As a young Jewish woman living in the region called “The Bible Belt,” being a religious anomaly is noticeable and challenging. I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee in July, 2011, but surprisingly, I have not faced a large amount of anti-Semitism in my life. However, there is one incident that occurred recently that changed my perspective on bigotry in my community. I was at school, and my math teacher and I were discussing our mutual interest in history. We talked about World War II and the Holocaust, and she mentioned a book about a young Holocaust survivor’s harrowing journey. He was only in elementary school during that time. I thought it was very interesting, and it reminded me of how my great-grandmother escaped Poland to the United States while the rest of her family perished during the Holocaust. As I was exiting the classroom, a ninth grader caught my attention. He looked at me and said, “You look like Adolf Hitler.”
I was stunned into silence, looking into the eye of this freshman with shock, horror, and disdain. Without taking too much time to formulate a proper response, I told the boy that I was Jewish. His friends laughed at him, as their way of acknowledging that he made a huge mistake. I responded the only way I could think of at the moment: I shook my head angrily at him and stormed out.
Later that evening, my dad told me that he had gotten a call and was told what happened afterwards. The boys were severely reprimanded by the principal, who I assume explained to them the truly insensitive and juvenile nature of their comment. The boys’ comment compared me to Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany who murdered millions. Hitler’s look was very distinctive, a steely-eyed, threatening glare above his unique mustache. A look of evil, of malice, of dictatorial power. Adolf Hitler is a prominent symbol of anti-Semitism, so telling me, a Jewish person, that I looked like him is extremely insensitive and upsetting, whether or not the insult was intentional or an impulsive act. Needless to say, the principal of my school harshly told the boys this, and some tears were shed. When I asked why they even said that in the first place, my dad’s exact words were, “they were daring each other to insult you.” I just looked at my dad, shocked. That was even more appalling than the insult itself. Why would a group of freshmen boys just randomly decide to insult a senior girl they don’t even know? That question hung over my head as I told my mom what happened later. Sometimes it’s unclear why these things happen, why people choose to exhibit anit-Semitic behaviors, but unfortunately, it is very common. Differences, any things that people may not understand, can be a reason for negative comments or actions from others. Needless to say, I was very frustrated by the events, but I was assured that I would be issued a proper and mature apology from each of the boys involved.
The next day, I arrived at school and saw the principal outside my homeroom teacher’s classroom.
“Hey, Mrs. Moore,” I said uneasily.
“Hello, my sweet angel.”
“Did you, uh, talk to those guys?”
“I did,” she said. “I am so sorry that they said that to you, Hannah. That was completely inappropriate, and I assure you that their punishment will be swift and severe.”
“Okay. Are they going to apologize to me soon?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, they will. They will have written apologies for you.”
“Okay, thanks. It was–what they said was really weird and pretty hurtful, too. Thank you for taking care of it.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad that this has gotten resolved. They’ll never say anything like that again.” Mrs. Moore paused for a moment before going inside and said, “Have a great day, sweetie.”
“Thanks, you too.”
I was still thinking about the incident, and I was glad that I would be receiving apologies from each of the guys. It made me feel a little bit lighter. Later on, I noticed that they were absent. I was told that two of the boys had gotten in-school suspensions while the other two were actually suspended from school. I was surprised because I didn’t think that the punishment fit the crime, but I figured that the principal knew best.
By the time Monday rolled around, the boys had returned to school, and I received verbal and written apologies from each of them, one by one. I was impressed by the maturity and awareness that each note contained. That didn’t excuse their initial behavior, but I forgave the boys, and let them slightly ease their guilt.
It’s been less than a week since this happened as of writing, but I know that the best way to move forward is to put the incident behind me. It is important to note how troubling it is to think that my school, a supposedly safe and diverse environment, would be a place that could harbor such abhorrent behavior. I will definitely be more wary and guarded around the freshmen, but I won’t let one instance of anti-Semitism define me, because it shouldn’t. I will still think about what happened sometimes, maybe more often than I would like, but it won’t be at the forefront of my mind. The importance of my heritage will always trump the negative comments anyone may have about it. I wish it hadn’t happened at all, but since it did, I think I handled it pretty well. I will forgive, but I will never forget.
In short, how I responded to this instance of anti-Semitism was with frustration, maturity, and forgiveness. I hope that other Jews in these situations will be able to do the same.
Join the conversation!