When Anti-Semitism Is Part Of The Vacation

Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Travel Writer

I was in Barcelona, dropping by a friend’s shared apartment, when it started up. “I’ve been so busy here, I haven’t even had time to go shopping!” I laughed, and was met with this teasing response from my friend’s housemate — a Bulgarian cellist I barely knew. “No shopping? Why, for you, that must be as unthinkable as not building settlements would be for an Israeli!”

Huh? What on earth did shopping have to do with Israel? It was a nasty comment, and weird to boot. I was still reeling from the unexpected dig at a nationality none of us had any obvious ties to when the cellist’s girlfriend, a Brazilian, mentioned that she hadn’t been shopping during her visit, either. “I’m very frugal lately — I’m like a Jew, I just hate to spend money,” she said.

Jewishness hadn’t come up in the conversation, nobody had a clue about my heritage, and the comments were uttered lightly, unprovocatively. But there it was. In Europe, I have found, ugly remarks about Israel and Jewish stereotypes surface as a matter of course, with the tacit assumption that everyone shares an anti-Israel viewpoint — and that nobody present is Jewish.

If it is unfashionable to say ethnically pointed things in historically multicultural America, it can sometimes seem the opposite abroad, at least with regard to Jews and Israel. And it can make traveling to otherwise lovely lands, filled with otherwise friendly people, very uncomfortable for American Jews.

It’s not just Europe, either — though when I recently asked readers to write in with their stories of anti-Semitism abroad, nearly all the accounts took place in Europe. Sadly, even after the horrors of the 20th century, it’s true that Europe remains a place of widespread anti-Jewish and often-virulent anti-Israel sentiment, a phenomenon only fueled by swelling Muslim immigration.

But it’s also true that Americans overwhelmingly do their foreign travel in Europe, so incidents there are more frequently reported. On my first trip to South America, my taxi driver from the Buenos Aires airport welcomed me with a lengthy soliloquy on Argentine society, including the following: “We have a lot of Jews here, of course. It’s too bad. We wish we could get rid of them.”

How should one handle such incidents? I am a natural pacifist, and as a youngish woman who frequently travels alone, I tend to avoid confrontation out of a sense of vulnerability. (I am also usually too stunned by insulting comments to formulate an immediate, satisfying argument.) Readers’ own responses to such experiences vary widely: some opt to curtail foreign travel, while others resolutely sally forth across the Atlantic, sporting Jewish stars, kipot and all.

One young reader, Rachel Rabinowitz, traveled to nearly 50 countries during college, covering large swaths of Europe and Latin America and studying abroad in Madrid. Blatant anti-Semitism surfaced nearly everywhere she went, Rabinowitz recalled — and it was all but guaranteed “anytime I mentioned that I was Jewish.”

There was the man on the train in the Balkans who asked her if she’d had her horns removed. There was the Spanish classmate who dropped a penny and taunted “the Jewish girl” to pick it up. There was the Middle Eastern concierge in Sweden who greeted Rabinowitz’s American tour group with an unprovoked tirade about America’s support of the “Zionist regime” and Hitler “not having finished his job.”

As the experiences compounded, they took their toll, even on such an intrepid traveler as Rabinowitz. She became wary of disclosing her Jewish identity, responding to Europeans’ probing by saying she was Colombian — which also happens to be true. “I was nervous that if [being Jewish] came out, I could be in danger,” Rabinowitz admitted, adding that she has felt increasingly unsafe in Muslim-heavy parts of Europe.

Tania Grossinger, travel editor at the Long Island Jewish World and author of “Growing Up at Grossinger’s,” takes the opposite tack. She vividly recalls the rage she felt years ago in an Amsterdam hotel lobby, when a German-accented guest started raving loudly about how Hitler didn’t go far enough with the Jews. Grossinger politely asked the man to lower his voice, which led him to direct his rage at her, scream “Jew bitch” and spit in Grossinger’s face.

“Next I knew, my date was behind me grabbing my right arm which I had pulled back, ready to strike in an attack position,” wrote Grossinger in an e-mail. “Me, who abhorred violence.” She was shocked by her own visceral, physical response — and by the polite applause of her fellow guests, to whom she retorted: “And why didn’t any of you speak up?”

As traumatic as the experience was, it “in no way diminished my interest in travel,” Grossinger said. She resolved to remain open-minded about individuals, noting that “there are idiots wherever one goes.” Most notably, Grossinger was inspired to wear a Jewish star wherever she travels — something she doesn’t do at home.

For travelers whose appearance marks them as observant Jews, there is no choice about disclosure. In my case, my ethnicity isn’t obvious to the casual observer — but when anti-Jewish remarks come out, I make a point of subtly introducing my Jewish heritage or ties into the conversation. Like Grossinger, and perhaps like many women in particular, I have always felt torn by the twin urges to speak out and to avoid potentially dangerous confrontation. If the comments take an absurdly conspiratorial turn, however, I generally silence the bigot with sarcasm like this: “It’s true, I totally control the media and world finance. That’s why I’m so rich.”

I’ve seen a lot of swastikas in my travels, and heard plenty of verbal equivalents. But I’ve also been surprised by the degree to which some Europeans are excited to meet a Jew (a rare specimen in some parts), or demonstrate genuine interest and enthusiasm over Jewish culture — like my German classmates in Italy who made a point of touring local synagogues.

On the subject of Israel, however, I long ago came to an unfortunate conclusion. In European company, I strive like mad to avoid the topic — and if it comes up, I swiftly brush it away. Though exceptions exist, I know from long experience that if I talk about Israel among Europeans with whom I am friendly, it is overwhelmingly likely that the friendship will end along with the conversation. And for a traveler intent on making connections, that is a sad thing indeed. n

 

Comments

I do not know where Ms. Larson lives but I would guess it is in New York City metropolitan area. You do not need to go to another continent, another country, or even another state to have the sort of experiences described in this article. I live in a very rural area in upstate New York and taught in a school district here for more than thirty years. I was the only Jew in the district for most of that time although two others came and went. I do not think I ever went more than a month without having a swastika drawn on my black board or getting an anti-Semitic note slipped under my door. In the last few years I was there, anonymous emails became common. It was not unusual for me to overhear anti-Semitic comments made by adults in the local diner either. Ten, possibly twenty percent of the residents of this school districts harbor anti-Semitic opinions and that was enough to produce sustained stream of anti-Semitism from their children. Some of it was classic Christian anti-Semitism of the “Christ killer” variety. Some was of the “Jewish conspiracy” type. Some was of the Nazi/racist type. Most of the residents had no animus toward Jews. There were some who found Jews interesting and exotic. There were some who went out of their way to be friendly and tell me about their favorite professor who was Jewish, or the Jewish friend or roommate they had in college, or the Jewish doctor who had treated someone in their family. It has been my experience that unless you live in an area with a substantial Jewish population, you are likely to have these experiences on a regular basis. Anti-Semitism maybe part of the vacation for Ms. Larson but for me and other rural Jews, it is part of daily life. You may think it is “unfashionable to say ethnically pointed things in historically multicultural America” but there are large parts of America that that are not multicultural and where old hatreds are alive and well.
The problem is the denial of the existence of the desire to kill Jews. A shocker came when someone pointed out how the FBI statistics showed anti Jewish hate crimes exceeding anti Islam hate crimes by a ratio of over eight to one. The response was to deny the validity of these statistics, a shocker given that most of the person's making such statements would sooner keel over than say that anti Black racism is not evidenced by the prominence of anti Black hate crime. Also note that it is predominantly Jews who are accused of faking such crimes. So common are these things they barely make the news. I remember when a bomb threat was made at my congregation the day before Yom Kippur. A local Church provided us space for our service. The crime never made the national news.
When in Athens this past June, my husband and I were in a taxi, when the cab driver started talking to us about how the Jews are trying to control all people. Not knowing we were Jewish, he went on about how Israelis have invented a chip to be implanted in all people, that would then allow them to control all non-Jews. We kept asking probing questions to get him to explain further. All we heard was blatant anit-semitism. Before we exited the taxi, we explained we were Jewish and he had complete misinformation. I doubt if if made an impact on him!
Don't believe non-European countries are any better, its rather a superiority belief of Americans, Canadians or Australians. In Australia a fellow student refused to practice French conversation with me during lessons as I was a "Christ killer" and a former boss believed Jews smear blood of Christian children on their doors at Pessach. The Australian media is by and large quite antisemitic hiding behind antizioniism. So much for the so called enlighted new world ! As an aside, other minorities also have regular discriminatory experiences which never get reported and noone cares about. As a shitty European I was chased home from school, bashed up and regularly discriminated by my true Australian fellow schoolkids, as was the only other foreigner, an Asian (Australia in the 1980s). Finding employment after graduation was impossible: like all non-Australian born ethnic law students in my year I was forced to leave the country to seek employment and return to Europe and blatantly told that foreigners are not wanted in Australia in job interviews. Every other "wog" in my year also left Australia due to the closed club of the true Australians - notably the born Australian Jews did not face any such problems and could not relate to any such problems, as they never experienced the discrimination we ie European and Russian Jews faced on a daily basis. So I guess what I am saying is that there is so much discrimination everywhere - also in your own backyard in the so called englighened countries such as USA (try being of African, hispanic descent or Asian there) - which you only notice if affected or if you are sensitive to it. Of course, antisemitism has a very long tradition and is based in Europe originally due to Chrisitianity spreading first in Europe but had USA been discovered a few centuries earlier, you would also have had progroms there. Antisemitism was so strong in the US that American Jews were frightened to protest against Nazism - they had it in their own backyard. The English police on the Channel Islands when occupied by the Nazis readily collaborated with the Nazis and turned over very willingly the few Jews there to their fate. Personally I don't think the English or the Americans would have been any better than many other Europeans who collaborated . And you only need a minority to collaborate and have the power to intimidate the rest.

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