It’s safe to say that I’m not the most politically correct person on the planet. I tend to think that we’re usually far too sensitive and tend to overreact to innocuous comments, which only serves to give those comments a life and meaning for which they weren’t destined.
Yes, I’ve taken my fair share of shots at any number of groups. Such shots are always in jest and are always taken as such. At least, admittedly, I think they are always taken as such. I think I have solid radar for those non-PC comments that are harmless versus those that are purely hateful. And the last place I expected to be the target of hate was on a beach volleyball court in the Dominican Republic. It was shocking. I was speechless and, sadly, I reacted with silence.
After sucking down the second, third or maybe seventh or eighth cold, blended tropical beverage (which, sadly featured little to no actual booze, which is why one could easily imbibe so many of ‘em!), we set out for the beach volleyball court. That’s the rule in Punta Cana: You’re getting drunk…you crave beach volleyball! Alas, the ball was nowhere to be found.
“Over here!” came the call. We looked up to see the ball extended in the hand of a nearby fellow vacationer. “You want the ball?” Please. The dude trotted over with the ball in hand. Like many/most of the visitors at the Club Med in Punta Cana, the guy was French and greeted us with his thick French accent. “I was waiting for somebody to play. I grabbed the ball.” Unfortunately, he didn’t end his comments there. “I didn’t steal it. I’m not a Jew.”
And there it was.
Despite the accent, his thought was as clear as the blue waters behind him. He wasn’t laughing. This wasn’t some lame attempt at humor. This was hate. (Later substantiated by another comment he made.) I was shocked. I tried to stammer out, “Yeah, but I am.” But I couldn’t even do that. I didn’t know what to do. I just kind of shook it off and played volleyball with the guy through gritted teeth.
I’ve never really been on the receiving end of an anti-Semitic slur up close and personal. I’ve laughed at jokes with my Jewish friends or those made in the media (see South Park), but those comments easily fall into that “made in jest” bucket. But, what I wondered throughout the rest of the trip and still now is if such “made in jest” comments add fuel to the hate. What if someone like my French “friend” overhears me telling a friend that “I’m Jewish. I can’t fix stuff.” Or do racists gain momentum from hip-hop lyrics that overtly use the “n-word”? Do such instances provide a kind of ill-informed approval for the haters? I still don’t have the answer.
I’m not the most Jewish of Jews. As author A.J. Jacobs has written about his own upbringing, I’m Jewish the way the Olive Garden is Italian, which is to say that there are roots of Judaism in my soul, but my life isn’t recognizable as something Jewish. I don’t live by any Jewish laws. (Nobody is going to accuse the Olive Garden as recognizably “Italian” – unless serving pasta qualifies on its own.) And, damn, I love shrimp, bacon, meet and cheese together and anything else that’s not kosher.
After facing such blatant hatred, however, I never felt more Jewish. Or at least more connected to my Judaism. I hate hate. No. That’s not right. I don’t understand hate. And the older I get the less I understand it. I get that it comes misguided fears and beliefs, but I don’t understand how those fears and beliefs become hate in all of its violent manifestations.
More than anything, however, this encounter has left me terribly confused. I was on vacation thousands of miles away from home and the last thing I felt like doing was dealing with the stress of confrontation. I barely do that in my day-to-day life, much less the fantasy life that comes with a Caribbean vacation. But, here I am so many days later and I find myself wishing I had said something; wishing that I had stood up for my life experience. I think the reason why it eats at me so much isn’t because of the anti-Semitism, per se, but the hatred. I let hate go unchecked. And unchecked hate grows into more hate. I feel like I didn’t just let my own self down, but also anyone who faces any kind of hatred. Any kind of bully behavior.
I still believe that being too politically correct can create its own damage as it creates fires where there might not even have been a spark. And, adding the fuel of social media to the smallest of sparks these days creates the kind of fire that wipes out reputations in one fell swoop. That said, I think I’ve learned that we (well…I) might be better off being overprotective than silent. I should have stopped this guy in his “I’m not a Jew” tracks and let him know with absolute certainly that I am and I don’t appreciate such statements. Or at the very least ask him what he meant by his comment. Silence was not the right answer.
Nor will it ever be again.