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You're Jewish? Bullying Concerns of an American Jew

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

“You’re Jewish?

Most often, people say this because “Bello” does not jump out to them as a “Jewish” name, like “Bernstein” or “Goldberg.” A smaller number people, usually Christians, are curious about people who might worship a bit differently than they do. But too many times, people ask, “Oh, you’re Jewish?” like they’re accusing me of a crime.

Are they expecting me to look like some stereotypical picture from Nazi propaganda? I’m sure you all see the obvious similarities. We could be twins, no?

Nazi propaganda like this was essential to getting the world to ignore the senseless slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews during WW II. Good thing we aren’t like this today, right?

In 2017 (five short years ago) white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia shouting “Jews will not replace us” at a ‘unite the right’ rally. Apparently, these guys think our roughly 2% minority population is seeking to “take over” the country.

We live in a country founded on the concept of free speech and the 1st Amendment. As a 1st Amendment advocate, I must be willing to permit the free speech of people who advocate for things I vehemently oppose. As an experienced attorney and author, I get it; contrary to popular belief, “hate speech” is not an exception to 1st Amendment protections (see Snyder v. Phelps).

By the same token, I have the absolute right to criticize the notion of protecting hateful speech and/or bullying against oppressed minorities. It is un-American, has no redeeming societal value, and causes an already divided country to become even more divided. I would opine (and lose in the United State Supreme Court) that the America I believe in would protect oppressed minorities from degradation, persecution, and hatred.

Eight years after electing our first African-American president, we elected this guy . . .

. . . the guy who said that there “were really fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville back in 2017. More recently, he opined that “evangelical Christians love Israel more than the Jews in this country,” and that Jews would be “disloyal” to Israel if they voted for Democrats.

It never occurred to me to deny being Jewish or that my Judaism might be a reason for people to hate me until the 6th grade, the year my family moved from the city to the suburbs. On the first day of school, a boy smiled, introduced himself, and asked what church I attended. I told him “I don’t attend church; I attend synagogue.” From that moment forward, the boy bullied me, mercilessly, culminating in a brutal punch to my face, with little penalty for his actions.

The incident was at least partially responsible for my career as a civil justice lawyer and my post-retirement career as a social justice author. My recent children’s book, Happy Jack Sad Jack features a bullying incident similar to the one I experienced. This gentle story-in-rhyme seeks to deliver anti-bullying message of inclusion and celebration of cultural or religious differences:

“People are different in color, shape, size. Ears, noses, mouths, and different shaped eyes. Different races, and genders—more, too. Christian or Buddhist, or Muslim or Jew. But there’s one thing in common we all have in this place. We are all valued members of this human race.”

Here we are in 2022, an election year, and pro-Trump election deniers are poised to declare victory in November. Many of these are people who also embrace Trump’s messages of hate and division. If you are a member of the fictional oppressed white majority, blame an African-American, Jewish-American, or Muslim American for whatever troubles you. It’s much more convenient than blaming yourself. Candidates like J.D. Vance in Ohio suggests that Jewish power-brokers are somehow controlling political events behind the scenes. These types of tropes are not only ignorant, they are dangerous.

We live in a country where people like David Duke and Richard Spencer are free to peddle their racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric. As a result, our country once chose to elect a vile bigot as president of the United States. At the same time, in the ultimate paradox, we are free to pray as we like and where we like. The problem, however, is that we must do so looking over our shoulders, surveying our surroundings, hiring security for our places of worship. This is the new normal in post-Trump America. Disagree? Talk to a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

October is "Bullying Prevention Month.” This new post-Trump reality creates a divided America, between Jews and Gentile, Blacks and Whites, Immigrants and non-immigrants. I don’t necessarily look Jewish; “Bello” doesn’t sound Jewish. Why not hide in plain sight, deny my heritage, stop rocking the boat? I’d be safer, wouldn’t I?

If I do, religious freedoms erode, safety is imperiled, the old lies and stereotypes rear their ugly heads, and the bigots and the bullies win. Call it Jewish pride or Jewish resistance; call it whatever you want, but they will not succeed, not on my watch.

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