"Will the Arabics throw rocks or bombs at us while we’re having recess?" my 6-year-old son asked. His class party in the school sukkah had been canceled, and he wanted to know why.
Aryeh’s school, located near the heart of Brooklyn’s downtown Arab community and in an area where Jews have been targeted by stone-throwers several times in recent weeks, was sufficiently concerned about nighttime security to cancel the party.
I promised Aryeh that his principal and teachers would make sure nothing bad happens, just as his father and I do. He asked for details of how they would do that if he and his classmates were in front of school getting off or on the school bus. I didn’t have a good answer. I tried to reassure him, but my heart grew heavy with sadness at his fear.
Aryeh has long been aware of anti-Semitism, but it had always been an abstract concept. He knows that his grandfather was born in Germany and, with his own parents, narrowly escaped the Nazis. But being fearful of persecution as Jews has never before been a personal experience for either of us. Even when I was caught in the middle of the Crown Heights rioting of blacks against Jews a decade ago, and was personally threatened with bodily harm, I returned to my home just a mile away and felt safe, as if I was in a different world.
Now I don’t know how to save my second-grader from the awful truth of the answers to his probing questions, or how to completely protect him from fear. Nor do I know how best to keep his fear from turning into hatred.
At home a few days after the canceled party, Aryeh saw a newspaper photo of a banner carried during the recent pro-Palestinian rally in Manhattan calling Israelis murderers of Arab children. The photo included the image of an Israeli flag covered in red handprints, as if they had been covered in blood.
Aryeh wanted to know what it all meant. I tried to explain without demonizing Arabs, but when my sweet son said that it wasn’t so bad that Palestinians had died because they were trying to hurt the Jews, I realized that I had failed. I tried to repair the damage by telling him that each life is equally precious, each death equally sad. I don’t know how effective I was, but I know that I am at a loss to explain this horrible bloodshed to him in a nuanced but appropriate way.
I have long labored under the illusion that we were Jews living in a racial utopia, at the center of an ethnic diversity that seems almost extinct beyond the borders of Brownstone Brooklyn. We enjoy good relationships with neighbors of every skin color and many countries of origin. Aryeh’s Hannah Senesh Day School is just off the major shopping thoroughfare of Atlantic Avenue, which is lined with Halal restaurants, mosques housed over storefronts and cumin-scented food markets.
We’ve always loved shopping at the biggest of the markets, Sahadi’s: it’s a cross between Zabar’s and a Middle Eastern shouk. Shopping there, as well as in the Jewish stores of Borough Park, like going to the colorful West Indian Carnival down Eastern Parkway on Labor Day and attending a half-dozen more celebrations of different cultures each year, makes us grateful to live in a place where we can be visibly engaged Jews and still enjoy Brooklyn’s ethnic feast.
Now, though, my idyllic idealism is being shattered as the violence between Arabs and Jews shows up virtually on our doorstep. Several times in the last few weeks, Jews who live and worship near Aryeh’s school have been victims of anti-Semitic violence. Walking to the Conservative synagogue for Yom Kippur services, Jews were the targets of stones. A few weeks before, rocks were thrown at that synagogue building, at about the same time that the area Orthodox synagogue’s rabbi and his son were stoned while out on the street.
As we recently walked the few blocks from his school to the subway, Aryeh and I saw that almost every store window, including Sahadi’s, displayed posters decorated in the colors of the Palestinian flag, condemning Israel for the murder of Palestinians.
On the morning of the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstration in Manhattan, about 100 young men, many with Palestinian flags wrapped around their bodies, gathered on the corner near the school. Trying to make their way through the crowd, the school’s staff and parents felt afraid. One of the mothers attends the nearby Orthodox synagogue but was fearful of attending Sabbath and Sukkot services that Friday night: she would have been on the street wearing a hat and long skirt as aroused pro-Palestinian demonstrators returned from their rally.
Fear of personal persecution feels foreign. But it is beginning to shape our decisions as Jews living here.
The school is rapidly outgrowing its space and has been looking for a larger building in the area, which is conveniently located between the neighborhoods where most of its students live. Now, more than three decades after anti-Semitism kept my parents out of certain New Jersey neighborhoods, some of the school’s parents are saying that we should look in a different area.
Attending a Jewish school near Atlantic Avenue will always make our children a target for hate. The neighborhood’s Arab residents don’t want us here and so we shouldn’t be here, they say.
Maybe things haven’t changed so much for us in 30 years after all.