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It’s My Job, Not His, To Counter Anti-Semitic Stereotypes

Barbara Beckwith: I find myself researching every invidious generalization about Jews, and lining up mini-lecture ripostes as if prepping for a college debate team. Jon remains indifferent... (stimpsonjake/flickr)
Barbara Beckwith: I find myself researching every invidious generalization about Jews, and lining up mini-lecture ripostes as if prepping for a college debate team. Jon remains indifferent... (stimpsonjake/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

The man I married is Jewish but doesn’t worry about anti-Semitism. He just gets on with his life.

I, meanwhile, bristle at stereotyped remarks that I’m more likely to overhear than he is. My English features, red hair, and surname by marriage (originally Zif, Americanized to Berkowitz, then Anglicized to Beckwith) allow me to experience coded slurs that my fellow non-Jews drop in my presence. I find myself snapping at anyone who uses the phrase “shyster” and lecturing even strangers who say that someone “jewed me down.”

The man I married is Jewish but doesn’t worry about anti-Semitism. He just gets on with his life.

Even on vacations in France, the country we love, my ear picks up juif — french for Jew. Or, regardez le nez — look at that nose -- as we pass on the street. The deadly attack in January on a kosher grocery store, and alarming reports of home invasions of Jewish Parisians (one robber declared: ”You’re Jewish so you must have money”), have dimmed my romantic view of France as a paragon of egalité and fraternité.

A few years ago, when thieves stole Jon’s wallet on the METRO, I thought they’d targeted him because he was an American tourist over 70. But now I wonder if they’d chosen to rob him because he looked Jewish and the robbers assumed he was rich.

Although I now stay vigilant in METRO stations, I know that ethnic stereotypes can crop up anywhere. The Anti-Defamation League reports that more than a quarter of adults in 102 countries around the world hold anti-Semitic views. I grew up surrounded by such views. Having freed myself of their grip, I am aware of their insidious power.

The author and her husband, Jon, pictured in France in the 1960s. (Courtesy)
The author and her husband, Jon, pictured in France in the 1960s. (Courtesy)

Jon, meanwhile, grew up playing with Irish, Italian and Protestant neighborhood kids. He was never taunted by Catholic teenagers, as his father had been. Nor was he threatened by pogroms like those that forced his grandfather to flee Lithuania. The only anti-Semitic characterization he faced was during a 1950s exchange in Idaho, when youngsters asked to examine his head. They’d been told that Jews have Satan-like horns. Jon tells this story to amuse, not to recall trauma.

Back in the 1950s, Ivy League schools reportedly still had Jewish quotas, but Harvard accepted Jon and went on to hire and tenure him. Sure, during his undergraduate years certain clubs wouldn’t admit Jews, but he’d dismiss their bigotry with “Who wants to socialize with Porcellian Club snobs anyway?” Yes, Cambridge’s infamous Father Feeney railed against Jews on the Common, but the defrocked priest’s rants rolled off Jon’s back.

So it is I, not my husband, who feels deep dismay each time I encounter Jewish characters described in disparaging ways by writers I otherwise admire, including Shakespeare, Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. And I feel driven to research each persistent stereotype, from “Jews killed Christ,” to Jews as 9/11 plotters, to the image of Jews controlling the media.

My English features ... allow me to experience coded slurs that my fellow non-Jews drop in my presence.

When I worriedly ask “Do Jews 'own' Hollywood” Jon shrugs. Sure, he says, they’re in the industry. But so is Disney. Case closed. But I need to know the why and how. I read up on how Jewish immigrants, limited to peddling jobs in the old country, developed a discerning eye for what sells. American entertainment enterprises were new at that time and therefore open to anyone willing to take a risk. Most films by Jewish-owned companies were proudly pro-American.

I find myself researching every invidious generalization about Jews, and lining up mini-lecture ripostes as if prepping for a college debate team. Jon remains indifferent to my efforts. He doesn’t need to arm himself. He knows he’s thoughtful, honest, attractive, complex, like any individual Jewish person.

Still, I remain vigilant, ripostes at the ready.

Related:

Barbara Beckwith Cognoscenti contributor
Barbara Beckwith writes articles and essays on topics ranging from white privilege and prejudice, to body basics, bliss and blues.

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