I found out today that anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish students occurred earlier this week at my home town’s middle school, which my daughter attended and my son will attend someday.
In a country marred by racial bias and Islamophobia, and in which I have seen significant sociopolitical progress for Jews, anti-Semitism, though certainly vexing, has not been a top concern for much of my grown-up life.
Nonetheless, when I was a child, nearly fifty years ago, my next-door neighbor ― the first girl who kissed me ― asked me one day repeatedly why I and my people killed Jesus Christ. Several years later, as a middle school student who was too shy to have offended anyone, I found myself attacked by fellow students on multiple occasions. They dumped my books out of my arms, forced me to pick pennies up off the floor or they would hit me; they shoved me hard against my locker and called me “dirty Jew.” It could have been a lot worse, and yet it was awful.
Back then, I had no sense that I could do much about this. My school had no explicit codes about reporting bullying or targeted mistreatment on the basis of identity. I don’t even remember whether my parents specifically went to the school about what happened. It seemed normal, if very painful. And members of other minority groups in my predominantly white Boston suburb endured similar incidents, or much worse.
The thing is, I was a lower-middle-class kid, very similar to the other kids in my neighborhood. I was genuinely puzzled about how some group identity I had been born into led peers, who seemed like me, to see me as different and even want to hurt me. I was nonetheless fortunate. I was at least different in how much my parents listened to me, and worked to support my goals.
As a result, and also, perhaps in part and unfairly, because I didn’t look or sound different than the majority around me, I was able to find a way to earn a reasonable living that included studying diverse people. Being bullied because I was different didn’t leave me violent, or vengeful; it made me wish to be sensitive to the pain others experienced on the basis of their backgrounds and identities. I have tried to use my education and experience to teach and write about the marginalized, and to make sense of sociopolitical divisions more generally.
Given the relative security of American Jews and the existence of a Jewish homeland, discrimination faced by African-Americans, American Muslims and Middle Eastern minorities, including Palestinians, have seemed particularly pressing focal points for people like me, whose own experiences have made us sensitive when people are attacked for nothing to do with their individual actions or views. And, for all the scorn that the term “bleeding heart liberals” can elicit, we have helped nudge more people at least to understand the wrong of letting our very human confusions around difference metastasize into aggression and hateful attacks on individuals.
If you’re with me so far, you can understand why Donald Trump upset me. Everything I have seen in his “huge” public persona suggests that he either is a bully, or has had no qualms about using bullying against marginalized people to make himself look better. Now he is going to be President, and some other Americans are using his ascendancy as a justification for releasing the safety valves that today’s social culture encourages us to keep in place on our more violent or hateful tendencies. It needs to be repeated that the fear so many Americans are feeling after this election is not political bitter grapes, or a symptom of coddled, fragile liberal egos. This fear is the danger of aggression and harm by targeted hate that has been somewhat, if fleetingly, ameliorated in recent American political history.
Concern that the delicate social fabric that keeps people from hurting others because they are different is unraveling requires a direct and clear response from President-elect Trump. To Trump’s supporters who want to be understood for their message of frustration with the way American society or Washington has made them feel left out, people like me have our own clear message. We all must feel secure that however we look, or talk, or believe (or don’t believe) in God, we can feel personally, physically safe. Safe is a literal term, and a basic duty for any effective government to ensure. Trump, and those who believe in him, must insist that Americans, including middle schoolers, need not fear physical attacks or threats because of the way they look or may think.
I write this appalled that attacks like I experienced so long ago, and that I hoped were less common, happened again near me. And they happened in a particularly multicultural, politically liberal environment that is home to world-class educational institutions. My kids, and their Jewish peers, should not be attacked in school. They had no complicity in killing anyone’s deity; nor are they part of any secret conspiracy. They are just kids, as I was fifty years ago. We must protect them, and we must do this collectively.
In this regard, I am heartened by the clear, immediate, unequivocal response of our school’s administration to this week’s events, which are only starting to become public. Decades after my own experience of anti-Semitic bullying, there are now elaborate institutional and educational rejoinders to this type of vicious act, at least in some places. But will they be enough? And will Mr. Trump do his part as a leader to stop any further acceleration of attacks?