new york times

11/10/13 Life # , , , , , ,

Anti-Semitism is Alive and Well in My Town

 

Recently the New York Times posted this article about an anti-semitism lawsuit in my town.

I moved to Small Town America from California twelve years ago. I wanted my children to be surrounded by nature, to feel the embrace of a small town, to grow up a little slower. Pine Bush, New York seemed the perfect spot. Idyllic and peaceful, the town was dotted with old farmhouses and barns, had one stop light (we have two now), and a volunteer fire department.

I was shocked when, on the way to a district PTA meeting, the elementary school principal informed me that Pine Bush had once been a hot spot for the KKK. Looking around at all the natural beauty, it was hard to believe, though I’m not sure why since one clearly has nothing to do with the other.

My first personal brush with racism came at a Little League game. I was talking to one of the mothers and she made reference to the fact that her son was teased, “You know, because of his last name.” When it became clear that I had no idea what she was talking about she repeated the name and lowered her voice, “Because it’s Hispanic.” I couldn’t have been more shocked. Coming from Southern California, where most classrooms are filled with equal parts Caucasian, African-American, Indian, Asian and Hispanic students, I just didn’t get it.

It wasn’t until my kids got older that I started hearing rumbles of anti-semitism. My children had friends who had coins thrown at them, were peppered with racial slurs, even beaten. One day in middle school, my daughter was sitting in study hall when the subject of an upcoming Jewish holiday came up. One of the kids complained, wondering why the district gave them a day off for a JEWISH holiday. My daughter spoke up, trying to explain that in the same way some holidays are important family times for us, Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur are important to Jewish families. And while my daughter wasn’t surprised when the child in question didn’t get it, she was surprised to hear the teacher mutter, “Stupid Jews.”

My daughter is a girl who, as the youngest of four children with two older brothers, HATES to cry. If she fell down as a child and really hurt herself, she’d stand up, brush herself off with tears in her eyes, and say, “I’m okay, I’m okay.”

But she cried when she told me about the incident with her teacher. I don’t think she could understand how a grown-up, a TEACHER, could be so full of hate. So we talked about it and I offered to go to the principal but also suggested it might make her feel good to do it herself. I gave her the choice and she decided to speak to the principal herself. She was told he would “take care of it”, but the next day when she walked into class, the same teacher was manning the study hall desk. Uncomfortable with the situation, my daughter moved to the back of the room only to hear the teacher say, snidely and loud enough for everyone to hear, “I guess I’ve made X uncomfortable now.”

Just last week my son stood by while a student went on a hate-filled rant about how much he “hates Jews” — in full view and earshot of a teacher who said and did nothing.

So you see why I was unsurprised to hear that a lawsuit had been filed on behalf of multiple Jewish families in Pine Bush and even less surprised to hear the claims of innocence on the part of the district and its administrators. There is a culture of silence and solidarity in small towns, even when it is undeserved.

I like to think I’ve raised my children to be champions of right, whatever that may be in any given situation. I like to think I’ve taught them not to follow my ideals and opinions but to form ideals and opinions of their own. They have spoken up when the situation called for it, they’ve intervened in bullying when they’ve been witness to it, engaged in heated classroom debates where they were, quite literally, the only one speaking for the side of equality, fairness and acceptance.

But it can feel like an uphill battle, even for me. I can only imagine how difficult it is to be them, and I CAN’T imagine how difficult it must be for those who are made targets every day because of their race or religion.

What makes me the saddest in this whole situation is the number of people in Pine Bush denouncing the allegations as lies, calling the lawsuit a “money grab” (this one was used by the Superintendent of Schools). There are 3,500 pages of deposition supporting these claims, and yet very few in our community are even asking questions, even waiting to hear the evidence. Instead the same people who have suffered for years are suffering again. Like me, many of them believed that people just didn’t KNOW. Once everyone finds out, they’ll feel bad about it, right? They’ll want it to change.

Turns out the answer, largely, is no.

People want things to stay the same. The don’t want to challenge their view of the world — and they sure as hell don’t want their kids challenging it. So instead of asking questions, instead of using this as a teaching moment for our children, instead of saying, “I know how much you love this town and the people in it, so do I, but don’t you think we should wait and see the evidence before we take a side? Don’t you think a more measured response than blind denial would be to admit that anything is possible? And that if this has been happening, it’s horrible and wrong and needs to be addressed? Don’t you think the town we love will be BETTER if we find out the truth and address any problems that might exist?” Instead of saying all of that, many parents are saying, “All lies! This is a great town! Discrimination happens everywhere! African americans are discriminated in the district, too! It’s all about money!”

The arguments are illogical at best. All lies? How do you know? Were you there during every incident cited in the 3,500 pages of sworn testimony? This is a great town! Why yes. Yes, it is. But like all great things, there is always room for improvement. Discrimination happens everywhere? Irrelevant to the issue at hand. You’ve never seen it? Again irrelevant and also illogical. I’m assuming you don’t see most of the things that occur in the world, since it’s a very big place. That doesn’t mean they’re not happening out of your line of sight. African americans are discriminated against in the district, too? They definitely are. Let’s talk about that, too. It’s all about money? False. These allegations were brought to the district countless times and nothing was done to address them. In one email, the Superintendent told a parent that trying to change the prejudice of the community “might be a bit unrealistic.” Nothing was done. The parents had to do something to protect their children.

NOW things are getting done.

Do I think it’s some big conspiracy against jewish people in Pine Bush? I don’t. I think people get complacent and lazy in their jobs. I think it is difficult to call parents on the carpet for the behavior of their children when you volunteer side by side in the local fire department with said parents, when you cookout with them on weekends, when you are friends. I think it’s sometimes easier to look the other way, to pretend something isn’t a big deal when it is, in fact, a very big deal. To hope it will go away, solve itself. I think hearing the complaints of parents day in and day out gets old. I think after awhile, it ALL seems like no big deal.

But that’s no excuse. While we might not be able to change the prejudice taught at home, we CAN hold students to a certain standard of conduct at school. I think the answer is quite simple, and had it been instituted from the beginning, I don’t think we’d be here now;

So let’s institute a Zero Tolerance policy against hate speech and acts of hate on school grounds and buses. Even the law recognizes the difference between hate crimes and other crimes. We have Zero Tolerance policies for weapons and drug possession (students aren’t even allowed to carry aspirin without a note from their doctor). This is just as important. Consequences should be clearly laid out and consistently adhered to. I would go so far as to say this includes use of the word “nigger” (spoken by both African American student and white students, sometimes in jest) and bitch (spoken both in jest and as a derogatory term). True, the first month you’ll have a shit-ton of kids in detention and ISS. But you know what? They will learn, and YOU WILL BE DOING THEM A FAVOR. Because in the real world, you just can’t say anything you want without repercussions. There are consequences to both your actions and your speech. Might as well learn that now. We will all be better for it, and I for one would enjoy visiting the school more if I didn’t hear “nigger” and “bitch” being shouted throughout the hallways. In addition, any acts of physical bullying should be treated and punished as such, also with a Zero Tolerance policy.

To my fellow parents in Pine Bush, please take a step back and think about what your words and actions are teaching your children at this critical moment. If you are blindly defending the district and the people involved, you are missing out on an important opportunity to teach your children to empathize with others and to THINK. To question the things that are told to them by others. TO FORM THEIR OWN OPINIONS (even if it means they differ from yours). If the immorality of denouncing a victim isn’t enough to sway you, DO IT FOR YOUR CHILDREN. They will not be productive members of today’s very fast moving, global and increasingly enlightened society if they don’t have the ability to think for themselves and form opinions and if they don’t have the ability to express those opinions in respectful, non-inflammatory ways. Take a look at the things your kids are posting on Facebook and Twitter. Listen to what they are saying to their friends. Can you imagine your children engaging in this kind of reactionary, knee-jerk, and completely-not-based-on-fact debate in a place of business? In politics? In a place of higher learning with peers who have done their homework?

Neither can I.

If we handle this right, our town will be better for these changes. Nothing can survive and flourish if it doesn’t evolve. Plants, animals, people, and yes, even small towns. To survive, we must be willing to change. To change, we must be willing to admit that we can do better.

I hope this will bring about some kind of sea change. Because the thing is; I get it. I understand that these kids are being raised with their parent’s values and that their parent’s were raised with THEIR parent’s values. I understand that there is only so much a teacher or administrator can do.

But at the very least, we CAN hold ALL students to a certain code of conduct on schools and buses. We CAN model good behavior by denouncing ANY act of prejudice or discrimination, even when it comes from those we know and care about in our community. We CAN have a measured response such as, “I don’t know if these allegations are true, but if they are, they need to be addressed, don’t you think?” We CAN let our children think for themselves by asking what they think and encouraging them to look at every possibility and every point of view.

Because there are worse things than admitting we have a problem — and knowing we have a problem but choosing to look the other way is at the top of the list.

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Michelle Zink is the award-winning author of over seven novels. She lives in New York with too many teenagers and too many cats.
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