During assembly on Monday, December 1, Hody Nemes '08 spoke about anti-Semitism – historic and current – and urged students to be cognizant of how society treats "the other" (no matter how or where that's defined), to be aware of hidden personal prejudices and to see people as individuals. His full remarks follow:
"As a student, I always wanted to be invited back to Burroughs. When I found out that I was invited to speak today I was so honored to realize that I had been chosen to receive the distinguished alumni award! Then I realized that I had not been chosen to receive the distinguished alumni award, nor any other award. (Unless maybe at the last minute the school managed to rustle something up!)
"Maybe I haven’t yet done anything to merit a distinguished alumnus award. But here’s what I have done. I spent a year on an Israeli kibbutz, I attended college at Yale, where I spent a lot of time learning about climate change and the immense moral challenge it presents us with, I spent a year working as a reporter for a national Jewish newspaper – and let me tell you, being a reporter feels a lot like writing a Burroughs English essay – except there’s one due every day and 1000s of people read it. I now work for a Jewish environmental non-profit, trying to help my community think about how to address the threat of climate change.
"Finally, I’ve spent the last six years trying to figure out how to get back to a community where I learned as much and felt as comfortable as I did at Burroughs. Which is why it’s so good to be back here today, to share a little about my story.
"Given that we’re still in the Thanksgiving season, it’s a good time to take stock of the past year. It’s been a year of controversy and violence in the Middle East, a year of military standoffs in Asia, a year of protests and prejudice and anger here at home in St. Louis, in Ferguson, and also – and this may come as a surprise – a year of growing anti-Semitism. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
"First, I want to tell you about my story. Not about anything remarkable that I did, but about my grandfather, and my great grandparents on both sides. They endured immense prejudice, persecution, even death because they were Jews. I stand here today because they survived that persecution and came to this country.
"As I speak to you today, I think particularly of my grandfather, Hersh Nemes. When he was the age I am now, he would not have been able to give a speech at his former high school. No, when he was my age, my grandfather would not have been able to speak at his former high school, as I am today – for two reasons.
"First of all, he had not graduated high school – in fact, he was never admitted. In the small Romanian village in which he grew up, only the top student in each middle school was allowed to attend the high school in a nearby town. My grandfather was the top student – he had the highest grades – but he was denied entry to the high school, simply because he was different. He was a Jew.
"The second reason that he could not have addressed his high school as I am now, is that from the years 1940 to 1947, my grandfather was a slave. First he was drafted as a slave laborer by the Hungarian army, which was allied with Nazi Germany. Thousands of Jewish men served in these forced labor battalions during the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. Few survived the Russian winters and bombs, rampant disease, and the sadism of the Hungarian commanders.
"Later he was captured by the Soviet Union’s Red Army, whom he hoped would liberate him. Instead, they imprisoned him and nearly starved him to death in the coal mines of Ukraine. When he was finally released, he discovered that one in three Jews on our planet was killed in the Holocaust.
"Among them were most of my extended family. My grandfather’s family was sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz. His parents, my great grandparents – were killed, as were two of his siblings. Theirs were just 4 stories of the 6 million Jews that perished, and the several million more people murdered from other groups.
"Two years ago, I traveled to my grandfather’s birthplace in Romania – a town that truly felt like the Garden of Eden. I stood on the railroad tracks where my great grandparents were taken to Auschwitz. Yet even as I was standing there, on the very spot where my family was led to its death, our Romanian guide made an incredibly offensive remark about some Roma travelers – formerly known as Gypsies – sitting in the station. And I thought, has anything changed? Have we learned anything?
"Later, I walked along the bank of the Danube in Budapest, where Jews were lined up and shot into the river, within sight of the Parliament building (imagine such a monstrous act occurring down the street from the Capitol building in Washington!).
"Today, one fifth of that parliament is controlled by Jobbik, an extreme right wing party whose members espouse bigoted views towards Roma and Jews. These views are unfortunately not confined to Hungary.
"As I mentioned, for the past year, I’ve worked as a reporter for the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper. I was horrified to see that nearly every week there was a news story rolling in from France about a Jewish man or woman being attacked because of his/her Jewishness. Among other things, a group of Parisian Jews at prayer were trapped by anti-Israel rioters over the summer, who seemed intent on attacking or even destroying the building; the Jews had to be rescued by French police.
"In many European countries, anti-Semitic attacks doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled this summer.
"Pro-Gaza protesters on a famous avenue in Berlin, screamed, 'Jews, Jews, cowardly swine.' Demonstrators in Dortmund and Frankfurt chanted, 'Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas!' These rallies sound like they occurred in 1939 Nazi Germany, but in fact they occurred this summer, in the year 2014!
"This hatred isn’t only European: in a survey of citizens from 100 countries, the Anti-Defamation League estimated that over one in four respondents held deeply anti-Semitic views.
"Some of this violence and hatred flowed out of the war between Hamas and Israel this summer. I don’t want to get into the particulars of that war. The Israeli Palestinian conflict is incredibly complicated, and you could spend years trying to understand it. I’m still trying. I encourage you to educate yourselves about it. Read widely from a variety of points of view; it’s important to understand it as it is one of the central conflicts in our world today. I wish I had time to talk longer about it – about the hopeful ideology of Zionism, and the beauty of Jerusalem, about the hateful anti-Semitic myths found in Middle Eastern media, and a million other things – but I wasn’t given an hour. (Maybe that’s a good thing!)
"But certain things I can tell you. First of all, most Israelis, like most Palestinians, would like to live in peace with their neighbors, and the Israeli government has historically been willing to make compromises to achieve peace. Second of all, criticizing Israel is incredibly valid and important – I do it all the time. I spent a year living in Israel, and I can assure you that Israelis also do it all the time. Unlike almost all other countries in the Middle East, Israel is a democracy where criticism of the government is protected by law. But while we ought to criticize Israel, we must hold it to the same standard we hold other countries. To do otherwise would be wrong, and even anti-Semitic.
"It’s also hateful to take out your anger over Israel’s actions against Jews broadly. Calling for the complete destruction of the State of Israel is hateful and anti-Semitic – it denies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination; a right to determine their fate and their own destiny; a right that I strongly believe must be given to the Palestinian people just as much as to the Jewish people. Too often, anti-Israel sentiment is really a mask for anti-Jewish feelings – not always, but too often.
"As much as we would like to think that this sort of hatred is confined to Europe, it’s not. College campuses have seen a dramatic rise in strongly anti-Israel incidents this year, which sometimes veer into anti-Semitism. That can make college an unpleasant place to be if you’re Jewish. I found Yale to be an incredibly welcoming place to be a supporter of Israel and a Jew – two identities, I would note, that do not always go together – but even there a large swastika popped up this fall in the aftermath of the Gaza war, which was quite troubling.
"There have been increases in the number of anti-Semitic incidents this year in our region, including the horrific shooting in Kansas City last spring, in which a white supremacist opened fire at a Jewish community center, killing 3 people. Highlighting the absurdity of bigots.
"Over the weekend, an anti-Israel hacker group hacked Wash U’s website and posted the phrase Death to the Jews and Viva Hamas. Yet even so, in America, unlike in Europe or the Middle East, this behavior is the exception, not the norm. I am grateful that I do not experience today the regular taunts, threats, and even violence that my grandparents growing up in St. Louis and Romania experienced.
"That said, I will share that once, while I was walking to synagogue on Delmar, someone leaned out of the car and screamed at me, “Israel is the other direction.” That was an incredibly offensive statement – the message was I don’t belong here. The most idiotic part of this offensive statement was that, in fact, I was walking east – towards Israel! So they were wrong: Israel was in that direction.
"While I was at JBS, a classmate of mine made a troubling comment, a joke really, about Jewish appearances. I explained that Jews are not a race, nor an ethnicity: they’re a people bound together by a religion, a land, and a shared history. There are Ethiopian, Indian, Swedish Jews – all of whom look different and hold very different beliefs about the world. I explained that that these sorts of jokes – whether they are targeting Jews or any other group – create an unhealthy environment; they remind us of the horrific past we experienced, they strip us of our individuality.
"Wearing a kippah, or yarmulke, as I do, can also sometimes lead a person to be stripped of their individuality. I wear the kippah to keep myself humble as to remind myself of an ethical code and the presence of God. But putting this little circle cloth on my head has led to some pretty frustrating and sometimes very funny encounters. In my 10 years of kippah-wearing, children have asked me which country I was born in, if I am Muslim, if I am German, if I hate God.
"Standing one day upon a MetroLink platform, I was approached by a man who was acting a bit strangely. 'Hey,' he said. 'Are you Jewish?' The question floated sinisterly between us – thanks to my family’s story, that question is a loaded one: my ancestors sometimes needed to hide their Jewish identity in order to remain safe. So a small part of me wondered whether I would be attacked if I said, 'Yes, I am Jewish.'
“'Yeah...' I said slowly. 'Oh,' he said. 'Well, then, happy...happy...oh, how do you say it? You know....how do you say peace? How do you say peace in Jewish?' he asked, eyeing me strangely. 'You mean ‘Shalom?' I asked, beginning to ease backwards. 'Yeah, that’s it. Happy Shalom! Happy Shalom!'
"'Thanks,' I said. Uncertain whether to smile or run, I did both. I stepped onto a train headed away from my intended destination. After the doors had closed, and I was sure I had not been followed, I was approached by a grandmotherly woman who placed herself right in front of me and, without any warning, blurted 'Shalom!' I appreciated these remarks, but as you can see, these people saw the kippah first, me second.
"In 2004, I attended Seeds of Peace – an international diversity and coexistence camp that brought together Israelis, Arabs, and a few Americans to increase understanding among these groups. On the first day of camp, an American counselor walked up to me, and I noticed he was staring at my head. 'You need to put that away,' he said. 'There will be time to wear ethnic outfits during the camp’s culture night.'
"I found this to be a fairly offensive statement: the kippah is not an ethnic outfit. I did put away my kippah that day – a decision I now regret. But the counselor’s ignorance taught me an important lesson: we may assume that we don’t have any prejudices or misunderstandings of others – but we do. Even this fellow, who had been trained to work at an international camp devoted to diversity, espoused misinformed ideas about religious freedom, religious symbols, and the nature of Judaism.
"This, by the way, is the approach taken in France: When I visited Paris, where thugs attack those who wear yarmulkes, I had to keep my kippah hidden. The French government’s response to all this religious violence? 'Frenchify' everybody. They have banned kippahs and hijabs from schools, and Muslim face veils from public places. In the words of my counselor, 'There will be time to wear ethnic outfits on culture night.'
"At Burroughs, I became comfortable wearing a kippah. My classmates knew me well…By senior year, I know they viewed me as a person, not a kippah. Burroughs can be that kind of place, a remarkable place. But as soon as I stepped outside of Burroughs, and as soon as I went to college, I lost my individuality. When I walk into a room – for example – a college classroom, the kippah transforms into a giant red mushroom sprouting from my head. It is interesting, it seems a bit gross, it might be poisonous, and it is all anybody can see. When I wear the kippah, I feel the mushroom on my head and the Jewish people on my shoulders. If I said something stupid in class, I felt as if the Jewish people said something stupid in class. If I sneeze on someone on the subway, or forget to hold a door, or do anything eccentric at all, the Jewish people does these things along with me. We all do this – we make snap judgments about who a person is based on how they look, where they come from, how they speak. But it is something we should spend our lives working on fixing within ourselves.
"Before I close, I’d like to share with you the words of a teacher whom I respect, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. 'For over 1,000 years,' he wrote, 'Jews were the most conspicuous non-Christian presence in Europe. Today they are the most prominent non-Muslim presence in the Middle East. Jews were hated because they were different. But it is our difference that constitutes our humanity. Because none of us is the same as another, each of us is irreplaceable.'
"Anti-Semitism, like racism, sexism, homophobia, 'is about how societies treat the Other, the one-not-like-us….The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.'
"President Obama recently spoke about immigrants in our country, and he quoted the Hebrew Bible: 'Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.'
"We are a nation of immigrants. We were all immigrants once – we or our ancestors, we were all strangers once, we have all had the experience of being the 'Other.' So today we have to think more about the Other. We have to be aware of our hidden prejudices towards others.
"We have to see those around us as individuals and stand up when someone tries to strip them of their individuality with a joke or mean comment or a quick assumption. If everyone did this, engaged in the difficult introspection this process requires, I believe we would make progress on intractable conflict, be it in the Middle East or even here at home, in Ferguson.
"But despite the hatred of the Other, of the stranger, that still exists in our world, there is reason to be optimistic. Some of it is in this room.
"Look at the kaleidoscope of faces around you for a moment. You’re seated next to individuals who hail form wide variety of racial, religious, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, listening to a guy wearing a kippah talk about his history, about to rush off to class to learn from incredibly talented teachers who also hail from a varied set of backgrounds.
"The beautifully diverse scene you see before you does not exist in the schools of Mosul, Iraq, or Damascus, Syria, or Pyongyang, North Korea, or Tehran, Iran, or Gaza City.
"The forum you help create here every day is part of a uniquely American story. And I, for one, give thanks that it’s possible. I hope you do too. Thank you!"