Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - "Heimishe" Racism
What is it about all of humanity being betzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d) that people don't understand?
I'm an American kid, so I can tell you that moving to Boro Park as a teenager was quite a culture shock. So many things were new and different, most for the better, but the mentality, the norms, the values and thought process was so foreign, that even now – many years later – I haven't really adjusted to it. Instead, over time, I learned to appreciate some things, make peace with other things, and I shake my head about the rest. However, now, raising a family, these issues tend to reach closer to home.
One of the cultural shockers is overt racism. Distain for people and belief systems that oppose Yiddishkeit I can understand, but the old-fashioned, peasant-like, uncivilized and coarse commonly accepted hatred and speech regarding other races can be more than just disgusting. Obviously, not everyone is this way, but it is prevalent enough that it is tolerated by even those that do not share the view. I've heard the ugliest terms and opinions about other races in all kinds of places, and 99% of the time nobody objects. I've had debates and arguments – some quite heated – on a number of occasions, but they just don't get it. I generally walk away in disgust.
But the real problem is that my children go to Yeshiva and live in this culture in a way that I never did and never will. How do I make sure that the negatives won't come along with the (many) positives? I have had the sit-down meeting with each of my older children when they have uttered a disgustingly racist word or idea – heard in school from classmates or even teachers or faculty members; they didn't even realize there was anything wrong with it. I sit down with them and we discuss it. We discuss the right and wrong of it; we discuss the concept of tolerance, we discuss what goes into choosing words when we speak. We discuss how to deal with people that we like or respect that may do things that are wrong. We discuss the way the Torah addresses these issues (for those interested let me recommend Rabbi Sears's Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition.) I never hear anything like it again, and I'm sure I'll eventually have the same meetings with my younger children.
But I know that it's probably going to be somewhat of a losing battle – because, more than a word it's the attitude. The matter is further complicated by the reality that it's simply not as easy to develop racial tolerance or respect when living in neighborhoods where the non-Jewish neighbors tend to be hostile and vulgar. When children are verbally accosted, regularly exposed to the most uncivilized behavior, not to mention stolen bikes and the like, it can be quite a task to convince them that their classmates (or possibly authority figures) are getting it wrong. Unfortunately, we often come in contact with the lowest classes of society which gives off the impression that they represent all non-Jews, etc. The attitudes are clearly influences by the day to day realities that Jews regularly deal with here – and racist attitudes become the norm.
I must clarify that "heimishe" racism isn't about violence; I've never heard someone express a desire to take up any action, even if they themselves were materially damaged in some way. And other than the occasional individual caught in the commission a crime (in which case, Hashem yerachem), it's not common to hear anyone express a desire that any violent action be taken up – nevertheless, the hatred is there. So, while I know I can't change the guy that told me he wouldn't call them "nig..rs" if they didn't act like it," and I can't change the guy that told me he wishes, "they were wiped of the face of the Earth" – I have wasted enough time debating these morons – and I realize that the 20 year old Klausenberger camp counselor that teaches the bunk a song with the line about slapping the goy in the face (which obviously gets an easy laugh from the kids) isn't going to change into a better person, I can continue to speak with my children and complain to administrators, and maybe sometimes it'll make a difference. I can't change the overall attitudes; I know, but in my area of influence, I can still try.