Springtime, maybe. At least the last few days have been much warmer; the almond trees have started to blossom and Friday nights have returned to the café. We were a small group and several conversations in English and French were going on at once. I was talking to a local winemaker about his upcoming trip to New York when I heard someone else at the table use the phrase “you’ve got to Jew down the middleman.” He wasn’t talking to me and the person he was talking to didn’t react and neither did I.
Now I wonder why.
I thought for a while that I’ve lived too long in a politically correct society and this was no big deal but I haven’t been able to dismiss it.
I also thought this is a small town and the last thing I want is to make enemies. I was afraid that making an issue of this would cause a split and I would be the one left out.
This was what stopped me, in part anyway.
I began to think I was being overly sensitive, probably because I’ve been reading a lot about World War II lately. It’s very hard to find information about the situation of Jews here during the occupation. I’m not even sure there were any Jews in Maury at the time. But there was a concentration camp not 15 miles away in Rivesaltes and though it was first built in 1938 to house refugees from the war in Spain, it remained in use throughout the German occupation of France and beyond. Today there are monuments to the Spanish, Jewish, Tsigane (Gypsy) and Harki people who spent time there. (Harkis are Algerian Muslims who fought for France in the Algerian War and were interned in the camp because no provision had been made for them when the French withdrew). In 1942, about 6500 Jews were sent to this and other camps in unoccupied France, 1800 died there, the rest were sent to extermination camps. Very few survived. A museum of remembrance and education is planned but has not yet received final approval.
Is this kind of remark indicative of anything more than thoughtlessness in a casual conversation and is that in itself a dangerous attitude? Is it possible that this person has no idea the remark is offensive? Of course, but that doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged; it is the casual acceptance of stereotypes that leads to bigotry. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and silent complicity; hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and other nightmares can be traced to racial and religious bigotry and the dehumanizing effect of stereotypes.
It’s a long way from a casual remark to ethnic warfare and I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve started down that road in our little village, but I can’t seem to put this aside. I went to the camp today looking for what: confirmation, perspective, photos for the blog? The place is huge and appears to have been left untouched for 70 years except for evidence of campers, taggers and garbage disposal. It’s falling down but many walls remain standing. When you see this today – here, not in Poland or Germany – surrounded by modern civilization, the impact is much greater than old newsreel footage. It brings to life the injunction to never forget.
So why publish this? What do I hope to gain?
Apologies are fine but I’m not sure they’d make a whole lot of difference to either one of us. I’d like to believe that you can change the world one person at a time but I doubt it. But I do want this one person to learn that Jew is not a verb and that phrase is offensive and not to use it again.
This blog is a personal journey so I’ll tell you about the first time I can remember an experience like this.
About 50 years ago, the very first real date I had was with a young blond girl from the suburbs. I don’t remember how I met her. Sometime in the course of our lavish Italian dinner at Mamma Leone’s in Times Square – the height of dining for me at the time – she made a similar remark, it may even have been the same phrase. I didn’t say a word, probably not for the rest of the meal and went home feeling ashamed, not of being a Jew, but of not saying anything to her.
Now I’ve done it again but I’ve come to understand that if his casual thoughtlessness is dangerous, so too was my silence.
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