The ten days leading up to my DukeEngage experience, I was in Israel participating in Birthright, an organization that allows young Jewish adults to explore their homeland and contemplate what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. We often discussed anti-semitism and the ways in which in manifests itself in the United States, particularly after visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum. I expressed that although I had heard of acts of anti-semitism happening in the US, I had never really felt it in my life, or viewed it as a barrier I had to overcome. While working at the Haight Street Referral Center in San Francisco, however, I have come across situations that have not only forced me to reconsider my experiences with anti-semitism, but also how I perceive anti-semitism itself, and the manners in which it manifests itself in an individual.
During my first or second week of work, I was talking to a client with whom I felt I had begun to build a solid relationship. One day he pointed at my shoes and asked me where I had gotten them from. “Oh!” I said, “I actually bought them in Israel. I was there a couple of weeks ago.” The client took a step back, looked at the shoes, and then looked back at me. “So then,” he began, “are you satisfied that a Hebrew made your shoes?” I sharply inhaled, but instead of answering his question directly, I merely said, “actually, that’s not what they like being called.” “No,” he countered, “I’m pretty sure they’re called Hebrews.” “No,” I pushed back, “they’re called Israeli people, or Israelis.” He looked confused, “So then where did I get the word Hebrew from?” I exhaled, “Ah! It’s the language that a lot of Israelis speak,” and after some more back and forth and explaining, he seemed to understand. Later that night, I contemplated that interaction. The outdated use of the word Hebrew clearly stemmed from ignorance, rather than malintent. I still haven’t unpacked his use of the word “satisfied,” and probably never truly will. After hearing the initial sentence, I immediately assumed anti-semitic intentions. Yet, delving in deeper to his understanding of the word Hebrew made me understand his viewpoint in an entirely different manner. “Satisfied” appears to hold negative connotations in this context, yet how can I really be sure without questioning the understanding and intent behind the word, question, and questionner?
Around the same time, one of the staff members asked me if I knew a particular client. I said that I did, and thought back to the soft-spoken man who wished me good morning and asked how my day was going, before even taking food for himself or seeing to his other pressing needs. The staff member then asked me if I had seen this client’s swastika tattoos.
In the days and weeks to come, I couldn’t stop seeing those tattoos. Every time this client walked into the space, my eyes would immediately be drawn to the images representative of so much hate, death, and destruction. It’s hard to see a swastika as only that, only the image, and not as the history and horror that plagued my family and millions of others. I continued talking to the client, and I tried to ignore the tattoos–visible or not–and worked on building a relationship with him. Yet, every time I looked at him, they were all I could see.
The next week, one of the staff members told the rest of staff that he had talked to the client about the tattoos, and was beginning to understand the context in which he got them. For reasons of confidentiality I don’t want to list the specifics of this client’s past, but unfortunate circumstances forced him to get the tattoos for survival purposes, and he does not align himself with the values of Nazism. Even with this knowledge, I struggled to move beyond my own understanding of a swastika, and put myself in his position. I have the privilege of never having been forced to do something I strongly disagree with in order to survive. I’ve never had to put my values on the back burner in order to protect my physical self. I understood this difference conceptually, but I still couldn’t help staring at the tattoos when the client walked into the space.
This past week, the client came in wearing clothing that made his tattoos visible, and after he wished me a good morning and asked how my day was going so far, he went to take food for himself. As he was eating, he saw me looking at one of the tattoos. I quickly looked away, and tried my best to keep myself distracted while he was in the space. As he was leaving, I was standing by the door, and I told him to have a great day. He paused, looked at me, gave me a hug, and said four words that I never thought I’d hear coming out of the mouth of an individual with swastika tattoos:
“Hey,” he said, “I love you,” and then he walked out the door.
It’s hard to describe the emotional upheaval I felt in that moment, and if I tried I don’t think I’d be able to do it justice. So I’ll just leave it at that.