It started with a heartwarming story on the NBCNews.com page on May 31. It was a story about an American doctor in Ethiopia, coincidentally or not coincidentally Jewish, who was working with a Catholic hospital to save lives. The story, linked here, talked about Dr. Rick Hodes’ work with the Mother Theresa Center in Addis Ababa. Dr. Hodes, who wears a kipa (a skull cap) is obviously an observant Jew and the point of the story was that this humanitarian doctor transcended all distinctions of race and religion to help sick people, even adopting seven of his young patients to guarantee them an education in the United States.
What could be more wonderful than this story?
Now, I am an internet billboard junkie. I love to read and make comments on Huffington Post, the new “pickle barrel” of the internet age. So, without a thought, I went to the comments’ list on this article to praise the good doctor’s work and to take not a little pride in the fact that he and I share a common religion.
The very first post, from a skinhead-looking guy, said, “Well, at least there’s one good Jew in the world.”
My stomach clenched. I shook my head to clear my eyes. I simply couldn’t believe someone would post a inane and hateful statement like that.
Stupidly, I suppose, I responded. I posted an old piece by Sam Levenson, a 1950s era storyteller and comedian who used to appear regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show. (This may, in fact, be the only place where I do not have to explain the Ed Sullivan Show, Sam Levenson, or the 1950s). Here is the post. It’s one of my favorites that appeared regularly in Ann Landers’ column (which I also don’t have to explain, here):
SAM LEVINSON'S ANSWER TO AN ANTI-SEMITE.
“It's a free world; you don't have to like Jews, but if you don't, I suggest that you boycott certain Jewish products, like the Wasserman test for syphilis; digitalis, discovered by a Dr. Nuslin; insulin, discovered by Dr. Minofsky; chloral hydrate for convulsions, discovered by Dr. Lifreich; the Schick test for diptheria; vitamins, discovered by Dr. Funk; steptomycin, discovered by Dr. Z. Woronan, the polio pill by Dr. A. Sabin and the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk.
“Go on, boycott! Humanitarian consistency requires that my people offer all these gifts to all people of the world. Fanatic consistency requires that all bigots accept syphilis, diabetes, convulsions, malnutrition, infantile paralysis and turberculosis as a matter of principle.
“You want to be mad? Be mad! But I'm telling you, you ain't going to feel so good!”
It’s funny, right? You get the joke. It’s a combination of pride in the accomplishments of many brilliant doctors who happened to share the same religion, and a challenge that bigots are free to live or die without the benefits of these medical breakthroughs if they so choose.
The next two days of monitoring the comments on the list gave me a rude awakening of how little progress we have made in human relations in the last decades. Instead of treating this article as a tribute to a compassionate human being, there was comment after comment about the “prickliness” of Jews, the fact that a Jew doing something for free is unheard of, a reprehensible story about another Jewish doctor who had refused to care for a Muslim patient, and the repeated charge was that Jews run the media and only celebrated this doctor’s work because he was one of their own. Some of the comments could have rolled off Archie Bunker’s tongue, the ones about Jews being “the best” doctors, lawyers, and accountants (Archie always had Rabinowitz, Rabinowitz and Rabinowitz on call, “good Jew lawyers.&rdquo. Other comments were so vile and hateful that they made me feel nauseated. Then there were the personal attacks against me. I was called “tribalistic” and a rich bitch who, likely looked down on non-Jews and drove a high end German car. In fact, I am currently paying off a used Toyota that replaced my ten year old Civic destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
Yes, there were positive comments, too, but quite a number of people focused on the fact that the doctor’s religion should not have been presented as part of the story; that had he been called merely “an American doctor,” the commenters wouldn’t have taken such great exception with his positive and life-affirming work. Essentially, the overwhelming opinion of the commenters was that if you happen to belong to a hyphenate group, be it Jewish, Muslim, Black, or Hispanic, it should not figure in your American identity because, in some way, it lessens the importance of other Americans.
I suppose I am naïve. Although, in my life time, I have directly experienced anti-Semitism and even some benign, misguided joking at the expense of my religious and ethnic background(anyone who makes a JAP joke around me gets cut off at the knees), I have never experienced the virulence of this particular internet board and it was very, very disturbing and frightening. I understand that the anonymity of the internet gives some people the false courage to express their real thoughts under the guise of a computer avatar and a pseudonym. The fact that these are their real thoughts is what terrifies me. While intellectually I’ve always known that there are “haters” out there, cowardly bigots who express their anger and limited intelligence under the cover of their computer, to be confronted with multiple people attacking me and mine in such a nauseating way, is more than I can bear.
This experience taught me a few important things: 1) NBCNews.com moderators do not do their job very well, and let a lot of “hate speech” get through on their boards; 2) I’m afraid I will never again respond to a post that has to do with the accomplishments of any specific minority group, be it my own or another, because the “haters” are scary as well as stupid; 3) despite my own belief that people are people and should be celebrated for what they contribute to the fabric of America, there are far too many of our countrymen who do not see any hyphenate American as “genuine.”
I have lived all over this grand country of ours. I have stood nose to nose with some of these “haters,” including the deli guy at my old supermarket in Denver who was a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Somehow, however, I retained a belief that there were far fewer of “them” than there were of “us,” people who believed to their very souls that the rich contributions of many people and many groups is what truly makes America great. Now, however, for the first time in my life, I have reason to believe that I am outnumbered and it makes me utterly despondent.
For now, I still take great pride in Dr. Rick Hodes, both as a Jew and as an American. He is, in Hebrew, a tzadik, a truly righteous man. Would that we would all aspire to this kind of humble greatness, in saving the world one good deed at a time. However, I doubt that I will ever again post Sam Levenson’s wonderful piece about the contributions of Jewish doctors and scientists because, obviously, it ticks bigots off to know that they owe their lives to people they hate. Far be it for me to give them a single additional reason to be more bigoted and narrow-minded than they already are.