“I always taught you boys not to see color. Racism wasn’t acceptable. Except for Arabs.”
When I see those words written down, I want to laugh from sheer exasperated confusion. They seem like words a comedian would use to satirize bigoted self-involvement. Said unironically by an actual person, they’re a cruel joke told at the expense of their speaker.
My brother and I weren’t surprised when our mother said them while cooking a family dinner in the spring of 2012. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t already been saying for decades.
“Arabs,” I should note, is my mother’s word for “Muslims.” Even leaving aside both her own conflation of religious discrimination with racism and the cringeworthy folly of the phrase “not seeing color,” it’s the sort of sentiment Americans have been seeing a lot of recently.
Ever since the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, we’ve seen Islamophobia reach a fever pitch. A gunman in Orange County, Florida fired several shots into the home of a Muslim family. A taxi passenger in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania attempted to murder the cab driver after finding out he was Muslim. A meeting in Fredericksburg, Virginia to formalize an application for a zoning permit to replace an aging Muslim community center was met with cries of “every Muslim is a terrorist, period.” Numerous mosques have been defaced or vandalized—at least five between November 13th to 24th alone. (The Council on American-Islamic Relations has been keeping track of everything, in case you wanted to feel violently ill about America.)
Spurred on by public figures like sentient internet comment Donald Trump, who appears to be playing a game of sociopathic-bigotry-can-you-top-this with himself, attacks like these mark a rise in Islamophobic violence and harassment the U.S. hasn’t seen since the aftermath of 9/11, and some Muslim leaders believe it’s now worse than it has ever been.
My mother, however, is something of an Islamophobia hipster—she was into it long before it was popular. I don’t remember when I first became cognizant of her beliefs, but I was definitely aware by the time of my barmitzvah at 13 (not so coincidentally, that might be the last time I considered myself religiously Jewish). In her eyes, Muslims are universally “taught” to hate Jews. Pointing out the absurdity of this statement—and the painful irony of her reaction to it—is met with silence or derision. She’s not the type to march in rallies, and she certainly wouldn’t condone the outright violence described above, but that doesn’t mean the discriminatory intent isn’t there. Too often, we make the mistake of assuming the more quiet kind of bigotry isn’t harmful.
Though the entire event seemed a contest for who could sound the most callous, one moment in last Tuesday’s GOP primary debate struck me in particular. Moderator Hugh Hewitt pressed retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on his recent rhetoric about bombing ISIS-controlled areas. At first, Carson dodged the question, so Hewitt tried again: “You are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians?” The partisan crowd erupted in full-throated boos.
People remember the moment, but what they recall is Carson’s “you got it, you got it” (a response many incorrectly assume was an answer to Hewitt’s question, when it was actually in agreement with the audience’s contempt for his willingness to ask it). What I haven’t been able to get out of my head is crowd’s response—a lust for war so strong that collateral damage and the dehumanization of dead Muslim children are irrelevant. As a Trump spokeswoman said earlier in the week about his plan to ban all Muslims (including American citizens) from U.S. entry, “So what? They’re Muslims.”
Lots of garden-variety liberals would like to think that nobody they know has anything in common with those audience members. And yet it’s impossible to hear those words and that crowd’s boos and not also hear the echoes of the culture in which I grew up.
Make no mistake; though Islamophobia drove me away from my religious heritage, it wasn’t solely my mother’s doing. She was only a reflection of the community in which she raised us. Many of the screaming teenage fights about the Middle East between my mother and I took place on the way to or from synagogue, which isn’t a coincidence.
While it certainly wasn’t universal, her views didn’t exactly elicit the horrified reaction at temple as it did from me. Best as my brother and I can figure, it all springs from the same diseased root: a fanatical devotion to the primacy and infallibility of Israel. Israel at any cost was taken as gospel by large parts of our family’s temple. If you dare to criticize any of Israel’s actions as a Jew, you were self-hating. After a certain point, I couldn’t stand to be a part of a group that expressed that sort of hatred.
The only real difference between her and many of our temple’s members was mom’s willingness to come out and say what she really thought. These weren’t ultra-orthodox, orthodox, or even conservative Jews, either; these were reform Jews, the most liberal branch of the religion. Reform Judaism was way ahead of the curve when it came to things like the ordination of women Rabbis and LGBT rights. In other words, the sort of people at our temple were exactly the sort of enlightened individuals we’d like to think know better.
Every Christmas, my fiancee and I make the trip down to the weathered house that serves as the ancestral home of her family, about 40 minutes outside Roanoke, Virginia. It couldn’t be more in the middle of nowhere if the road signs read “Here There Be Dragons.” My fiancee’s mother and all her siblings grew up in the sort of backwater that “cultured” types like my mother might peg as hopelessly behind the times. My mother, on the other hand, was raised in Brooklyn and Long Island—in and around one of the world’s biggest, most cosmopolitan metropolises.
Yet there’s not even the slightest question which family is possessed of more regressive views; my fiancee’s mother couldn’t be more granola if she had a tattoo of the Quaker Oats guy. When my fiancee’s uncle impishly trolled my future-mother-in-law at Thanksgiving by saying he was going to vote for Trump, she about lost her damn mind. People like my mother love to pretend discrimination is a purely rural problem, but the idea that villains and heroes can be neatly sectioned by voting district would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. Willful discrimination can come from anywhere.
Everyone who wants to consider themselves a decent person has an obligation to stand up to bigotry, subtle or blatant, and declare it unacceptable. As a people who’ve faced repeated, systematic attempts to exterminate us (the running joke-that-isn’t-really-a-joke among Jews is the story of every holiday boils down to “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat”), Jews should be more aware of this than most. The minute the frontrunner for a major political party’s presidential nomination mentions registering everyone belonging to a minority group, every Jew alive should be standing up and saying “wait just a damn minute.” If first they’re coming for Muslims, we can’t morally afford to say nothing.
C.A. Pinkham is a former server who somehow fell ass-backwards into this whole getting paid to make words good thing. If you don't think he's entirely insufferable, you can find him regularly on Wonkette.