A Jewish parent might holler at her kids, “stop running around like wild Indians!” and think nothing of it. He might not be concerned if his child dressed as a wicked witch on Halloween. But I can’t imagine an Indian parent hollering, “stop whining like a Jew!” or a Wiccan child dressed as a “hateful hasid.”
We have come a long way in learning to speak and act respectfully toward others of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. A public official or school teacher who utters a racial or ethnic slur is sure to be out of a job. At the very least, racist and sexist speech is not considered acceptable in polite company.
But there are a few relics of those vile defamations that persist even in family settings. “Wild Indians” (“wild” as opposed to “civilized former savages”) are portrayed in old Westerns and live on in the popular imagination in ways so utterly divorced from reality that one might try to excuse the use of the term by saying they didn’t mean real people. And when we make sport of “witches” we surely do not have in mind our neighbors who, in our day, actually practice the ancient Wiccan religion (currently undergoing somewhat of a renaissance). We don’t mean real Indians or real Witches. But isn’t that our neighbors’ excuse when they use an anti-Semitic epithet? “To Jew down” the price is “just a figure of speech.” “Hymie Town” was meant merely in jest. And those ashtray jokes are just meant as jokes.
Gay & Lesbian people, too, are still the object of jest and derision. Whether one views homosexuality as merely an alternative lifestyle, as a manifestation of mental illness or as a grave and willful sin, it is wrong to joke about it or vilify Gays and Lesbians. To do so violates numerous commandments, including the prohibitions against lashon hara (group slander), hatred, incitement to hatred, incitement to violence, and causing economic harm.
The recent [July 1998] atrocity in Texas, where (allegedly) three white Christians chained an African-American man to the back of their pickup truck and dragged him to his death, shocks us with the realization that we live in a society polluted with racism and intolerance. It is a great mitzva to keep as far from the sin of racism and hatred as possible, even (or especially) to the point of being careful how we implicitly show disrespect for other people.
“Did you hear the one about the gay shvartzer?” No, I didn’t, and I don’t want to hear it.
Who loves life and desires good long years? Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking falsehood, turn from wickedness and do good, seek peace and pursue it.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen, July 1998