Staring across a room filled with tiny chairs and colorful books, I felt a great fear. The other people there were all strangers, the person across from me had bright red spiked hair, and only about 8 teeth. He looked sort of like my glue-sniffing boss from my days as a janitor. This was way before I met him, though— when I came across this particular monster I was only 6 years old. It was our first day of kindergarten, and inevitably, by the end of the day, my mother made a play date between me and this redheaded 5-year-old.
We were from completely different worlds, he is Catholic, and I’m Jewish, but we hit it off. For the next 5 years everyone would say, “Robbie* and David are like peas in a pod.” We were inseparable. Twenty-one years later, Rob and I may not hang out every day, we often go months without speaking, but I can say with confidence that he is my best friend.
There is just one problem. A few years back, Rob and I were driving, going out to lunch when a BMW cut us off. Rob, prone to road rage, goes, “That damn Jew, driving his BMW like he owns the place!”
I was stunned, “Um… Rob, you do realize I’m Jewish.”
“Yeah, but you’re not like the rest of them.”
What does that mean? Am I not Jewish enough? I’m a hairy, bearded religious Jew with a penchant for bagels and latkes. I barely even know when Christmas is, I just know that it means Chinese food and the movies. I pointed to my kippah, “Rob! I’m like the most stereotypical Jewish person you’ve ever met.”
He knew I had him busted, “You know what I mean, you’re not spoiled like everyone else here,” he said, turning red.
I didn’t know what to say to that. My only thought was, ‘Wow, my best friend is an anti-Semite.’ I tried to pick it apart: how could this happen? Rob grew up in a blue-collar non-Jewish family in the middle of an upper-middle class white-collar Jewish town. While his family is in no way poor, they didn’t necessarily have the money that everyone around them had. Being a non-Jew in a Jewish town, Rob was sort of an outsider, and spent most of his time hanging out with the few other non-Jewish kids around. They were “The Other,” in a way the underdog, feeling oppressed by the rich spoiled Jews. Rob always had a problem with people with money, even before pointing out Jews, and told me when I moved to the Jewish area of the town, at 10 years old, not to become one of those “rich bitches.”
So I can understand why Rob had some negative views regarding Jews. The question is: should I give up on our friendship, throwing all the good years away because of a little twisted thinking on his behalf? Also, is he even really an anti-Semite?
Being friends with people like Rob seems to be a hobby of mine. When I was working at a Jewish summer camp, with the toothless, spike-haired boss, I found myself befriending quite a few people like Rob. They weren’t Jewish, came from a poor area, and spent their summer working for Jewish bosses with nice cars. Not surprisingly, they often said the same kind of stuff as Rob, sweeping me aside as “different from the rest of them.”
These were good guys, they worked hard, and they cared about their friends. Rob’s a good guy too, I can’t tell you how many times he’s gotten me out of a bind, he may have even saved my life once. Yet, they had these terrible images of Jews in their minds.
There is this tendency in our PC world to immediately scream “anti-Semites!” or “Racists!” when confronting these kinds of people. The thing is, these guys are anti-Semitic, not anti-Semites. None of these friends of mine would join the riots going on around the world, screaming “Kill the Jews;” as a matter of fact, I know that if someone said something along those lines in front of any of them, they would actually defend us.
I might be one of the first people to say this, but I think there needs to be a separation between being an anti-Semite, and being anti-Semitic. I think an anti-Semite is someone who actively hates the Jews, views us in only a negative light, and wants to see bad things happen to us. I won’t say that they are all Nazis who want us dead, they might just be skinheads who want us out of their country. They have a tendency to blame us for the bad things, and often believe that there is a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. There’s much more to it, and I’m sure we probably have all come across an anti-Semite or two in our lives, but most people who don’t like Jews aren’t anti-Semites. They’re anti-Semitic.
These are the folks who dislike certain aspects of the Jews. Both types come from a place of ignorance and neither are good, but being anti-Semitic isn’t nearly as bad as being an anti-Semite. An anti-Semitic person will throw out those horrible ignorant comments about rich Jews, they may believe some of the stereotypes are true, and they may even suspect the conspiracies are true. (Though to be honest, I even have my suspicions.) The main difference is, anti-Semitic people don’t hate Jews. Just like my friends, these same people who think all lawyers and bankers are Jews, would still defend our rights as human beings, and free citizens of whatever nation we live in. In the case of Rob, some have even been to more Passover seders and Bar-Mitzvahs than a few Jews I know.
My friends are wrong, no denying that, but they are not so bad that I should have to cut them from my life. Someone who is anti-Semitic is on a path. With enough encouragement, they can become true anti-Semites, joining riots, or donning a white robe and hood. With another form of encouragement, they can be shown what they already realize, how wrong it is to hold negative thoughts against an entire group of people.
That is why I won’t just get rid of my anti-Semitic friends. Instead of pushing them away, we should embrace them, encouraging the good within them to come out, thus forcing them to leave behind their misguided beliefs about Jews.
*Not his real name
David Gutbezahl is a student at Gratz College.