Not that long ago I walked into a bookstore in Mea Shearim and asked for a book on a specific Midrash. The elderly man behind the counter told me where to find it and I proceeded down the dusty aisle to the exact spot he directed me to. I frequented many such stores over the years and have always found the staff helpful. On this occasion there was a young clerk working alongside the older man. As I brought the book up to the counter to pay the young clerk said to the older man in Yiddish that he should charge me “the higher rate.” I guess I looked too American, too modern, or too uneducated to understand what he was saying. The elderly fellow did not respond to him but I did. In Yiddish, I said back to the clerk “If he charges me at a higher rate I will not take the book. In fact I should not take it at all.” The older man turned to his assistant and brow beat him. Feeling vindicated and justified, I purchased the text.
This sort of situation is not just potentially humiliating – it can be downright painful. When someone views you as an outsider – especially someone you consider a member of your own people makes it even more degrading. In this situation, because I understood what was being said and can be assertive I felt that I had the upper hand. I had a similar experience as a child shopping with my parents in a store in Brooklyn where the secret language was Hungarian. I do not speak that language at all but my Father did. I do not know exactly what he said to the shopkeepers but they were mortified and extremely apologetic. In fact, as I recall he told me they gave him a discounted price as a token form of apology.
How does it feel to be an outsider immediately shunned when walking into a store or knowing that fees have been doubled just because they think you are an easy mark or want to take advantage of you or worse – do not even want to serve you? What if they are not members of the same religion, race or culture – how much more degrading does that feel?
If you work in an environment with others of different cultures, religions or skin tone ask them to share their experiences with you. You may find it both enlightening and demoralizing particularly if someone who is a member of your own group put them in the same uncomfortable situation.
Xenophobia is not a uniquely Jewish behavior. Limiting or even excluding outsiders happens in many closed religious, social and cultural groups and as I have experienced, even within groups, but it is so completely inappropriate when it occurs in a business or health care environment that it is pernicious, insidious and spiteful and besmirches people who do not deserve to be. We have serious concerns about intermarriage, there are religious laws that set standards for meals with outsiders and when and what can be purchased from traditional idol worshipers (of which there are very few if any in our times). However, there are no laws that say that it is acceptable to take advantage of others or insult them. In fact, there are serious religious edicts against that sort of behavior. So what can you say to an acquaintance that is not Jewish with a medical problem that is referred to a health care practitioner who is Jewish and the provider is clearly aloof, distant and dismissive? What do you say to that acquaintance when she says to you “I guess they can’t handle my skin color”? The implication being clear – it is not they but “you must be the only one who sees beyond color, race and religion, – you are the only one of your type who is nice.”
Think of the refusal to accept the blood of MK Penina Tamano-Shata last week in the Knesset blood drive simply because she is of Ethiopian descent. Her blood is just as red as those refusing to draw hers. Alopecia (hair loss), regardless of the cause happens within all cultures, and races and women with this condition seek out expert shaitel-machers (wig makers). Think of the wig expert who refuses to help a non-Jewish woman with alopecia because she is not Jewish or may be Ethiopian. There is a religious edict known as darchei shalom (literally: paths of peace) that demands we act with kindness and sensitivity to all. Unfortunately, biases are obstacles that too many of us refuse to acknowledge and remove. Prejudice and stereotyping are emotionally based bigotry formed by subjective beliefs with little support in reality. Still, people use a technique called confirmation bias to support the destructive notions that they want to perpetuate. If you believe something than you will do your best to confirm that, your belief is accurate – even to the point of hurting others. It is shameful and only perpetuates more pain over the long term. As a light unto the nations we should be better!