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.

Like Somebody’s Best Friend Died

Back in 1989 or so, a friend gave me a cassette that changed my life. On one side was Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction, and I warmed to that side first. On the other was Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love, strange and knotty and difficult, and eventually I fell in love.

I saw Soundgarden at a San Francisco club called The Stone, down on Broadway. They were opening for Voivod. (That same friend took me, and later I found him at the bar, chatting with Tim Alexander from then-unknown Primus and Jason Newstead from Metallica.) I remember Chris Cornell, shirtless and in shorts, stomping around on the stage in big combat boots, screaming. I fell in love.

If you never experienced an underground metal show back then, you might not grasp what an intense, overwhelming sensory experience it was, or in what way. The sound was murky and loud, the room was hot as hell and filled with smoke, and anywhere close to the stage was a press of bodies moshing, shoving, jostling, heaving. It was messy, chaotic. You were half watching the show and half trying not to get killed, and you came out smelling like other people’s cigarettes and sweat, deaf and screaming.

When my first serious girlfriend broke up with me, early in my junior year of high school, Badmotorfinger got me through it. I had a best friend then who shared my obsession with Soundgarden, and with Chris Cornell — his voice, his presence, his beauty. When I started a shitty band with some friends, I wanted us to sound like Soundgarden.

A couple of years later, when I first realized I was bisexual, Chris Cornell was part of it. I knew I was attracted to him. It was undeniable. He was maybe my first explicit, conscious male crush.

When I was in college and that best friend had moved to Connecticut, we would lie on the floor of her weird little apartment in the attic of a flower store, get really really stoned, and listen to Superunknown and the various Soundgarden B-sides we’d dug up and talk about how sexy Chris Cornell’s voice was and analyze the lyrics.

Another thing my friend especially loved about Soundgarden was that they were death-haunted. Chris Cornell was death-haunted. My friend had lost a brother, plus a shocking number of friends and acquaintances for someone in her early twenties, and Soundgarden seemed to understand. Temple of the Dog was a tribute album for a friend of Chris Cornell’s who’d died, and much of Badmotorfinger was about death.

I thought of Chris Cornell as a survivor. But he’s gone now, gone like Andrew Wood and Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley and Scott Weiland. Being a grunge singer is hazardous.

Candles burning yesterday
Like somebody’s best friend died
And I’ve been caught in a mind riot