The ritual was familiar. As we boarded an airplane, we would take off our Stars of David. It was just a thing people did; I don’t think it was unique to my family. My parents were only being rational. They had seen Leon Klinghoffer being thrown off a boat by PLO terrorists and Jewish passengers being separated from non-Jewish passengers in Uganda. Of course we were proud Jews, but there was a limit. If there happened to be a terrorist on board, we would not want to anger them.
There were other times when wearing a Star of David just did not seem right. As I started interviewing for internships, I would take it off. It was not something I really thought about. At a discussion with friends, the takeaway had been that you should take it off, because “you never know.” This vague term was not exactly explained. Was it that one did not want to come across as “too Jewish,” in case the interviewer was of another religion, or just did not like religious people? That had the possibility of being quite awkward. Or perhaps the interviewer was an anti-Semite? The Star of David would have to wait until one could really get a feel for the work environment.
Also, when traveling in Europe, we had been warned, the Star of David has to go. Feel free to tour the beautiful French countryside, to tip the Italians well after your meal, but don’t you dare offend them by identifying yourself as a Jew.
Growing up a Jew is a scary thing in many places in the world. Unlike other minorities, however, we can blend in. A black person cannot feign whiteness if he feels his race might cause him awkwardness or danger. Jews can, and we do.
What are the consequences of being able to “pass?” I think it compartmentalizes the Jewish identity. It becomes a thing of convenience, whether to identify or not. And soon you get used to having the Star of David off. It feels more comfortable than having it on. What’s the big deal about being Jewish anyway? We are all humans; why do we have to divide ourselves?
Not long ago, Jews in Europe had no choice but to wear yellow stars on their clothes. The star was meant to identify them, to let their neighbors know to keep a distance.
Today, when we do have a choice, we fear being branded as Jews. We don’t want to inconvenience whomever we are meeting, or risk unearthing prejudices they may have. We don’t want to risk losing a job because the boss might be an anti-Semite. We are careful, assessing the environment before identifying ourselves as Jews. The burden is on us not to cause others to dislike us. We fear that we will be seen only as our religion, not as people.
Yes, there are people out there who don’t like Jews. But that is their problem, not ours. We may have the luxury of being able to blend in, but that does not mean we should use it.