Op-Ed: My Neighborhood White Supremacist & the Kosher Response to Hate
On Jan. 24, police arrested 19-year-old Anthony Graziano in connection with the recent firebombings of two New Jersey synagogues and a rabbi’s home. It’s the latest development in a busy season of anti-Semitic attacks that began in early November 2011, when a 40-year-old Jackson Heights man allegedly spray painted swastikas on several buildings in Queens. A few days later, someone added an “ew” on a sign at the Avenue J subway station so that the sign then read, “Avenue Jew.” On Nov. 21, a Jewish man was stabbed on a subway platform as his assailants allegedly yelled anti-Semitic slurs at him.
Among these very real acts of hatred in the New York area, Jews have been targeted in several allegedly “fake” incidents of hatred. The NYPD recently announced that the November firebombing of three cars in Midwood, Brooklyn, may have been an insurance scam rather than a genuine hate attack. And David Haddad, whom police suspect may be responsible for a more recent spate of anti-Semitic graffiti, is Jewish. Police think he may have used the guise of anti-Semitism to settle personal vendettas.
These incidents are horrible, regardless of what motivates them, but they are manifestations of attitudes that are unfortunately all too prevalent even in the New York metro area, where an estimated 12 percent of individuals self-identify as Jewish, versus about 2 percent nationally, according to the most recent regional Jewish Community Study and data from the North American Jewish Data Bank.
After an encounter with a white supremacist in my own neighborhood, I’ve realized just how commonplace intolerance can be in our daily life.
“Excuse me, but I think your shirt is racist,” I said to the stock clerk working the night shift at the Super Stop & Shop in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, as he placed items on the shelves.
As someone who prefers gentleness to confrontation, I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I decided to tell him that I found his “White Pride Worldwide” T-shirt objectionable. But there I was, steeped in righteous indignation.
He had bags under his eyes, a tattoo of a what appeared to be a naked woman on his forearm and an unkempt mop of gray hair.
He sized me up. “Do you shop here in February?” he asked. ”What’s the difference between me wearing this shirt and this store handing out pamphlets during Black History Month in February?”
“The symbol on your shirt is a symbol of hate, that’s the difference. That cross is on the flag of the Ku Klux Klan,” I said.
I wouldn’t find out until I looked it up later, but the Celtic cross with the slogan “White Pride Worldwide” is actually the symbol of Stormfront, a white nationalist website founded by a former Klansman. Stormfront is classified as a hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
“What do you know about the Ku Klux Klan? You need to read a history book about this country after the Civil War. This conversation is over, I’m not interested,” he said, before walking away. Not exactly a victory for open-mindedness near the deli counter.
What really shocked me was that the diverse group of other supermarket employees didn’t seem to see anything wrong with an employee wearing a shirt bearing a white supremacist slogan. His manager, a Latino man, told me that when the stock clerk plays military parade songs on a portable radio in his aisle, they mock him by goosestepping to the music.
The next day, I called the store’s manager, and identified myself as a neighborhood customer and described the stock clerk’s T-shirt. The manager said he was surprised to learn about his employee’s attire. I inquired about Super Stop & Shop’s employee dress code. If cashiers and deli counter attendants are required to wear uniforms, I asked, why shouldn’t that policy be extended to stock clerks, especially when their attire might offend customers? He apologized and asked me not to contact the regional manager until he spoke with the employee in question. He called me back as promised later to let me know that the stock clerk would not be allowed to wear offensive clothing in the future.
After a request for comment from MetroFocus, Stop & Shop corporate spokesperson Arlene Putterman wrote in an email, “…this issue took place months ago and there was a misinterpretation of the tshirt design.” She added that, “the person was instructed not to wear any logoed tshirt in the store in the future.”
As the days wore on after the incident, I wondered, was I perhaps taking this T-shirt too seriously? Maybe sometimes a T-shirt is just a T-shirt?
I got my answer on Nov. 20, 2011, about one week after the Midwood car fires. I found a flyer on my windshield advertising a protest against a neo-Nazi cell that was operating in south Brooklyn. Out of curiosity, I walked the 15 or so blocks from my apartment building to the address on the flyer in Gravesend, Brooklyn. When I arrived, about 30 protesters had already gathered. They were associated with the Jewish Defense Organization, a group that advocates militancy and arranges self-defense classes and gun training for Jewish people. Their logo is of the Star of David with an Uzi sub-machine gun emblazoned across it.
The protesters were there to call for the eviction of a man suspected of running a neo-Nazi cell out of a basement apartment.
It turns out that the man allegedly running the neo-Nazi cell was the stock clerk from my supermarket.
Mordechai Levy, who organized the protest, told me he linked the stock clerk’s Gravesend address to posts on Stormfront’s online forums. (Later I found a bit more information online about the stock clerk. In 2010, he described himself to a local newspaper as a “white nationalist” committed to preserving “the white race.”)
At the protest, Levy shouted into a bullhorn, “One does not debate Nazis, one destroys Nazis,” and encouraged Jews to obtain legal guns for their homes. “Where do we send Nazis? To the cemetery!” he shouted.
Other protesters at the rally told me that the way to respond to anti-Semitism is with street justice. Joel Mechila, 22, came from a nearby Jewish enclave in Borough Park to support the rally. He said he’s encountered anti-Semitism on the streets in other neighborhoods and that he also supports taking the law into his own hands. He invited me to view a YouTube video in which he shatters the passenger-side window of a car driven by two young women he said were shouting “heil Hitler!” at him in Williamsburg.
But doesn’t calling for and responding to hatred with violence, even against white supremacists, perpetuate the cycle of hatred and violence? And, as the Midwood car burnings demonstrate, when there is even a possibility of “fake anti-Semitism,” do these types of reactions make sense?
It seems to me that Jews should respond to hate by working on strengthening our own community, rather than engaging with the haters.
Rather than lashing out at those who may be responsible for fomenting hatred, Jews should focus on celebrating and sharing our peoplehood. This sends a clear message to haters that we can be proud of our identity without discriminating or scapegoating others. In this way, we all become “brand ambassadors” — meeting violence with kindness and sharing the best our community has to offer rather than letting negative attention towards Jews dominate the headlines. This is the kosher response to hatred, and is the gold standard to which any community affected by bigotry must strive.
Several months after my initial encounter, I was walking home late one night and I nearly bumped into the stock clerk on the street. There was a tense moment as we looked at each other, as if we might finish then and there the exchange we started near the butcher’s block. Would he pick a fight? No. I think we both decided to let it be. We walked on.
What would be the point of provoking him further? He appeared closed to the idea that he could preserve his own identity in our pluralistic society without relying on symbols of hate. All I can do is live up to the ideals of my community and respect those of diverse backgrounds. And when I see those pamphlets being handed out at our supermarket during Black History Month, I’ll be sure to take one.