On Thanksgiving it is traditional to list the things for which we give thanks:
- I am grateful to have been born into a family that valued learning and social justice above all else
- I am grateful to have married into a family that shares these values
- I am grateful for the opportunities I have, educational and professional
- I am grateful for my friends, my step-children, and my husband
- I am grateful to live at a time and in a place where women are allowed to vote and participate in public debate – and I intend to fight like hell to protect those rights from erosion and to preserve them for me, my sisters, and our children.
- And I am grateful for the First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
~First Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791
This is a personal story. A very personal story.
My father grew up in British Mandate Palestine, my mother grew up in a small town outside of Seattle. They had New York City in common, where they met and where I was born in 1972. When I was six weeks old we moved to a small town in southern New Hampshire. My mother had longstanding connections to this town (she had acted in summer stock productions at the local theatre for twenty years and had, she thought, integrated into the community to a point where she had real friends). My parents bought land with a house on it, planted a garden, and planned a clinic where they hoped that their combined skills of dance, movement, and psychotherapy could aid in the treatment of young people with anorexia nervosa. That clinic never materialized because of a storm of harassment. Over the course of four years my family experienced:
- Phone calls telling us to “Get out, Jew doctor”, and variations on that theme
- Our house being broken into
- Shots fired at our dog
- Shots fired at me when I was playing in the yard with a babysitter
- And, finally, returning home one evening to find our house on fire (the investigation into this went on just long enough to prove arson and then stopped. A couple of years later when a friend of ours, a retired NYPD detective, tried to look into it he was met with a stone wall)
The fire was the end of it. We moved, in the middle of the school year, back to NYC where we lived in the office that my father had maintained during the transition from private practice to clinic, and we rebuilt or restarted our lives.
For most of my life, recitations of this story have been met with disbelief and denial. I have been accused of recounting false memories, of trying to win sympathy, of flat out lying. I have been told, repeatedly, that this could never have happened here, in the United States, but it did.
I have also been told, although not often in so many words, that my family “asked for it”. How dare rich, educated Jews buy land in a small town and expect to be accepted? I’ve been told versions of this so often that I reflexively feel the need to explain: my mother was working class, her father was a driver in WWI and then worked for Boeing, she paid for her dance and drama training herself, my father was a second class citizen (he grew up with an identity card that said “Race – Jewish”), he served in the US Army during WWII – a job he got because of his extraordinary facility with languages – and used the GI Bill to go to college and medical school. He went to medical school in Switzerland because in the 1950s there were still quotas for Jews in US medical schools. For the first several months he attended lectures armed with a French dictionary.
This is all very interesting family history, but look at the context: I have felt the need, for much of my life, to explain why my family shouldn’t have been harassed, shot at, terrorized. As if anyone should have to explain that.
Maybe the reason people find it so hard to believe my story is because of my looks, or my presentation. Of course there is the issue of my name, which is a tale in itself, but in general I “pass”, meaning I don’t look Jewish, or Semitic, or Middle Eastern. I don’t keep kosher, I don’t make a fuss asking for Jewish holidays off from work, I am Jewish but not “too Jewish”. This is learned behavior: don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t make a scene, don’t make other people uncomfortable. Uncomfortable. My family was shot at and burned out of their home, but I have learned that other people’s comfort is more important than telling my story.
It is interesting, given all this, that when I taught at university I specialized in critical international politics. Essentially, my whole class was about making students uncomfortable and teaching them how to deal with that discomfort. Teaching them to examine their preconceptions, teaching them to reassess their understanding of the news, teaching them to ask themselves why they believed what they believed. This was a required class for second year Politics students and I was honored to discover that the word among the student body was that it was both the hardest and the most life changing class on their degree course. I mention this both because sometimes discomfort is the way to greater clarity and understanding, and also because, as Samuel C. Spitale points out, it is just this sort of critical thinking which is so lacking in the US population today.
My own research is into conflict resolution and governance, using theater and other creative arts as a vehicle. I have worked in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. It appears I now have my work cut out for me here because, make no mistake, this country is divided and much as people want to lay the blame on one or another group, everyone has work to do here. Everyone. If we don’t do it now, things are going to get much, much worse.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that there are people now who deny what is happening in this country, post-election. The human mind’s power to deny the existence of things it doesn’t want to believe seems almost infinite. It is a way of imposing order on what might otherwise be uncomfortably chaotic. But the First Amendment guarantees us the right to believe and worship as we will; to speak up, to write, to protest. There is nothing in the language that requires that protestors only air their grievances, deliver their message, in a manner that preserves the comfort of those around them. In fact, as I said earlier, often it is that very discomfort that leads to greater understanding, what it takes is a willingness to hear, rather than to deny.
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