I was sitting in the Writing Center at a two-year community college where I had been hired as a professional tutor to help students with their essays and other assignments. The college has a wide catchment area, urban and rural. I am new to the area having just moved from New York City about a year ago, and am still trying to figure out the culture. There is a lot of poverty, a lot of struggle, big houses alongside shacks and trailers, the gentry coming up from the city to buy up cheap property and ride their bikes on weekends on the narrow country roads. In other words, the community, and this particular college, and the writing center within the college, is a microcosm of our divided country with its huge income gap between rich and poor. I've had affluent overseas students, and students whose families have been in the county for generations leading hardscrabble lives. I've had veterans suffering from PTSD and a young mother who is going back to school for the first time since she dropped out of high school. So when a young man walked into the center wearing a fancy head set, which he did not remove, I was hopeful that either I, or one of my colleagues that day, would be able to help. But he was not in the center to get help with an assignment, apparently, though he obviously needed help, of a different kind. His movements were erratic, impulsive; he seemed unstable and troubled. He said hello to my two colleagues and then he swiveled, stopped in front of me, pointed his finger and said, "Jew." Immediately I questioned whether I'd heard him correctly.
"What did you say?" I asked him.
But he didn't answer my question.
How did he know I was a Jew? I look Semitic, but I could be Iranian, I could be a Cree from Saskatchewan, I could be Greek. Where did he pick up his racist ideas? His racist impulse? What radio programs or internet sites had he been ingesting without understanding their meaning and import?
I had just finished reading Eli Saslow's book, "Rising Out of Hatred," about the infiltration of mainstream political culture by the white supremacist movement. But the student who had called me a Jew was African American, so I was puzzled. Had he experienced so much racism and brutality himself that his scrambled mind now turned it on others? Maybe it wasn't music playing on his headset but a racist screed urging him on? Maybe he imagined himself to be white, or didn't know who he was, or where he was. What might he have hidden in his backpack?
The proliferation of weapons, the proliferation of foul ideas, one feeding the other as they take root in a mentally ill man, albeit an African American man. As a part-timer I'd missed the most recent lockdown drill, but had reviewed the various protocols before the term began; there have already been 22 school shootings in the USA in 2019. I am used to tight security at NYU where I have been an adjunct since 1997, and puzzled by the lax security at this public college which has an "open door, open campus" policy. Even members of the community can wander onto the campus, walk their dogs, or use the library. But this utopian ideal can be ruined by one terrible incident. The non-discriminatory policies enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects students' rights and applauds access for all, education for all, is non-negotiable, as it should be. But what about the rights of the faculty, the other students, and the ancilliary staff?
My mind flashed to the "safe" closet just steps away, but we were all sitting, and this big, strong young man was standing, blocking the aisle. He rushed away and then turned back. Now he was standing in front of me again, jabbering nonsensically, and staring at me intently. I should have done a lot of things in that moment, but I was paralyzed. I'm a Jew, I thought, how does he know I am a Jew? Has he heard about synagogue shootings this year, seen the images on television? Does it make a difference that I am a secular Jew? That some of my European family are, in fact, Catholic? Is he going to hurt me?
My colleagues were watching, but didn't seem as alarmed as I was. Neither of them is Jewish, so how could they understand the iconic terror that had been unleashed in me? How could they understand that I still feel my parents' and grandparents' terror the day that Hitler marched into Vienna and my grandmother, Nanette, was forced onto her knees to scrub stones? She had been at work that day and was on her way home. How did the German soldiers know she was Jewish? She wasn't religious, did not wear a wig. How did they know?
Finally, the man left and I reported the incident to my supervisor who sent an email I wrote to document the incident to campus security. The Director of Safety and Security Services and the Dean of Students arrived to talk to me immediately and discussed what could be done. They were kind, professional, reassuring. The student has been suspended for now, they said, and there will be a hearing in a few days time. They didn't think he was dangerous, but one never knows. "I've been profiled based on my appearance," I told them. "Something triggered him. I feel shaken."
My father often said that we mustn't bring more Jewish children into the world only to be killed. He argued for assimilation, for secularism in the American diaspora. I was relieved to marry a man from Polish/Russian/Jewish ancestry who does not "look" Jewish, who would not be singled out and could—and this was probably an unconscious thought—protect me. And I was relieved when my daughter did not inherit my Semitic nose and then married a British man, an Anglo Saxon, and changed her name, all of these also unspoken thoughts. In fact, I am the only one in my immediate family to carry Middle-Eastern and/or North African genes on my face. Although I experienced anti-Semitism in England for the first time in my life, I had always felt safe in America, until I wasn't.