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Micro-agressions and matzo balls

He has a job at a place committed to progressive ideals of justice -- so why did his colleague make that joke?

He turns to me, glint in his eye.

“Your dad is a printer? What does he print,” he pauses for dramatic effect, “money?”

And he rubs his nose.

I almost grabbed my coat. I almost lost my cool. Frankly, I almost lost my lunch.

It’s hard to blame this guy. Growing up in rural Quebec, he probably never met a Jew before. He may have been confused: after all, I might have been hiding my horns somewhere.

But this supposedly educated, professional, passionate colleague of mine was skilled enough to land a job staffing the people who stand as the symbols of democracy in my country, just couldn’t understand how deeply he had just wounded me.

What do we talk about when we talk about anti-Semitism? Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, anti-semitism was the Holocaust. Or “None is too many.” It was my grandfather, a brilliant law student who graduated top of his class at Osgoode Hall, who was told over and over again that his religion was a barrier to articling at most of the top law firms in Toronto. Anti-Semitism was the past.

Even at university, anti-Semitism was anti-Zionism and Boycott-Israel movements. The worst case I’d ever personally experienced was ignorant farmers questioning the Holocaust during Holocaust Education Week. Ironic, isn’t it? Still, anti-Semitism wasn’t about a Jew being Jewish, it was about Jewish causes and ideas. It wasn’t a personal attack, and it certainly wasn’t attacks on big noses, gold chains, beady eyes, money grubbing stereotypes.

But the worst part of this little incident at the restaurant last week? He wasn’t intending to hurt me. He thought he was being funny. Clever. Making a joke. Never mind that “The Jews have all the money” is usually two hops and a skip from “Let’s kill the Jews and take their money.” Never mind that we both work for a government whose leader appointed a gender-equal cabinet because he believes that out of 184 members of parliament in his party, at least 15 women might be as talented and qualified as 15 men. A radical idea, I know. Never mind that I work for a man whose people were nearly extinguished by the slow oppression of forced assimilation. None of that seemed to matter. I was a Jew, and it seemed alright to joke about that.

So why was it okay to remind the Jew that he and his people are money-grubbing, immoral, big-nosed, or any other stereotype he wanted to throw at me? Somewhere in my bones, I felt that “Christ Killer” may have been hiding in the background waiting to come play.

I had a hard time falling asleep that night.

I was mad. I was so mad. I had a burning in my chest that made me want to make Aliyah, join the army, serve in elite combat units (I’d have to train hard to get in shape), run for elected office, serve brilliantly, run for party leadership, and become the Prime Minister, just so I could rain down hellfire on his head. So I could bring the full might of the IDF, my people’s army down on him. I was seething with the fury of God’s clenched fist and outstretched hand. The 10 Plagues? He would have been begging for makat bechorot before I was done with him.

So, yes. I was mad.

But then I realized that my plan would take a while.

So: what’s a short, white, Canadian Jew with a little bit of martial arts training and a big chip on his shoulder to do?

Ultimately, there’s only two things I could do. The first is what oppressed people throughout the world do. Black people, Asians, Muslims, LGBTQ, you name it. Anyone in the Western world who isn’t white, straight, and Christian (or with “Christian ancestry”) knows what you do when this kind of thing happens: sit down, shut up, and stew. Because we’re never going to win by fighting these fights, and the struggle is only going to hurt us. It sucks, but, as Elsa would say, “Let it go.” Fighting these battles is pissing in the wind.

But there’s something else to do. Just one more thing. It’s one of the hardest things in the world. Stand taller, be prouder, and keep walking. Don’t fight back, just stand up straighter. Take the hatred and use it as fuel. If you’re going through hell, keep going. I’ve never been shy about who I am and what I am. In my teenage years I confronted my relationship with religion, yet I remain a Jew, and never wanted to be anything else. I was born a Jew, I’ll die a Jew, and every bacon-eating, Shabbat-driving, God-questioning day in between I’ll be a Jew.

This job is the first time I’ve really lived outside the Jewish bubble, and this is the first time I’ve felt truly disconnected from my people on a daily basis. I am a stranger in a strange land. But I promise this: I will never be a stranger when I look in the mirror. That would be letting them win.

About the Author
Zack Babins is a Parliamentary Intern in the House of Commons in Ottawa. He graduated from the University of Guelph, where he was a leader in campus Jewish organizations Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi. All views are, of course, his own. He doesn't expect many will share them.
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