To Kick or Be Silent

tokickorbesilent

In my mind, I always knew I would stand up against anti-Semitism; but then I didn’t.

by Michelle Cove

In fifth grade, a boy name Dave called me a “kike” on the school bus. Wham! Just like that, out of nowhere. Acting on impulse, I stood up, stumbled over and kicked him in the shin. He laughed (I wasn’t the strongest kicker), but at least I felt good about doing something. I’d taken action.

That was the only time before I went off to college that I’d heard any anti-Semitic comment. I’d lived in a few different towns, all of them filled with enough Jews so that it was a rare occurrence to hear comments or jokes about Jews. When I went off to college, Tulane in New Orleans, I encountered a few southerners in my dorm who had never met a Jew, and one in particular who had a whole lot of questions. I remember explaining calmly to her that no, Jews did not have horns, and I showed her the top of my head so she could see for herself. I didn’t feel offended; I felt good about having the chance to set the girl straight. I hoped she’d even tell her family and friends at home, and I would have done my part to rid the world of a little ignorance.

At the age of 30, I got my first real grown-up taste of anti-Semitism—the kind that leaves your stomach in knots. I was in Dublin, visiting the grandfather of my Irish boyfriend Peter. There was no mistaking that Peter was nervous at the prospect of my meeting the man who had almost singlehandedly raised him. He warned me that his grandfather had never once met a Jew. However, I wasn’t all that worried, because when Peter told him ahead of time that I was Jewish, his response was that “We’re all God’s children.” Fine, worked for me.

When Peter and I arrived at his grandfather’s home, we were greeted warmly by both his grandfather and his partner, Christine. “Come in,” Christine cooed after giving me a quick hug, “let me make you some tea!” It was a cold, rainy day and Peter and I took up seats by the fireplace, immediately falling into easy conversation with the older pair. We chatted about America, what I did for a living, how the two of them met, who we were visiting while in town. The topic then shifted to how Ireland was changing.

“Ireland has changed a lot in the past few years,”announced Christine, “it’s getting harder to find work because of all the immigrants coming over. There are a lot more Muslims here now, and there are a lot more of those filthy Jews.” Um… pardon me? Did she just say that? I looked her in the eye and saw she had no idea I was Jewish. “Grandda” had obviously not informed her of this important detail. A heavy silence hung in the air for what felt like hours, and I sat there unsure of how to respond.

“Christine!” Peter’s grandfather finally barked, “SHUT UP! What an ignorant thing to say!” He did not tell her that I was Jewish; he just quickly shut down the conversation. Christine appeared a little shocked, but dropped it. We awkwardly resumed small talk before leaving, although I don’t remember a thing we talked about. I just kept replaying the phrase “filthy Jews” in my brain.

What I do remember is going back to the hotel and crying hysterically. It wasn’t so much what she had said to me as the fact that I hadn’t responded to her outburst. I hadn’t proudly exclaimed that I was Jewish nor had I told her that her remark was inappropriate. I hadn’t kicked her in the shin. Nothing. I was a disgrace to myself and to the entire Jewish population. I was wracked with guilt. And while Peter assured me there was nothing I could have done (his grandfather was the right one to step in), the experience left me feeling confused and anxious.

If you had asked me before the trip what I would have done, I know my answer would have been different than my actual response. It would have involved me telling her that this kind of talk was unacceptable. But that just didn’t feel right while I was in the situation. I was a guest in her home. She was serving me tea. She was a potential in-law at the time. Peter’s grandfather did act, and perhaps that was the correct response after all. After I returned home, I told friends and family about my experience and they were divided about the best way to handle a situation like that. I’d like to say I’ll be better prepared next time, but I’m not so certain.

About the Author

Michelle CoveMichelle Cove
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. In 2003, she developed and became editor in chief of JVibe, the national magazine for Jewish teens. In 1999, she coauthored I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict (Penguin).

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