A Slur by Any Other Name

I never forgot the first time I was called a kike.

It was back in college, at a prestigious New York school known more for its liberal environment and academic reputation than anti-Semitism (though the latter allegedly informed its admissions process in previous, less-enlightened years). I was chatting with about five or six other students in a large room after an evening’s carousing, and somehow the topic of ethnic heritage came up. One member of our group, an individual I shall call “Jimmy”—who had the build of a linebacker and the tongue of an unhinged sailor—looked directly at me.

“You kike,” he said.

I blinked, shocked. No one had ever said anything like this before to my face, and I wasn’t sure whether to be angry or upset. Brought up in the womb of Reform Judaism by my parents on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I identified as a Jew but was hardly religious: I went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, celebrated Passover and Hanukkah, but rarely followed or practiced anything else associated with my culture—including Shabbat and the laws of kashrut. Most of my friends had the same upbringing. My high school was filled with secular members of the tribe. And I lived in the Big Apple, that savory melting pot, whose foundations were based on the travails of immigrants like my ancestors. Basically I was surrounded by people similar to me.

So it came as a surprise to be addressed in such a hateful manner by a fellow student, someone who didn’t grow up in the same atmosphere but shared my collegiate experience. Jimmy, who had Native American ancestry, must have noticed the expression on my face, because he extended the proverbial olive branch.

“You can call me a red Indian,” he said.

This time I frowned. “I’m not calling you that,” I said. What was this, a slur for a slur? We were both part of groups that had been persecuted throughout the centuries; basically, we had more in common than just hate speech. Plus, two wrongs do not a consolidated right make. I realized I was declining an invitation from someone who easily could have crushed me like a week-old matzo ball, but I couldn’t join him in the pejorative parade. To my surprise, he seemed to accept my response, and the conversation surged toward other, more pressing topics.

In vino veritas? More like in vino maleficium. And it was a wrongdoing that has stuck with me to this day.

But why? Surely, I could have shrugged it off, chalked it up to the vicissitudes of the night and inebriation. In the pre-Internet 1990s, during which this episode occurred, encounters with the old, nearly archaic word “kike” were rare in New York City, unless one associated with the kind of individual you wouldn’t go to dinner with or, for that matter, engage in discussions about the evils of prejudice. I had absolutely no prior experiences with the term; indeed, the only reason I recognized it was because of some ingrained concept of its insidiousness, like a mongoose knowing the cobra is its enemy. Yet here in late 2015, as we embark on a new path of reason and sensitivity, I find the label is all over the web—ranging from comments by haters on Facebook to posts citing “literature” of a certain ideology. The old memories have returned with newfound power and malevolence. Is this awful moniker making a comeback? Or has it never really gone away?

My collegiate experience has given me an interest in the nature of bigotry, particularly anti-Semitism, which I hope to explore further in future articles. For now, I have to wonder if being called a kike at school shaped my perception of the world and our culture’s role in it … something I thought little about while growing up. It certainly has provided me with my own bias: a distaste for hate speech and its adherents. But it also has given me a sense that there’s more to such villainy than meets the eye—that it’s based in a foundation of anger, dissatisfaction and the need to blame others. If we can delve into the motivations behind such behavior, perhaps we can find ways to prevent the insults from bubbling to the surface, take steps to bridge the rancor-filled gaps and develop understanding among disparate groups. After all, we are of the same species. No breaks, I believe, are irreparable.

Back in the day, I was called a kike for no reason other than my religion seemed, in one individual’s opinion, to call for it. He used the word as a means to create a link between him and me—a kind of fraternal bond, made of brutishness and obscenity. In truth, however, that bond is better forged with righteous talk than ethnic slurs. I wish I’d brought that up to him, but perhaps it’s not too late. If he’s not reading this, I hope other people do. And know that a slur by any other name would sound as sour.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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