16 April 2008

Middle East, Argentina

Suppose you hear the following statements:

  • "The first thing Jews do with their children is put guns in their hands. Then they send them to Israel to learn how to use them."
  • "Arabs are not terrorists. There are no terrorists among the Arabs. They're peace-loving people. They don't even have guns."
  • "It was a shame how they treated Saddam Hussein — they killed a man who was ill and defenseless."
Now imagine this in a context where it would be rather uncomfortable to contradict the person — let's say, when the person uttering the words is in a position of authority, and you are surrounded by a bunch of people who seem to agree wholeheartedly with the above.

And then, imagine you eventually come around to tell this person what you thought and how disgusted you felt about those words, and among a flurry of incoherent but vehement justifications you get this:
  • "Why do you get so upset about this? You're not a Jew."
  • "You know, you might be a Jew. You could pass for one. Are you sure you're not a Jew?"
Aren't you sick yet?

Well, the first part is what happened to me during my third, and last, Arabic language class. The rest took place three days afterward. The person who said those words was my teacher, the founder and current head of the Arabic School of Rosario, who I won't name (though you can find out her name quite easily if you try). It was a week ago. Fortunately I've had better things to do and say, since then, than reporting on this nasty episode.

While I was sitting there listening to this old woman's disgusting antisemitic rant, I felt my stomach turn. Several voices concurred with my teacher, several heads nodded in agreement, someone said something about the Jews controlling the media. The class went on. I thought, alright, this is an 81-year-old woman after all. She's the daughter of Syrian parents. She's seen her ancient land crushed, and Arabs being humiliated, turned to despair and hatred; she's watched young men turning into suicide bombers. It's natural, I thought, that she has a one-sided view, that she's resentful, intensely angry, even blindly mad at the attackers. I left in a daze.

Then I realized I'd been a coward. I should've stood up and said something. I would've made a scandal. It wouldn't have served any purpose, but I knew I wasn't going back to that classroom, ever, so that wasn't a problem, and I could possibly get my classmates to think.

And, I thought, I made a mistake being kind to that old lady. It didn't matter that she was 81 years old, or that she was partly right about the suffering of the Arabs under Israel's attacks and the worldwide wave of racist anti-Arab sentiment. Her romantic view of the Arabs as peaceful, family-loving, law-abiding people who don't keep a single gun in their homes was a dream that insulted the thousands of people murdered by Islamic terrorists around the world. She wasn't an incoherent old woman; she spoke clearly and precisely. She wasn't just criticizing the murderous policies of the state of Israel or its treatment of Israeli Muslims as second-class citizens; she spoke of "the Jew" and how he teaches his children to kill, and the evil alliance between the U.S. empire and the Zionists. In her head she thought she knew what she was talking about. She had (she has) no excuse.

And no excuse is what I got when I finally confronted her, just before the next class. I think she didn't even understand what troubled me. I didn't expect to change her mind, but at least hoped she would get angry. I needed that. I didn't get it. She said I was "a good boy", if only a bit too sensitive ("since you're not a Jew, why does it bother you so much?"), and that I had tried "to be just". She said she wasn't anti-Jew — "I have lots of Jewish friends". I asked her, well, have you said those things in front of any of your Jewish friends?

That was last Thursday. Besides several hours of my time and the sign-up fee, I felt I'd lost an opportunity. Fortunately I had a terrific weekend, and I can write this now, free of those somber feelings of failure.

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