Six Feet Closer, Six Feet Apart: Embracing Cultural Connectivity in a Time of Hate

ix Feet Closer, Six Feet Apart: Embracing Cultural Connectivity in a Time of Hate by Bella Wexler - Photo by Zoe Oppenheimer

Throughout time, politicians have been known to apply dog-whistle politics to appeal to certain people at the expense of others. This includes terms and phrases with underlying discriminatory implications. Even as we hunker down in our houses, united in our resolve to beat this pandemic, we are living through an era of dog whistles spilling off the lips of our leaders into our streets, stores, and schools.

There has been an undeniable rise in racist and xenophobic treatment of Asian Americans in our country as President Trump continues to label the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Chinese Virus.” It is far too easy to devolve into a state of apathy toward victims of hate crimes nowadays because we have our own health with which to concern ourselves. But, as Jewish people, we know all too well how devastating xenophobic scapegoating can be when a nation’s people are desperate and they treat others with indifference. Now more than ever, we as a people must stand in solidarity with the wrongfully attacked. While the Chinese government is likely culpable for exacerbating the spread of the virus by initially censoring medical officials who discovered it, we must not project blame on civilians in China or those of Asian descent in our own country. Politics should never distort our humanity. Battling a global pandemic has come to feel like our generation’s World War. Amidst the tragedy, it is imperative that we recognize our enemy as a virus, not a race.

The severity of hatred that Asian people have faced in our nation since January of this year is staggering. As stated by California Representative Judy Chu, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have climbed to 100 per day since the coronavirus outbreak (Kelley 2020). From verbal attacks on the subway to the vicious stabbing of three Asian Americans shopping at a Texas Sam’s Club in March, the brutality has been ever present and devastating. One Asian American high school student was even hospitalized after being bullied and accused of carrying the virus by his classmates (Kelley 2020). All the while, “extremists continue to spread antisemitic and xenophobic conspiracies about COVID-19, blaming Jews and China for creating, spreading and profiting off the virus” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Politicians’ careless and ignorant rhetoric fans the already spreading flames of bigotry.

It is crucial in polarizing times like these to remind ourselves of that which connects us. Stereotypes classify us differently, with Chinese people portrayed as cogs in a Communist machine, and Jews associated with capitalist greed. Yet, embedded within our true cultures are a myriad of similarities and even some ethnological overlap. For starters, the story of Passover includes tales of the Angel of Death passing over Jewish houses because they had lambs’ blood on the doors. This is not unlike the traditions of the Chinese Spring Festival during which families display red lanterns and Chinese couplets on their doorframes to ward off the evil spirit, “Nian.” Traditionally, Jewish families will also clean their houses, disposing of all chametz for Passover. Chinese families thoroughly clean their houses on Chuxi before the Spring Festival as well. In both cases, the act of cleaning is an act of cleansing, literally refreshing the household and figuratively refreshing the people for Spring. Beyond this, the Chinese game of mah-jongg played an important role in strengthening community among Jewish American women in the years following World War II and is still a prominent staple in our social gatherings today (Walters 13).

Jewish culture is no stranger to China, either. China has had a steady (albeit small) Jewish presence at least since Mesopotamian times when a community was established in Kaifeng, China. The Kaifeng Jewry thrived for generations and, even after its people’s assimilation into the Han ethnicity and dynastic Chinese society, remnants and descendants of its culture have remained. Beyond Kaifeng, China has had considerable Jewish communities in Beijing, Xi’An, Ningxia, Hangzhou, Quanzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, and several more cities (Xu 2003). Ranging from biblical times to emigration during the Holocaust to the present day, Jewish and Chinese cultures have experienced notable overlap. However, even if there were no connection between our peoples, we cannot stand idly by while an entire demographic is unjustly targeted.

Never again. Never again will the world tolerate the victimization of an entire people. These are the words we hold close in our hearts and on our minds. It is true that we cannot equate the caliber of the sporadic discrimination against Asian people in this time with the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, Cambodian genocide, Uyghur genocide (which is currently and devastatingly occurring in China), or any other systematic, mass assassinations. Yet we must be reminded that hatred starts small. We cannot be complacent while our president rhetorically scapegoats an entire country of people for the tragedy caused by a virus. In uncertain and troubling times like these, I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor from Germany who eventually took a public stand in opposition of Adolf Hitler (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. 2012). He spent seven years in concentration camps as a result and reflected on his experiences with the following:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

For those targeted, for ourselves, and for our future, the time is now.
We must speak out.

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Bella Wexler is a senior at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Arizona. She is a journalist for the Tucson Dog Magazine, intern for the Jewish Latino Teen Coalition, and captain of her school’s Lincoln Douglas debate team. Bella loves to spend time playing with her sisters and pets or studying languages, particularly Mandarin and Spanish.
Accompanying photo: “Chinatown” by Zoe Oppenheimer