I’m going to be specific here. Hatred of the Jew. I’m writing from my WASP background and culture. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I could show you my lineage in America from 17th-century New Amsterdam, Connecticut, and Virginia. But I won’t bore you with that.
I begin with an anecdote. I was a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. I wrote fiction and nonfiction. Of the latter, a memoir. One evening in class I read from the memoir, and when I finished, Vivian Moss, a member of the class, said, “WASP heaven.”
I graduated from high school in 1952. Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. There were no Jews in my high school because there were no Jews in town. There were no Blacks in my high school because they had a separate school system in town. Desegregation came from Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954.
My WASP culture did include Catholics. You knew who the Catholics were on Ash Wednesday because they had a smudge of ash on their foreheads. Otherwise, they were just as white and suburban as the rest of us.
I didn’t know there were no Jews in town because no one spoke of it. I didn’t know there were separate Black schools because the Black part of town was on the other side of a hill, out of sight. No reason to go there.
To live such a protected life is not to know a lot. It’s a segregation of the mind bounded by proscribed language. I had adolescent crushes on boys but had no language for that, either. I didn’t know the word “gay.”
Because I came of age in that protected WASP bubble, I never heard disparaging remarks in my home about minority people. No disparaging words about Jews, nothing about Blacks. One notable exception. My dad worked for a shoe company that my mother told me was gentile. I did understand that word, and I asked my mother why the company was gentile. Because, she said, “if you let Jews in, they take over.”
There you have it. Said once in my family, not to speak further about it. As for Blacks, I learned from a high school friend of mine that the Black maid who came out from St. Louis to clean their house was worried because her neighborhood was going to be razed to build one of the new “high rises” to put Blacks into. Hearing of the maid’s lament, I at least realized something was wrong.
I grew slowly out of all of that. Very slowly. I went to DePauw University, which had a nominal affiliation with the Methodist Church. To my knowledge, I met one Jew, a man in our men’s dorm. He stayed at the university one semester. There were six or seven Black male students. They lived in the dorm because none of the Greek letter fraternities would admit Blacks (or Jews). In my dawning awareness of things as they more truly are, I joined an independent fraternity precisely because it was more democratic and admitted the Black students.
Why am I giving you my personal history? It might seem self-indulgent. I do so to state a premise, that hate grows in an insulated culture. In my case, WASP heaven. It’s in the air. A person breathes it in. The “other” is outside, subject to suspicion, with blatant racist or antisemitic comment in everyday speech. Or, more genteel, expressed as “I’m not prejudiced, I don’t hate anyone.” Social liberals are especially prone to that. For many, there seems to be a blind spot when it comes to Jews.
It is because WASP culture has now long been in retreat that we see virulent reactions in hate groups: “Jews will not replace us.”
I’m not advocating a particular social or political platform. I’m saying we have a root problem written into the psyche of language. And unless a person is, first, conscious of that, and, second, works assiduously to free himself of it, the hate is there lurking, to leap out at any provocation. In the language of Genesis, sin is at the door ready to take you when you do not choose the good.
Of all the prejudices and hatreds, I think hatred of Jews is the most deep-seated. It is so deep and long in history it is a primary hate. There are many expressions of hate, people singled out. I’m writing of this one, antecedent to the many.
Let those of us from a WASP culture consider the air we breathe. See hatred for what it is, and that we carry it residually all our lives. Work it out in humane and just ways of living such that each culture can prosper in the richness of its tradition, thereby contributing to the whole as a sacred trust.
The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.