Originally appeared HERE in the Hartford Courant
By Sarah Lewis
People who casually make anti-Semitic jokes might think it’s harmless, slightly more edgy than your average pun. The best jokes are risky, leaving everyone gasping with mock indignation and laughter. They think that if they can tell these jokes and glance at their Jewish friend without them flinching, they too must think it’s funny.
I once watched as someone handed out pamphlets bearing an image of Auschwitz to all the Jewish kids on a school trip (including myself) and how affronted that person became when one of the kids (who had family among the 6 million dead) told him off.
“It was a joke,” he said. “I make dumb jokes sometimes. I didn’t mean anything.”
There it is, the moral loophole, the “I didn’t mean it.” Tack an “I didn’t mean it” onto the end of hate speech, and suddenly you’re untouchable; after all, you’re only kidding, you’re not doing anything bad — except that you are. You make it normal. You say these things with your tongue in your cheek and breathe life into the monster that lurks in the corner of our vision.
You indicate to everyone that it’s OK to make jokes about the length of our noses and avarice in our souls.
As a Jewish person, I know that when you hear people say hateful things about you, even in levity, and find that it is met with no criticism, you accept and internalize it. You realize that Judaism presents itself like a rash. You hear things like “You don’t look Jewish. Wait, you straighten your hair, don’t you?” and “Did you have your nose fixed?”
So you stare at yourself in the mirror, hoping that whichever God exists will be gentle enough to make you look gentile.
You realize it’s normal for people to say you’re “not really a Jew” because you returned the money they lent you. So the next time you go out to eat and forget your wallet, you go hungry; you don’t want to ask again.
Worse still are the Holocaust jokes. When I was 11, the boy I had a crush on whispered a joke to his friend, both of them cackling. I begged him to tell it to me and suddenly he looked reluctant. “OK,” he said, but “you have to promise not to get mad.” “I won’t! I promise!” That was a mistake.
I froze when he told the joke, a sick feeling turning my stomach. But what could I do? I’d promised.
Years later, I sat in grim silence as a fellow counselor in training at a summer camp rattled off joke after joke about the Holocaust. It’s during those times you realize that if it’s OK to make fun of the death of 6 million people, then maybe we’re not really considered people at all.
Of course, the person making anti-Semitic jokes doesn’t realize any of this. They wouldn’t. Their “gentility” affords them that protection.
They did not realize any of this because they did not care enough to consider, and besides, if they didn’t think about it, if they didn’t realize the harm it could do, then how can they be held accountable for what they said? They “didn’t mean it,” after all.
I hold them accountable. They cannot hide behind protestations of “I didn’t mean it” or “I was only kidding.” Words have power. After all, the gunman in the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh began his lethal trajectory with anti-Semitic words posted on a website. Was he only kidding too?
Sarah Lewis, 17, lives in West Hartford and is a Hall High School senior.
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