Have Jews Become Overly Sensitive to Hate Speech?

Allow me to tell you a little joke about anti-Semitism.

Moishe’s in Dallas on a business trip, and he pops into a bar for a club soda. As he’s sipping it, he looks around apprehensively. “Gee”, he mutters, “I hope no one says anything anti-Semitic.”

At those words, the door swings open, and in comes a tall, burly Texan wearing a big cowboy hat. “Are theah any Jews in heah?” he bellows.

“Oh, no,” murmurs Moishe, leaning over his drink. “I knew it: an anti-Semite. I can’t identify myself. But if I don’t, it would be shameful. What would my forefathers say?”

“Ah said,” rumbled the Texan, “are theah any Jews in heah?”

Moishe covers his eyes. “Maybe he won’t see me. I’ll just sit here and be quiet. Yet I must speak up for my religion. What if he says something anti-Semitic, though? Ugh, I can’t stand it.”

“For the last time … are theah any Jews in heah?”

“All right!” says Moishe, jumping off his stool, arms spread wide. “All right! I admit it! I’m a Jew!”

The Texan motions to the door with impatience. “Well, come on,” he says. “We need a tenth for a minyan.”

I like this joke for a number of reasons—none of which includes my poor interpretation of a Texas accent. First of all, it’s kind of sweet. Guy goes into a bar and doesn’t get insulted, drunk, punched or kicked out. That’s pretty rare, humor-wise. Furthermore, it’s not dirty or “blue,” and I, being a prude when it comes to telling such silly tales, like that attribute; you hardly see it in contemporary comedy, and it’s a refreshing contrast to the more profane content circulating about in this day and age.

But the most important reason why this story rings true for me is that it provides a lesson. You never know when or where your preconceived notions are going to be shattered. And I think it’s the case for me, as a Jew, along with many of my religious brethren.

I wonder: Have we, as a tribe, become overly sensitive to hate speech—particularly anti-Semitism? Do we walk on eggshells in the social-media marketplace, on the cobblestones of the real world? I can only speak for myself, of course, but I suspect it’s not just me. With the prevalence of offensive commentary on Facebook and the rest of the Internet, we’ve become inured to such vitriol … but I believe it makes us more concerned about what people are going to say about us, our religion, our culture. In the past, Jews have been expelled from myriad countries through no fault of our own; we’ve been murdered in pogroms, persecuted via unfair laws, insulted and humiliated, stereotyped and blacklisted. Now we’ve arrived at a time of self-awareness, of true consciousness. We see everything around us and have the capacity to speak up. We’re in groups that serve to protect us; we’re assimilated into societies and even have our own country.

Yet I, as may others of my faith, still worry about what folks think about Judaism and its adherents. When I read a story in the paper about a Jewish person who commits a crime, I’m perturbed. What first goes through my head isn’t: That individual did wrong. It’s: This will stir up more anti-Semitism. When I visit another state (I live in the U.S.) or another country, I agonize about the possibility of encountering bigotry—as if I’m obviously a member of my tribe, clad in the distinct dress and payot of the Hasidim, like Woody Allen’s neurotic Alvy Singer at the dinner table of his girlfriend’s non-Jewish family in Annie Hall. The fact that I have, during the course of my life, encountered people who exhibit prejudice makes me even more anxious. Am I Moishe myself, scared and nervous, angst-ridden about my faith and others’ perceptions of it? Should I be afraid to walk out the door and confront the universe, which I’ve never felt comfortable in, anyway?

The answer is, of course, no. I’m still having difficulty with that idea, but I must have faith. And there’s proof in the pudding. I’ve been to Texas a couple of times; I have relatives there … yes, relatives. The diaspora has extended everywhere; we’re peppered throughout the globe. The bagel has been accepted as a breakfast standard; Hedy Lamarr was recently honored on Google.

Does the world really hate Jews? Well, frankly, it seems a lot of people like us.

I’m not saying anti-Semitism doesn’t exist; it still does, and it’s as prevalent on this Earth as it is abhorrent. But we’re living in a different time now. No longer should we be concerned about going into a bar and ordering a drink in a land less used to our faith and culture than, say, Borough Park in Brooklyn. We can talk to the patrons, look around, keep our heads high. There’s an acceptance of Jews in society that’s stronger now than it ever has been. When have we, in history, been so assimilated, so welcomed? We don’t have to walk on eggshells when it comes to our religion. Because the person who walks in after us might just want to be our friend. Because the person who walks in after us might just need us for a minyan.

My “beat,” so to speak, for this blog is anti-Semitism, but sometimes I’ll be dealing with pro-Semitism—as is the case here. The two are often at odds, yet it frequently surprises me how often the latter gains the upper hand. No, we haven’t convinced everyone of our virtues, but there’s still lots of time. We have people who believe in us, much more than we think. These days, we can say no to paranoia while welcoming society’s embrace. Heck, we’re not too far away from a collective cultural bear hug.

Frankly, I think it’s about time we hugged back.

The Texan in the joke asks, “Are theah any Jews in heah?”—and he expects a prompt response. Moishe may pause, but we don’t. We can’t afford it. Instead, we answer confidently, empowered and full of pride.

Yes, we say, we’re heah; oh, yes, we Jews are finally heah. And for once, after all this time, we’re going to stay for a long, long while.

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.