‘South Pacific’ and a Lesson on Anti-Semitism

“Stupid Jewish lady!”

The words came from the person in the driver’s seat, a young man with significant experience behind the wheel and a tendency toward getting angry at unwary pedestrians. I was sitting in the back, waiting, like everyone else in the car, to stop at my parents’ building just a couple of blocks away, where I was slated to be dropped off. In the street, the woman who was the object of this vitriol ambled to the sidewalk, unaware of the invective. The young man’s father angrily turned toward him.

“Apologize!” he ordered.

There was no apology—at least, not a genuine one. The driver, who was the brother of someone I had a very close relationship with, never told me he was sorry for saying something so anti-Semitic. He never told me he was wrong to insult my religion.

And I know why. It’s because he didn’t think he was wrong. He was, as the song from the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific goes, “carefully taught.”

Full disclosure: I’ve never truly liked the ditty in which that phrase appears, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” very much at all. I always thought it was preachy, simplistic; lines such as “You’ve got to be taught/To hate and fear,/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year,/It’s got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught” seem rather obvious in this day and age. And yet, after thinking about the tune in the wake of this incident—which remains crystal clear in my mind despite the fact that it occurred about a decade ago—I wonder if I’d taken its message for granted in the past. Sure, bigots are “carefully taught.” But you don’t always realize that until you encounter one.

I encountered one that day, not knowing he was anti-Semitic until that moment, not knowing where it came from, as it was so out-of-the-blue. I know where it came from now, though. It came from his parents, who “carefully taught” him, unconsciously or not, “to hate all the people [his] relatives hate.” It came from his parents, who insisted to me in conversation that the Jews killed Christ, despite my protestations and arguments to the contrary. It came from his father, who once, after the 2000 presidential elections in the United States, blamed the Jews in Florida for getting George W. Bush elected. It came from his parents, who played a salsa song for me that supposedly marveled at the Jews’ propensity for dancing … a song that condescendingly suggested, in a generalization fit for the Halls of Well-Meaning Yet Offensive Prejudice, that all Jews somehow had this magical musical trait.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

I admit that I dwell on these slights, even today, after all these years. Like another South Pacific song says, I really should just “wash that man right outta my hair/And send him on his way.” Yet in retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if I should’ve been more displeased at this young man’s parents than him. Was it his fault these beliefs were so ingrained in his mindset? Was it his fault that his proverbial apple didn’t fall far from the tree?

You’ve got to be carefully taught. I still don’t love that song very much—especially since there’s so much else in South Pacific that’s better: “This Nearly Was Mine,” for example. Or “Some Enchanted Evening.” I can’t say I don’t understand that little anti-bigotry ditty, though … and perhaps I understand it now more than ever. The context of hate is truly what counts, and a person’s never alone when it comes to anti-Semitism. There are always people surrounding him or her, just like the family surrounding the young driver taking me to my parents’ building that dismaying day. And even though his father chastised him for his horribly offensive exclamation, the hatred was never stemmed at the source, and consequently it was too little, too late. He was carefully taught, all the way to the bone. And he never learned otherwise.

Maybe we can prevent others from experiencing such lessons in the future. Maybe we can teach them the right way to think—the unprejudiced, more accepting way. Maybe we can even include South Pacific in the syllabi … and sing along to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” when it comes up in the playlist. I’m all for it, if that’s what it takes to further tolerance in the world. As long as it’s followed by “This Nearly Was Mine,” I’ll be happy. As long as the melodies are paired with understanding, I’ll be content.

You’ve got to be carefully taught. To love, too. At least, that’s what I think. I don’t think that’s so hard, do you?

Not at all.

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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