There is a Palestinian boy in my gym class. His gym clothes consist of an endless cycle of “free Gaza” and “free Palestine” shirts. This irks me. I always tell my friends that I’m going to go up and say something to him, but I never have. I have heard that he’s an anti-Semite.
I was at my weekly SAT tutoring class a few weeks ago, sitting next to another Jewish girl. She was talking about what happened during the week with me and the tutor while we worked on some math problems. “This boy” — it was the kid from my gym class — “told me that he wanted to kill me and my family because we’re Jewish,” she said. “I reported him. So did my teacher. He seemed really serious about it too, it was scary.”
I looked up from my math problems. The girl noticed my shocked expression, and continued. “And this boy’s brother… apparently he refused to do a group project because one of the partners he was given was Jewish.”
This was all very surprising to hear. Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where I live, is an area with a significant Jewish population. Sure, every once in a while I hear a Jewish joke, but nothing like this.
I didn’t agree with the boy when I saw him wearing the “free Palestine” shirts, but that’s his prerogative. His opinion is different than mine. That’s okay with me. What isn’t okay with me is anti-Semitism. You don’t have to love Jews. You have the freedom to hate Jews, and even though I would strongly disagree with your sentiments, you have the right to believe what you want. However, once your bigotry starts creeping into and affecting my life, I have a problem. You can keep your parochial views to yourself. I don’t want to hear your made up facts about how all Jews are rich or how Jews control the media. In a perfect world, there would be tolerance and respect for all people across the globe, but an unfortunate part of today’s reality is that there are bigots, racists, sexists, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes.
On the flip side, also in my gym class, is a boy who is a Syrian refugee. He started coming to my school in October, and he doesn’t talk very much. He is on my volleyball team, and he’s a relatively good player. He doesn’t interact with the rest of our team; he just stands there. His name is Mohammed.
We play against a different volleyball team each class, and there is this one team that I was dreading to play. They were obnoxious, self-centered, and they cheat a lot. They weren’t even good at volleyball. When Mohammed walked onto the court with the rest of us, the other team looked at us incredulously. “Oh my God, is the Syrian gonna blow us up?” one of the WASP boys on the other team asked, looking at his teammates.
All of the mouths of the members on my team dropped. But we stayed silent. I feel incredibly guilty for that. Mohammed wasn’t paying attention at the time, and I don’t know if he would have understood anyway, but that didn’t make the kid’s statement any better. Throughout the game, whenever Mohammed would hit the ball, regardless of whether it was a good hit or not, the other team would laugh at him.
It was not okay for the Palestinian kid to make those anti-Semitic comments. It is equally as bad for the WASP kid to make that anti-Syrian comment.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.”
Heschel was a civil rights activist who walked next to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at his march on Selma. In this quote, he highlights the need for people to realize our equalities. We all share the same hopes, fears, and needs. There is no reason for skin-deep prejudice.
Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and other prejudices should have no place in this world.
As someone who believes in equality and fairness for all, I am ashamed that I did not say anything to the people on the other volleyball team after their comments to Mohammed. God forbid there is a next time, but I will stand up and say something, and not be a bystander. That is what I would want others to do for me in that situation.
We all need to work past our biases to reach a mutual understanding with our common man. I hope this new year of 2016 brings us closer to that goal.