Fifteen years ago, we were living in the Great Recession. It’s not that long ago.
I was born in 1960, 15 years after the ovens had been turned off in Auschwitz. And grew up, Jewish in America, trying to make sense of the organized industrial murder of about two thirds of my family in Europe. So I know something about swastikas.
And antisemitism. I remember every time I have personally encountered it, because each one of those encounters hurt.
But I also remember being in high school and, while there, often being an idiot. I had not yet lived much of my life, and could not empathize with others facing problems I had not faced.
When I look over the battleground of human interactions I see a lot of the same things you do — good and bad. One of the bad things is trying to define ourselves using an aspiration that is, in fact, unobtainable and (frankly) unwelcome. That is, creating a culture where no one is ever offended.
Some years ago, I saw a story about headstones in a Jewish cemetery in Europe being spray painted with swastikas and toppled over. It made international news. Why? Why give that hooligan, or hooligans, an entranceway into and even a little bit of power over our lives?
The Riverhead swastika incident is different in its particulars, but strikes me as being conceptually the same. The incident was officially reported to the school board. Outside resources are being sought to combat it. And our Anti-Bias Task Force apparently wants to get involved. Why? Because some pimply adolescent who is likely only vaguely aware that WW II was even fought mindlessly scratched out a symbol s/he almost certainly doesn’t understand.
The root cause of this situation is probably not malevolence by an aspiring neo Nazi. It is probably ignorance, and ignorance does not merit this level of response. Which will then be misused by inserting it into the “Riverhead is racist” narrative.
When I question whether a whole community should so painted, I am told: “You don’t understand. Riverhead has a history of racism.” Well, actually, I do, I was born as a Jew in 1960.
We don’t need involvement by the Anti-Bias Task Force here. Or resources from the Anti-Defamation League. Or, for that matter, headlines.
We need school officials to have the conversation with the offending teenager and his or her parents, which they say they are already doing. We need a curriculum that meaningfully addresses and engages our students about the struggle for human civilization that was WW II. And we need to be more thoughtful about a self-reinforcing cycle that we are now in, where having failed, inevitably, to create a sanitized society that offends no one, we understand that failure as evidence of widespread racism and intolerance. Instead of what it often really is — that is, people acting stupidly in the moment out of ignorance and thoughtlessness.
Every situation is unique and should be assessed on the facts it presents, and not the wider narrative it can be used — or misused — to buttress. Yes, there are problems in Riverhead, as there are in every community in every country on this planet. Let’s be thoughtful in accurately identifying those problems, their gravity, and how to address them.
Andrew Leven is a Democratic candidate for Riverhead Town Council. He lives in Riverhead.
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