Born just after the end of World War II – like modern Israel – I grew-up – like Israel – surrounded by anti-Semites who wanted me dead. Unlike Israel, which was and is adrift in a poisonous Middle East, I grew-up in a small town north of Boston which in recent years has become a very expensive Boston suburb which boasts several wealthy, politically far-Left Jewish congregations. That is now. Then, my town – which I’ll call “Rockford” -- was one of the oldest and most historic in the United States, a small town of fishermen and local business owners that had had a hand in creating the Continental Navy in 1775.
Socially, fifty years ago, Rockford was 92% poor Protestant, 5% not quite so poor Catholic, and 3% Protestants from old money or new rich. There were no Jews in my town until after WW II. In 1949 my parents became one of the first Jewish couples to be allowed to buy a house in Rockford, when the town grudgingly allowed Jews to buy houses in the town’s most northern border neighborhood of “Dover.” I was three years old and my brother an infant when, in 1949, my family moved-in to their first house in Dover. To my father – a Polish immigrant whose remaining European family had been slaughtered by the Nazis – Rockford meant “having made it.” When my father came to the US as a two-year-old, his family was so poor that he had only two left shoes to wear in a family photo. I don’t know if anyone under a certain age can appreciate what real poverty and being Jewish meant to new Americans in those days. My father’s 1933 U.S. Naturalization Certificate lists his race as “Hebrew.” There was a US immigration quota for “Hebrews” until the 1950s. Jews were barred from most U.S. colleges, professional organizations, and private clubs.
By the 1950s enough Jews had moved-in to Rockford’s several “Jewish” streets in the Dover neighborhood for talk of a synagogue to begin. Jewish families in Dover – including mine – were holding make-do services in the Jewish Community Center in a nearby city. When enough Jewish families decided to build their own synagogue in Rockford, they found they had been locked-out. By unspoken agreement among Rockford property owners, no one would sell land to Jews for a temple. This blacklisting existed until, in the late 1950s, the owner of an unusable swamp agreed to sell to the new congregation, Temple Emanuel. Construction was halting. Construction vehicles routinely sank into the swamp. One dump truck sank so low that the driver had to scramble out of the window. Nonetheless, construction continued employing land-fill techniques long since outlawed by today’s zoning and conservation rules. In 1959 the temple opened and for the first year congregants would sit in the sanctuary listening apprehensively to the constant creaking and groaning noises from the building as it shifted and settled into the ground. Some members jokingly referred to it as “The Titanic.”
When I got to the seventh grade it all fell apart for me. Removed from the cozy setting of my local grammar school and my neighborhood kids, many of them Jewish, I found myself bused down town to the junior high. All that my Townie school mates knew about Jews was that we murdered Jesus and on Passover we made matzos from the blood of babies we had just killed. Worse, I was short, fat, utterly hopeless at sports, nearsighted, and dyslexic (although in those pre-dyslexia days, you were either (1) “stupid,” (2) “lazy,” or (3) “both.”) From the first week I became a punching bag. In the hallways I was slammed into lockers. In the cafeteria my stool was pulled-out from under me, dumping me and my food all over the floor. After school, on the way to the bus stop, I regularly heard, “Get the Kike!” and four or five kids would jump me, occasionally beating me unconscious and leaving me lying by the side of the road. In my neighborhood, if I were overtaken by a gang of these kids walking through looking for trouble, I would be roughed-up, my glasses or dental braces broken, and thrown down an embankment. My small group of friends tried to avoid these hoodlums as best they could.
Each time I came home with my nose smashed, my face covered in blood, my mother would gasp and then give me first aid as best she could. When my father got home we would talk about it and my father would reiterate that when anyone called me a dirty Jew I was to stand-up to them, no matter how big, tough, or homicidal they were. As a kid he and his brother had had the crap beaten out of them weekly as Jewish immigrants in an even tougher Massachusetts town. The lesson was clear: you don’t back down. While that was great in theory, the outcome kept me in a continually battered state.
After three long years things came to a head one day at lunch during the 10th grade. A new kid in town was being initiated into the school kids’ culture, and one requirement was that he had to beat-up a Jew, or, lacking a convenient Jew, a Catholic or cripple. As I was eating lunch that day in the way prison inmates sit, hunched protectively over my food, the new kid came up behind me, said, “You f*cking Jew!” grabbed my stool, and dumped me and my food on the floor. The lunchroom erupted in yells, laughing, cat-calls – all the happiness which made each school day an agony beyond describing. But that day something snapped in me. Instead of just getting up and trying to gather my lunch, I went nuts. I can remember my vision getting red – it really does that – and I suddenly heard a gathering roaring in my ears over the sounds of the lunchroom, and I launched into a furious, bug-eyed, snarling, spit-flying windmill of fists. I had no real idea what I was doing, but I remember it as my having suddenly become a reaping machine, marching forward and burying my tormentor with a blur of flying fists. Everything of mine went flying – glasses, pens and pencils from my pockets. My opponent was taken completely unawares. Having obviously been reassured ahead of time that I served as the school makawara, he stumbled back under my fusillade, punching back as best he could. This battle lasted perhaps 30 seconds until we both paused in a combination of exhaustion and surprise. My nose was gushing blood, the contents of my pockets were scattered across the room, and my shirt had been torn when several adults intervened and dragged us out of the lunchroom. Once in the hall we were ordered to the principal’s office. Trying to stifle my tears of rage and fear, I slowly ascended the stairs. The short walk to the principal’s office was surreal. I was in shock and as I passed classmates they stared, open-mouthed, as I had just grown a second head.
The principal of my high school was a 19th century fossil in an antique three piece suit, wearing a pocket watch and steel-rimmed eyeglasses and sporting an attitude to match. He saw us separately, and when it was my turn, glared at me coldly through his glasses and told me I was suspended for starting a fight in school. My attempts to explain were ignored. The bus ride home after school that day was like a dream. Suspended! The shame!
When I arrived home my mother again repaired the damage as best she could and we talked for quite a while. When my father got home that evening I again described what had happened. My father was a very quiet man over a core of steel. After I had described what had happened, he told me that he was going to go to school with me in the morning and discuss the events with the principal. When I reiterated that I had been suspended, he told me not to worry about it.
The next day my father drove me to school and we went to see the principal. When the principal started to explain why I had been suspended, my father cut him off. My dad was a short, quiet man, almost never even raising his voice. But he had also been that little immigrant kid who was beaten-up by school bullies, learned English on the fly, and had earned a college degree in mechanical engineering while working eight hours a day in his father’s store. He fixed the principal with a stare that would have dropped anyone with a heart problem and calmly informed him that he didn’t care what had started the fight, but if anyone called his son a dirty Jew he expected that his son would keep hitting his tormentor until he was down and stayed down. He then told my principal that I was back in school and that he did not ever want to hear about this incident again. The principal – the emperor of the school and feared, absolute authority -- simply nodded wordlessly and lowered his eyes. And that was that.
Transition. The very public cafeteria fight ended my life as a school punching bag. I was almost never again challenged to a fight. When I was, the fights were anti-climactic, the bullies involved not really interested in fighting but needing to keep their credentials current. I had publicly stood-up to my tormentors and given as good as I got. When a biased authority tried to punish me for doing so, they had been slapped down. By the end of the 10th grade the fights had ended. I was thereafter never accepted by the bullies as a friend or even an acquaintance. We never flew model airplanes together or discussed the latest offering from The Science Fiction Book Club. But the attacks stopped. My father died several years later; we lost our home; and my mother, brother, and I had to move to the city so my mother could find a job. I did not have the opportunity to graduate from Rockford High.
Nowadays, Rockford is known as a wealthy Boston suburb, its origins largely forgotten under its population of recently-arrived professional-class Jews who are ignorant of what it took to make room for them. My old congregation long ago abandoned its leaky first building for a much more elaborate edifice. Rockland’s Jews and members of their extended families now occupy the upper ranks in such organizations as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The United Way, Planned Parenthood, and many others. Public anti-Semitism occurs in Rockland now about as frequently as a gun show, the town blindly having traded one type of foul prejudice for another.
Meanwhile, Jews are again fighting for their lives. Israel learned long before me the consequences of acquiescing to being a punching-bag. But in Israel’s once again having to defend itself, the smarmy principal of outside authority is accusing it of starting the fight, or of defending itself “out of proportion.” The hatred of Jews actually drips from the mouths of such critics and I find myself back in Rockford, backed against a stone wall on the way home from school, surrounded by a ring of snarling, hate-filled kids while the biggest one has a go at me. If Israel heeds the voices of the very people who wish it dead it will have failed both at the level of national defense and at the level of basic moral righteousness.
In the clumsy but watchable film “Independence Day,” The President of the U.S. finds himself before a captured alien space invader who is speaking through the body of a dead scientist. The president, still trying to bargain with the aliens who are systematically exterminating humanity, asks, bewildered, “What do you want us to do?” The alien’s brief reply, “Die!” This is Israel’s position when the world insists that Israel bargain with Hezbollah and its poisonous cousin terrorists.
I hope Israel can hear the voice of a father who knows the price of capitulation and the terrible cost of appeasement in the face of those who want it dead. That America’s Reform Jews castigate Israel for defending itself is simple insanity and clearly shows that they, as a group, have become suicidal, so caught-up in the self-loathing that is the lot of those who secretly realize that their charming lives are lived at the expense of ‘rough men who stand ready in the night ready’ to do harm to those who would attack the sleeping Eloi. That Liberals and Europeans cannot or will not accept that the war on terror is deadly real and will last for decades is a tragedy. They are absolutely unmovable in their belief that the best response to someone who wants to kill you is to “call for a ceasefire” as a way of “ending the cycle of violence.” They are dead wrong and, given the chance, will kill us all. But not before they blame the Jews.
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