There is a rite of passage each Jew must complete before he or she has reached adulthood, besides a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This is an unpleasant task, one most of us, in retrospect, would have liked to have avoided for as long as possible. No matter who you are or where you are from, there is that day when you realize that there are people in the world who just flat-out don't like Jews, and no amount of sparkling personality, empathy, understanding or smarts is going to change their mind.
When I was a kid, I was certain that I would have been able to talk Hitler out of sending me to the showers. I was so charming and funny, I thought, that Der Fuhrer would have seen past his silly little prejudices and judged me for myself.
It can be subtle, like the gift-wrapped box of Matzo ball soup mix Richard Parks presented to me in ninth grade drafting class; or it can be in your face, like the passionate argument made at a college retreat that calling someone "a Jew" because they were being cheap wasn't a slur because it was true.
Here in San Francisco, it often takes the form of, believe it or not, "pro-peace" activists, who feel that their commitment to liberation for the "Palestinian" people allows them the freedom to say whatever they want about Israel and Jews, because we deserve it anyway.
And then there is the Westboro Baptist Church, under Pastor Fred Phelps. Last week, the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kansas, informed our school that they would be "picketing" us as part of a short San Francisco swing. We're slotted for 10 am. After that, they'll hit the JCC, the Stanford Hillel, City Hall and a performance of "Fiddler on the Roof." Looking at their itinerary, it doesn't seem that different from any other tourists' plans. The difference is that the WBC will arrive at these places carrying big, colorful signs that read things like "God Hates Jews!" or "Jews Killed Christ," or the popular "Fag-lover Jews!"
The primary thrust of this organization, as far as I can tell -- and trust me, I've made it my business over the past week to read up on them -- is that the United States has fallen so far from grace that they are past redemption. Instead of looking for forgiveness, we need to be scolded. First among our sins is tolerance of "the homosexual lifestyles," a term which, as archaic as it sounds, is actually a much nicer way of putting it than they do.
Today, I watched about half of a documentary about them, called "The Most Hated Family in America," and came away thinking that they just might be insane enough to not even rate as offensive. These people force four-year-olds to stand on street corners holding signs that say "Sweden = Fags!" Yes, no one is immune.
Which is why I'm torn on the proper response to this circus. We all received an email from the school last week, warning us of their plans and urging us to let the school handle the situation. I posted it on my Facebook page, which earned me an email from a fellow parent, warning me that publicizing the event was playing into the hands of protesters. I respectfully disagreed, and here's why:
Whatever we do in response -- and I'm leaning toward nothing, but only because I don't think I can trust myself not to get in their faces were I to show up intending to stand silent vigil -- I think it's important that as many people as possible know that a) there are these types of people in the world, and b) Jews will always be on their short list of targets.
The fallout has been interesting. There has been an e-mail string going back and forth all week. One parent, a guy whose opinions and overall self-confidence I really respect, thinks we have no business taking this lying down. He thinks that if we do nothing, it'll be another instance of Jews getting stepped on and doing nothing about it.
And I have to say, I sort of agree. I think part of the reason this group is targeting us is because they know they can. I mean, think about it; if you hate gay people so much that your organization's web site address is www.godhatesfags.com, and you're coming to San Francisco, wouldn't you logically set up shop at some key gay gathering spots, like, say, the corner of Castro and Market or the LGBT Center? Why drag the Jews into this? Could it be because you know that with Jews, intellectual, pacifist Jews, you stand very little risk of having them attack your van and breaking the windows, like an angry mob has done to them once before? (You can see this on youtube.)
Jews aren't going to do that. Especially not San Francisco Jews. At the very most, we'll show up and stand there looking defiant. We'll take the high road, make a symbolic stand. We're too smart and too aware of the long-term consequences to go postal on them, no matter how much they deserve it. Plenty of the guys on this email chain have made very logical and smart arguments along those lines -- This is what the WBC wants, for us to go nuts. They can't exist unless we give them credence, they fund themselves by suing anyone who curtails their rights to free speech, etc. -- all solid reasoning, and yet I still want to go there on Friday and punch someone in the mouth.
Which I won't do, because I'm an adult and can easily persuade myself as to the folly of engaging with lunatics. Also, I'm a coward.
And I'm a big boy. I already knew that these people exist. The WBC is the most over-the-top of them; the stoner baby boomer who used to live down the street and casually told of being "Jewed down" is much more subtle.
My Jawa is not a big boy, recent slow dances notwithstanding. Nor are the 350 other kids at his school. The school told us that they were going to talk to the middle schoolers, and they're keeping the kids in from recess that day. (another controversial move. Is it prudent, or are we teaching them the old ways, eloquently put as "Keep your head down, Moishe; don't make any trouble," in one email I got this week.)
What if a kindergartner gets a hall pass and is on his way to the bathroom when he spots a mob of people -- some adults, but some his age -- yelling about how God hates him? How does that look when you're six?
And what about the middle schoolers? They're cogent enough to understand what's going on, yet young enough to respond by simply wanting to throw down with these idiots. Has anyone yet told them that adults can be awful, or do they trust all of us to be rational, with their best interests at heart? We are trusting the school to shepherd our kids through this ugly but sadly unavoidable rite of passage. One day you go to school and everything's normal; by the time you go home, everything's different. You're different. And not in a good way.
I still don't know what I'm going to do Friday, but I'm leaning toward going along with the crowd and trusting myself not to lose it when confronted with this crowd of knuckle-draggers. Anthropologically, I don't know if I can miss it.
I'm not one to believe in evil. I think most of the time people do terrible things because they're so much more focused on their own needs than anyone else's that they don't really care about the fallout from their actions. They're flawed, stupid, inconsiderate and no less dangerous, but they're not evil. Only psychos do bad stuff for kicks, I think. Everyone else has a tangible -- and logical, to them -- motivation.
But this group, with their signs and their cocksure attitude -- even in the face of what must be endless questioning, confrontation and inquiry -- they're something else. They take their kids and teach them to hate, blindly, completely and without ever letting up. That, they teach them, is what will get them to Heaven while the rest of us end up burning for eternity.
But look at the bright side. At least they're not blowing themselves up to get there.