Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD). IHRD, which is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is observed by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and Greece. And yesterday I went with my Jewish partner, her friend and her father to a lecture, at Chicago's Temple Sholom, that commemorated the brave Greeks who resisted the Nazis. One of the featured speakers was Northwestern University professor Isaac Daniels. He and his family escaped Nazi capture seven times—which explains why his forthcoming book is titled Seven Miracles. Daniels' presentation was fabulous for I learned so much about the admirable and heroic role Greece played in defending freedom during the war. Daniels also delivered a gripping account of his immediate family being sheltered by other Greeks as they veered from place to place like hunted prey evading slaughter. And I could have shed a million tears when he mentioned how his aunts and uncles and cousins had perished in the Holocaust.
During the Q&A period I asked another speaker, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Mimis Cohen, "How would you explain the new wave of Jewish bigotry sweeping across Europe, given the popularity of people like Dieudonné?" Dieudonné is a French comedian and an awful little bigot who has made the quenelle infamous. The quenelle is a modified Nazi salute and a slap to the face of the Jewish Diaspora, among others. Cohen, a brash character, first said "Dieudonné is African-American." Now, one would expect a long time professor to know that a French man, the offspring of a black Cameroon father and a white French mother, is not an African-American. I wondered to myself why Cohen felt the need to point this factoid out; the answer was reveled to me moments later.
After the talk concluded everyone gathered for coffee and cookies outside the sanctuary. A man, who had been annoyingly vocal during the Q&A and who identified himself as a tour guide at the local holocaust museum, approached my partner's friend and me to ask where was I going with my question before Cohen cut me off. But before I could utter a response this man blamed, in his words, "Those people." And when I asked who are those people?, of course I already knew who he was referring to, the tour guide scoffed: "You people always do that!" It became abundantly clear this man was a repulsive bigot and extremist, as were many of the people there, which explains, partially, why peace in the region has failed to materialize. What ensued was him attacking my partner's friend (an Asian-American woman) and me as being "that type" and part of the problem, for we, you see, support antisemitism because we criticize Israel, defend the ASA boycott, and don't blame black and brown people for white European antisemitism.
I attempted to explain that, while some new black and brown Europeans most certainly harbor vile, bigoted views toward Jews, it is foolish and facile to blame them for a problem that has been with Europe for centuries (see: the Holocaust). Furthermore, black and Brown Europeans are a minority, who have little to no socio-economic power in their home countries, therefore they can't possibly be responsible for the rise in Jewish hatred we're witnessing in countries like Hungary, Greece and France, to name a few. But no, this aggressively ignorant man would hear none of it and he stormed off like most racist cowards do when confronted with facts and rationality. Amazingly, I think to myself as I sit here and type, he didn't want to blame the white nationalist parties winning seats in European parliaments for antisemitism, instead he indicted one of the world's oldest targets: dark-skinned people.
The episode was strangely enjoyable given my intellectual and verbal jousting high. But then, over a dinner of Chinese takeout, I had a discussion with my partner's father about the incident. He chastised me for labeling the man a racist and accused me of throwing the word around flippantly. I then remembered how I used to let some quips slide (black people aren't as smart; they don't work as hard; the black family is the reason why black people are screwed), because I didn't want to be accused of playing the race card. But, after a stellar Vassar education and simple maturity, I now know there are plenty of white supremacists in this country. This racism functions in furtive ways sometimes and its practitioners want to blame black and brown people for everything, as they fight like hell to sustain the racist and sexist power structure in which our society resides. And so there is absolutely nothing wrong with calling a fig a fig.
My grandfather grew up in Egypt, MS in the 1920s and 1930s. He was so brutalized and victimized by the apartheid state that even in the 1990s he used to tell us: "Now don't you look white folks in the eye boy, when a white person is walkin' down the street you step aside and make room for 'em." That man, Howard King, like other countless black men and women, couldn't speak out against the injustices he suffered because he would literally be killed for doing so. But I can and I will.
Never do I (and neither should you) let a bigoted remark, toward any group, slide; and I don't keep quiet when some unlettered jackass blames dark skinned people for a problem that has plagued Europe for years. Accordingly, such micro-aggressions deserve our contempt and scorn. Many people were raped, tortured and lynched so that I may have the chance to battle this wickedness and I would be a coward if I didn't do so. Never again will we be silenced.
The contretemps at Temple Sholom riled me. As one of the speakers said, "If you look the monster in the face and don't feel anything, then something is wrong." That monster—racism, sexism, classism, homo and trans phobia, continues to roam the countryside. And so I refuse to get used to it, nor will I excuse it as the musings of a single zealot. Because the thinking possessed by the man yesterday explains why change has come so slowly. His devotion to his fellow Jews, who were brutally slaughtered by the nefarious Nazis, is understandable. But, as Nietzsche warned, he should "Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster." And so we fierce but still passionate people must fight, if we are to ever achieve a more graceful future, those who promote bigotry, with every fiber of our being.