ari also made a request of the community. The “entrance fee” for their party was one good deed, or mitzvah, as we say in Hebrew. They asked people to join them in spreading light. So if you’re horrified by the act of hate that started this whole thing, please take one conscious action to bring positivity into the world. I’d be delighted if you could share it with me here.

For me, here in Korea, my good deed was to stand up and be counted at the Seoul LGBT Pride festival this weekend (I’ll have more to say about that soon). Like Jews, LGBT people are often the targets of hate, and the thousands of angry protesters outside Seoul Pride were intimidating, to be sure. But there was joy and celebration in the face of it. Despite the pouring rain, tens of thousands of people came to express themselves and their support for a more inclusive society at the largest LGBT event in Korea’s history.

There is no way to prevent every last incident of hate. The real danger, though, is not in these acts of hate themselves, but in the silence that too often surrounds them. We must stand up as individuals and communities to counter fear with love.

Pride

I am a proud Jew.

I am a proud bisexual.

I’m not afraid.

I’m not ashamed.

And I’m not alone.

[national fears]

Because I know a little something about Korea, people often ask me about the Chinese government. I suppose Canadians probably get asked to explain America, so I kind of get it.

In any case, a question that often comes up is why the Chinese government is so terrified of Falun Gong. I don’t know from any detailed insider knowledge or anything, but my guess is that it has to do with a vast and little-known war called the Taiping Rebellion.

At roughly the same time that some 600,000 Americans lost their lives in our Civil War, China was going through an epic struggle that cost some 20 million lives — some 30 times as many casualties. (I found one reference to China’s population in 1834 as 400 million, while the US had some 31 million in 1860, so the percentage losses are closer: something like 5% in China, and 2% in the US.)

Wars on this scale leave national scars. America certainly hasn’t resolved all the racial issues that lay behind the Civil War, and fear of race-based insurrection has continued to haunt the national psyche.

In China, the haunting fear is of a different kind. It’s a fear of disruptive religious movements, because that’s what Taiping was. Hong Xiuquan, the movement’s leader, claimed to be Jesus’s brother, and he led what was called the Heavenly Kingdom in a great battle to rid China of Manchu rule and spread a peculiar brand of heterodox Christianity.

So I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that when Chinese officials see a movement like Falun Gong — a religious movement with the power to mobilize great numbers of people — some national memory of the Taiping disaster kicks in. On a gut level, mass religious zeal produces panic.

None of this is meant to justify the abuse, repression, or torture of any group of people for their religious beliefs, of course. The question isn’t whether such repression is OK — it’s not — but why it happens, why this group in particular gets the Chinese government’s panties in a bunch. And I think that maybe it’s that legacy of Taiping.

[the cup]

Many years ago, I saw a lovely Tibetan film called The Cup. It has been a long time, but I finally watched it again, and I found it just as sweet, moving and lovely as before. It’s the story of some monks in a Tibetan monastery in northern India — refugees, mostly — and one young monk’s passion for soccer during the 1998 World Cup.

I guess I don’t have all that much to say about it right now except that I would encourage you to see it if you can.

[fear]

I have been afraid of being alone for a long time. When I was very small, I surrounded myself with stuffed animals when it was time for bed, but sometimes they weren’t enough. Then I would get up and go to my parents, who, understandably, tried to get me back to bed. When I’d gotten up one too many times, my mother would send me back to my room and tell me not to come out again for 15 minutes.

This was unfair, I felt, for two reasons. First, I didn’t have a clock in my room, and even if I did, I couldn’t read it. But second, and far more vexing, was the fact that if a burglar were to come, he would have to come within some 15-minute period, so how could my mother be sure it wasn’t this 15 minutes? How would she like it if a burglar came and instead of coming out to get help, I stayed put until he snatched me away?

I have no idea how I came to fear burglars specifically. Our subdivision had had exactly one burglar in its entire history, and he had turned 18 and been arrested and sent away by the time I was old enough for two-syllable words. People left their doors unlocked and still do. But I was afraid a burglar would come, see the fire-department-issued “C” sticker on my windown (for Child’s Room) and decide to break in on the weakest member of the family.

This fear was connected to McDonald’s. Specifically, I had a fear of the Hamburglar and his hamburger-shaped head. The privet outside my window cast a shadow in that awful shape against the curtain, and it filled me with dread.

Except it turns out the Hamburglar never had a hamburger head. All these years, I’d conflated the Hamburglar with Mayor McCheese, putting the head of the latter on the body of the former.

Somehow this seems important. How many of my other childhood fears, still buried deep and leeching their toxins into the soil of my unconscious, are just as nonsensical? To what extent is every hurt and disaster in my life the product of a misapprehension?

As Zen Master Seung Sahn put it, “Only don’t know.”

[questions for the buddha]

Why is there suffering? Not what causes it, but why is the universe constituted in such a way that these causes manifest? Why do we live in a universe in which our Buddha natures are concealed?

If we all have Buddha nature and enlightenment is available to anyone, why have so few people achieved it?

If samsara has existed for infinite time and enlightenment is available to all sentient beings, why are not all sentient beings already enlightened?

[secrets and food]

SlimJims.I’m walking down Sixth Avenue on a Friday evening after work, hurrying to my therapist, a blue-green headache crawling over from the back of my skull towards my right eye. I’m hungry. I want meat. The Halal Foods truck isn’t open yet, and the cart in front of the Best Buy on 23rd has nothing but pretzels. Time is running short. I duck into the CVS on 25th and browse the snacks. Jerky is ridiculously expensive. I settle for a cannister of Slim Jims. They’re greasy in a queasy way, but they have the mix of salt, fat, protein and umami that I’m craving. They get me through.

I stuff the cannister in my bag, and when I get home, I slip it into a dresser drawer. I don’t want Jenny to see. I’m ashamed of having bought such down-market junk food. I’m afraid she’ll think I’m disgusting for eating it, for wanting to eat it. There’s no reason she needs to know.

This is the insanity from which I am working to recover. I confessed to Jenny last night about the Slim Jims, though it hardly counts as a confession considering that I hadn’t done anything wrong. It made her laugh. What’s especially ridiculous about the whole thing is that I went with Jenny to McDonald’s on Saturday to indulge her particular junk food craving. Why would she have a problem with mine? But I had to confess because the mechanism of this secret-keeping — the shame, the hiding, the justification — was exactly the same as the mechanism for much bigger, more serious secrets.

This incident has got me thinking now about my relationship with food. I don’t think of myself as someone with an eating disorder, though I tend to overeat from time to time (like most Americans) and to treat emotional distress with tasty treats (also like most Americans). But my psychological relationship with food is nevertheless tangled.

I grew up in Northern California in the late 1970s and 1980s, an era when food virtue replaced religion for many people. Terms like “macrobiotic” and “Pritikin” and “organic” were in the air, and food allergies were just coming into fashion. For children, the complex restrictions, and the earnest moral tone that went with them, was often bewildering, especially in group settings. (I still harbor a bitterness about efforts to convince me that carob was just like chocolate. It is not, and any idiot could taste the difference. It was insulting.)

My parents were pretty chill on the health food front, but beginning in my early childhood, a strange, isolating, ever-tightening net of restrictions began to enclose me, one intimately tied to morality and virtue: the laws of kashrus. At first we just kept kosher style, which was easy and kind of fun, offering a whiff of superiority without demanding much. We didn’t eat pork and we kept our milk and meat separate. No big. It meant we were better people.

But gradually the rules became stricter, and eventually we went wholly kosher: separate dishes for milk and meat, eating only products that were labeled with a hechsher, subscribing to newsletters that detailed the ongoing debates about even hechshered foods, waiting an hour (then three, then six) after eating meat before eating anything with milk in it. There were no kosher restaurants in Northern California, so that was out too. Chinese food was gone from my life. Around friends, I was expected to keep track of a vast library of unacceptable treats and shun them when offered. No more Oreos. No more Starbursts. And there was always the danger that a beloved product would slip into doubt. Worse, my parents would make an exception for something they loved, and then one day decide — arbitrarily, as far as I could tell, and certainly without consulting me first — that the exception had to end.

Holidays brought other restrictions. Every couple of months, fast days came around, and from age 13 I was supposed to go either from sunset to sunset or from dawn to sunset, depending on the particular fast, with neither food nor drink of any kind. Before fast days, including the highly sacred Yom Kippur, I would sneak extra snack food into my room, but I was always careful tokeep myself hungry enough to eat a lot when the fast ended. Passover was a week of confusion and despair, as the available foods were limited to the flavorless and the difficult; I lived primarily on macaroons, leftover roast from the Seder, and a sort of matzah-based breakfast cereal my mother concocted, and which was always under threat from a potential restriction on gebruchts, or matzah that has become wet.

Added to those food issues was my father’s ongoing hectoring of my mother about her weight. She wasn’t ever obese or even very chubby, but neither was she the hot-bodied 19-year-old he married and painted in a bikini, and I don’t think my father accepted easily that my mother’s body was simply never going to return to the state it was in when she was getting catcalls across Europe in 1966. And none of us could help but be aware of my maternal grandmother’s long struggle with serious obesity, punctuated by crash diets and involvements in OA.

That this way of life led to secrecy and dualism is hardly surprising. I wanted to be a good son and a good Jew. I also wanted to eat things that tasted good. What alcohol or cigarettes or pornography are for some kids, bacon and Nabisco products were for me. Except that in other people’s homes, these things were completely normal. When Dan down the street got his Easter basket full of Starbursts and offered to share, I didn’t say no. By the time I reached adolescence, when constant hunger and rebellion are pretty much the norm anyway, I was willing to break food rules whenever I could. In high school, I would drive down to the mall and eat a big plate of Chinese food for lunch, savoring the pork dishes. It wasn’t that I went out of my way to eat pork specifically, but that I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat, without restrictions from my parents.

And I wanted to eat in restaurants. I wanted to be normal. When Joey got into Thai food — his parents were much slower to adopt the full religious regimen — I wanted to know what he was excited about. My parents actually mocked the food freaks with their semi-imaginary health fragilities, somehow never realizing that they’d turned me into the nerdy kid with the milk allergy. (Later, in my pot-smoking years, when I shunned tobacco-mixed spliffs because tobacco gives me headaches and tastes lousy, I usually felt it necessary to make some comment like, “I hate to be the kid who says, ‘I cannot have milk because I have a lactose intolerance,’ but I really don’t like tobacco.”) It was one more of the many, many ways that Orthodox Judaism isolated me and kept me alienated.

In my teen years, I would disappear into my room with a box of cookies and not return it to the kitchen. Did it take me a week to finish, or two days, or did I finish it that night? I kept the pace of my indulging secret from my parents so that they couldn’t scold me for overeating, or for the cost of my eating.

It was also in this period that I learned from my peers to feel moral and political shame around eating. My high school had militant vegans. Eating meat was bad. Eating environmentally damaging foods was bad. Mostly I made a mockery of this sort of thinking, but it affected me. And perhaps because of my own upbringing, I have found myself attracted to or in relationships with food moralizers quite often. Berit was a vegetarian who thought seasoning was creepy; T had complex ethics and aesthetics around food that kept me nervous and uncertain. To an extent, I think I hid the Slim Jims from Jenny because T might have scolded me for eating them. And I have sometimes waited for Jenny to go to bed so that I can snack without incurring her fear that I’ll get diabetes like her father.

But I like Slim Jims from time to time. I like Hormel chili. And more importantly, I have a right to like whatever I like. Food shame and food secrecy are habits that I need to break. They are part of my systems of indulging my own desires through secrecy rather than being open about what I want and need. And that has to change.

[our wiccan defenders]

I’m not nearly as much of a follower of Wiccan culture and news as I was back when I was dating T, but I’m still pleased to learn that the Wiccan pentacle has been added to the list of approved symbols for government-issue tombstones for fallen soldiers. Religious freedom is a founding principle of our nation, and our soldiers who give their lives in defense of that principle deserve to have it recognized when they are laid to rest. (Via BoingBoing.)

[god says abortion isn’t murder]

In the comments on a TPM Café piece on Barack Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Christian right, I ran across this fascinating passage from Exodus 21:22-25 (New International Version):

22 If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [or she has a miscarriage] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

There’s a little ambiguity over what exactly is meant by “gives birth prematurely,” but it seems clear from context — and from the state of medical technology in Biblical times, which would have been insufficient to keep a seriously premature baby alive — that this passage is describing the death of a fetus. (The bracketed interpolation is theirs, not mine.)

A very clear distinction is then made between the killing of a fetus, for which a fine is incurred, and “serious injury,” which can apparently be inflicted only on the living woman, not on the unborn fetus. Fetuses, then, are distinctly in a separate category from actual people. Those who insist that abortion is murder are thus rejecting the legal definitions set forth in the Book of Exodus, which most Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians recognize as the word of God.

Interestingly, this passage is actually used by pro-lifers to support their position because it penalizes the killing of a fetus. That seems unarguable, but based on the above passage, it would seem more Biblically correct to demand a ban on cars and guns than on abortion, because maiming and death as a result of auto and gun accidents is relatively common and clearly considered more serious by the Biblical God than the death of a fetus.

Of course, no such thing will ever happen (or should). Just as a few verses are plucked from the Bible to justify a culturally based revulsion against homosexuality, the Biblical justifications for banning abortion are ex post facto, chosen to support a preexisting political position. (Indeed, this cherry-picking approach is regularly applied by people who consider themselves Biblical literalists. I would be fascinated to see a serious effort to construct a complete world view starting with the Bible and rejecting any outside sources that contradict the Bible — a modern Karaite movement, as it were — but I suppose the many contradictions within the Bible itself would make such an effort nearly impossible.)

Why abortion is so controversial is not an easy question to answer, but the reasons should be sought in the structure of our society today and in its recent history, not in the Bible.

Note:
For those who prefer it, the King James version is less ambiguous:

22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

[sign of hope?]

According to the New York Times, “there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.”

The article unfortunately goes on to point out that this fear is, like so many aspects of Evangelical culture, largely an article of faith, built around an obscure pronouncement with no particular basis either in science or in Scripture.

Still, I have long held out hope that many of the children of Evangelicals would find their parents’ intolerant, narrow vision of Christianity intolerably narrow. The growth of Evangelical churches in recent decades will not necessarily continue indefinitely.

And please keep in mind that this post is not a paean to the shallow MTV lifestyle the article depicts these kids rejecting. I’m all for a youth culture that has more to offer than hooking up and listening to Chingy. I just hope it is something that also has room for positive approaches to sexuality and homosexuality, respect for science, openness to other cultures and less social pressure to embrace one strain of religious faith unquestioningly.

Like, maybe the government could even start funding schools of some kind that would be open to the public — you know, with art and music and humanities and science programs. It’s so crazy, it just might work!