Blaming Ourselves for Prejudice

Got a little story to tell.

Once upon a time, when I was singing in the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus, I had a friend my age whom I shall call “Barry.” Barry was taller than me, blond-haired, fair-skinned … exactly what I wasn’t. But we shared a sense of humor and a mutual dislike of the chorus’ director—a dour, no-nonsense, elderly woman who was about as tolerant of kids’ mischief as W.C. Fields. During performances, there was quite a bit of downtime, and as people our age were wont to do, we horsed around a lot backstage, finding the endless maze of dark rooms and unused costumes enticing and exotic. On one of these occasions, when Barry was talking to other members of the chorus in a different area, I noticed a safety pin on the floor, as well as his shoes in close proximity.

A light went on in my head.

Wouldn’t it be funny if I put the safety pin in Barry’s shoe and let him know about it? I thought. Bet he’d laugh maniacally.

In truth, I was just looking to get noticed. Barry was one of my few pals in the chorus, and now that he was off conversing with people I didn’t know as well, I was jealous. So I did exactly what my idea suggested I do: I placed the safety pin, point extended, in his shoe and headed to his location. When I found him, he was still engaged in discussion with his buddies.

“Come here—I have something to show you,” I said urgently.

He complied, and I brought him to the spot where I played my horrible “joke.” I showed him his shoe and what I put in it. In my childish mind, I thought he’d find it humorous.

He didn’t. Instead, he chewed me out right there, attacking me verbally for potentially injuring him. He was right, and I felt embarrassed. Why did I do such a thing? Couldn’t I have seen that it was dangerous, unfunny? What kind of person does that to a friend … or anyone, for that matter?

My hideous, mean-spirited trick had backfired. I apologized profusely, and he did seem to accept my expressions of regret. Yet my offensive behavior seemed to transform Barry into a different person. He wasn’t friendly to me anymore. His attitude was aloof.

And the worst part: He started to praise Adolf Hitler. Yes, Hitler.

I remember talking to him with another member of the Children’s Chorus backstage as we prepared to sing in one of the operas we were appearing in. I’m not sure how the conversation started, but I do know that Barry said to us, in our faces, “Heil Hitler.”

We asked him how he could say such a thing. He looked past us, with indifferent eyes … and continued to utter praise of Hitler. Ultimately, we left him, shaking our heads. Barry had changed. He wasn’t my friend anymore.

In retrospect, I think Barry hadn’t actually become a Nazi; he was about 12 years old then, as I was, and had no concept of the evils that the group perpetuated. Rather, I believe he was professing his support of the world’s most evil dictator because he was hurt by my actions, upset at the fact that his chum had thought it a good idea to place a safety pin in his shoe. This was a childish reaction to an offense and had little other meaning. It didn’t make sense, anyway, that Barry would behave this way after hanging out with me so many times. If he really were a Nazi, would he have been such good friends with a Jew?

I’m reminded of this incident because of a brand of anti-Semitism being disseminated nowadays that suggests the Jews are to blame for the prejudice inflicted upon them. We’ve done it to ourselves, the argument goes; we’re responsible for how people view us. It’s a specious way of thinking that aims to absolve bigots from accountability while demonizing the people they hate. And Israel, as well as how it’s viewed by populations surrounding it, is at the center of this belief system.

I’m not of the opinion that anti-Semitism or any other hatred “increases” because of the actions of individuals, a state or any other entity. Bigotry is always in place, always festering, and merely bubbles to the surface more often and quickly when negative news and events concerning the objects of such hatred become known. In Barry’s case, the “heil Hitler” hate speech was a puerile reaction to my own affront, and he took it out on my in a fashion that he knew would be as hurtful as what I did to him. Do I think he was anti-Semitic? Looking back on this, I don’t. He was angry at me, and he said some awful things. We both treated each other miserably. And perhaps I was to blame for his behavior.

But populations don’t work this way. We can’t flagellate ourselves for the harmful misconceptions of others. We can’t say that because of Bernie Madoff’s criminal activities, more folks will feel negatively about Jews in finance … or start believing that Jews are misers, live for money, control the world’s banks, etc. These thoughts are already ingrained in the psyches of people who only want to hate. They may become more vocal when information about Jewish individuals is broadcast in an unflattering light, yet the truth is they’ve always felt this way. Humans don’t suddenly “become” anti-Semitic. And any collective guilt that Jews may feel as a result of the behavior of a few (or one) has no foundation in reality.

I often think about Barry and whether I was responsible for losing a friend. I also think about Israel and whether its friends are as volatile. The country definitely has staunch allies, and, the vicissitudes of politics notwithstanding, is in no danger of losing its greatest supporter: the United States. Though relationships may be strained sometimes, their bonds remain strong. The thing that proponents of the Jewish state must remember, however, is that perceptions of it—both good and bad—are not the end product of Israel’s initiatives; they are already established, and they will not change. Neither will the anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism that so pervades the minds of many involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at crippling the Israeli economy. There is nothing different about these modes of thinking … there is only the veneer of legitimacy, and it has no foundation in verity.

And Jews, as a whole, are not the cause of it.

I lost contact with Barry shortly after the “heil Hitler” incident, as I left the Children’s Chorus a little while later owing to the puberty-induced change in my voice. Thankfully, I did learn that some actions have powerful repercussions, yet I realize that oftentimes, we are not to blame for the behavior of others. That’s certainly the case when it comes to anti-Semitism, which is as present as the wind and shows no sign of disappearing. What should vanish, however, is the sensation of guilt that many Jews feel when one of the tribe does something wrong … or something that is perceived as wrong. We need to get away from the “Now they’ll think more badly about us” mentality. We need to stop the self-flagellation.

I’m all for it. And it’s all because of Barry that I’m advocating this mind set. It’s all because of Barry that this is the way I now see.

Somehow, I believe that Barry may be thinking the same thing.

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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