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.

Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.

Thailand

Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.

America

I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix has been very chill.

After months of not very chill — all that leaving New York (twice), punctuated by a whirlwind five weeks of intensity in Asia and capped by a couple of weeks of near-constant Jewish holidays in the company of a seven-month-old who has just learned how to climb up high enough to fall on his head — it has been a pleasure to be somewhere relaxed and easy.

Picking a direction home

I feel like I’ve been here a very long time, though it’s been just three weeks. I suppose it’s the first place that has felt like home in quite a while — maybe since June, when my girlfriend left New York, and New York began to feel like ex-home, a place I was closing up and shutting down.

I have made a conscious decision to think of Phoenix as home, of this house I own, this house where my parents are retired and where my stuff lives in boxes in the shed out back, as home. Someday Korea will be home, but it isn’t yet. I didn’t want to go off backpacking in Southeast Asia with no direction home, no sense of a place in mind that I can think of as the safe retreat if ever I need it. I don’t expect to need it, but it’s good to know where home is, even if you never plan to actually live there.

And I like Phoenix. As a place to live, it’s not bad. The weather is great — not just the warm and sunny you think of, but the crazy storms with the constant lightning and horizontal rain that come sweeping through and last twenty minutes. The storms here are about the best anywhere, and everything is dry again an hour later.

Phoenix days

So what have I been up to?

Sleeping late. Getting up, making coffee, going out for Mexican food for lunch. Treading water in the pool for exercise in the afternoon. Writing. I’ve finished a draft of my Vietnam book, and no, you can’t read it.

I’ve spent some time with my sister too, going to an Arizona State football game and a Phoenix Suns basketball game and a Make-A-Wish walk and the Phoenix Art Museum (“Art is our middle name” say the T-shirts) and a hike up north.

Beyond that, there’s been a lot of logistical stuff of the kind you do before you leave the country for a long while: getting an Arizona driver license and an international driving permit, buying travel insurance, getting a trust and a will and setting up durable power of attorney and making multiple visits to the notary at the UPS store, organizing boxes of my stuff in the shed out back, going to Target too many times and spending too much money on a year’s supply of drugs and toiletries. I have enough Imodium that I could stop pooping for a year, though that seems like maybe not the best idea, because that’s the number of pills that come in a Costco bottle of Imodium.

Like I said, chill. I’ve enjoyed the time with my parents, the relaxed flow of their retired life. It has been easy. I will miss it.

Back on the road

In another couple of days I’ll be on my way again. I’m nervous about hitting the road once more, a jittery feeling I’ve channeled into fussing over all the things I’ve packed and wondering how my bag is already this overstuffed when I haven’t gone anywhere or bought anything yet. (To be fair, it weighs only 32 pounds, not counting the stuff that’ll go in my carry-on. At some point I should probably make the inevitable blog post about what I’ve taken with me as gear.)

But the nerves will pass, I’m sure, once I’m in the thick of things. Next up is Seattle for a week (October 22-27) to visit one of my very best friends in the world, and then I’ll be on to Bangkok, arriving on October 29.

The adventure resumes!

Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix has been very chill.

After months of not very chill — all that leaving New York (twice), punctuated by a whirlwind five weeks of intensity in Asia and capped by a couple of weeks of near-constant Jewish holidays in the company of a seven-month-old who has just learned how to climb up high enough to fall on his head — it has been a pleasure to be somewhere relaxed and easy.

Picking a direction home

I feel like I’ve been here a very long time, though it’s been just three weeks. I suppose it’s the first place that has felt like home in quite a while — maybe since June, when my girlfriend left New York, and New York began to feel like ex-home, a place I was closing up and shutting down.

I have made a conscious decision to think of Phoenix as home, of this house I own, this house where my parents are retired and where my stuff lives in boxes in the shed out back, as home. Someday Korea will be home, but it isn’t yet. I didn’t want to go off backpacking in Southeast Asia with no direction home, no sense of a place in mind that I can think of as the safe retreat if ever I need it. I don’t expect to need it, but it’s good to know where home is, even if you never plan to actually live there.

And I like Phoenix. As a place to live, it’s not bad. The weather is great — not just the warm and sunny you think of, but the crazy storms with the constant lightning and horizontal rain that come sweeping through and last twenty minutes. The storms here are about the best anywhere, and everything is dry again an hour later.

Phoenix days

So what have I been up to?

Sleeping late. Getting up, making coffee, going out for Mexican food for lunch. Treading water in the pool for exercise in the afternoon. Writing. I’ve finished a draft of my Vietnam book, and no, you can’t read it.

I’ve spent some time with my sister too, going to an Arizona State football game and a Phoenix Suns basketball game and a Make-A-Wish walk and the Phoenix Art Museum (“Art is our middle name” say the T-shirts) and a hike up north.

Beyond that, there’s been a lot of logistical stuff of the kind you do before you leave the country for a long while: getting an Arizona driver license and an international driving permit, buying travel insurance, getting a trust and a will and setting up durable power of attorney and making multiple visits to the notary at the UPS store, organizing boxes of my stuff in the shed out back, going to Target too many times and spending too much money on a year’s supply of drugs and toiletries. I have enough Imodium that I could stop pooping for a year, though that seems like maybe not the best idea, because that’s the number of pills that come in a Costco bottle of Imodium.

Like I said, chill. I’ve enjoyed the time with my parents, the relaxed flow of their retired life. It has been easy. I will miss it.

Back on the road

In another couple of days I’ll be on my way again. I’m nervous about hitting the road once more, a jittery feeling I’ve channeled into fussing over all the things I’ve packed and wondering how my bag is already this overstuffed when I haven’t gone anywhere or bought anything yet. (To be fair, it weighs only 32 pounds, not counting the stuff that’ll go in my carry-on. At some point I should probably make the inevitable blog post about what I’ve taken with me as gear.)

But the nerves will pass, I’m sure, once I’m in the thick of things. Next up is Seattle for a week (October 22-27) to visit one of my very best friends in the world, and then I’ll be on to Bangkok, arriving on October 29.

The adventure resumes!