“Did you hear about the rabbi getting thrown out of a Jackson restaurant?”
Everyone at our office has been asked that by friends and family near and far, after the story made national news last week.
Of course we heard about it. Some may have even wondered if I was involved, since I am a rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are only so many of us. But I am not the rabbi in this story; it was my colleague Rabbi Ted Riter, the interim rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation here in Jackson.
Rabbi Riter went to a small Greek restaurant—one he’s been to before—and placed a to-go order. The owner made an anti-Semitic slur regarding the size of the side salad. The rabbi, puzzled, asked for clarification. Rather than change course, the owner just dug in deeper, asking if Rabbi Riter was Jewish. When he said yes, the owner responded by cursing him out and demanding he leave the establishment store. News of the incident travelled quickly, from social media to local media to national coverage.
The Jewish community sometimes gets criticized for being overly sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. History teaches us that, unfortunately, such heightened sensitivity is necessary – but it’s important to balance vigilance with reason. In a country as large as ours, there will always be individuals prone to words and actions that we find objectionable. As disturbing as these cases may appear, they should not be our real worry. One person’s ignorant comments do not represent an entire city.
Further, if we turn our attention toward every isolated attack, we give such people more power than they deserve while giving ourselves unwarranted and unending anxiety. Instead, as a Jewish community our attention must be focused at how these individuals are received, not just by us, as Jews—but by everyone else in our community. The reactions are even more important than the initial action.
In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:
I am so sorry that this happened to you.
Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.
I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!
Let’s boycott this restaurant
Unbelievable…it makes me sad
Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!
Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.
I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.
Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.
That’s the real story here.
May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.
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This week, my Facebook news-feed is filled with outrage about the fact that Hobby Lobby won’t carry Hanukkah decorations. Many Jews are upset by this; some are even calling it “anti-Semitic.”
But is it anti-Semitic of a Christian company to not sell Hanukkah decorations?
Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hatred of the Jewish people” or “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews”. Is an openly religious Christian store not selling Jewish holiday objects really hatred of the Jewish people?
Perhaps all of this would be less of an issue if the representative in New Jersey who answered the phone had been trained of a more neutral way to explain this. I think her using the term “you people” is indeed offensive, but that’s not the company. Incidentally, Hobby Lobby does say it is now investigating the actual comments made by the employee.
To me, this is merely an act of ignorance and poor training. Hobby Lobby has the right to order and sell whatever merchandise they want. Would we blame a Judaica store for not carrying Christmas ornaments? What if the staff of the Judaica store said “oh, we don’t carry objects for non Jews”?
This is not a far-fetched; sure, Hobby Lobby isn’t a “Christianica” (new word) store, but it is a Christian store. Just read the Hobby Lobby Statement of Purpose:
In order to effectively serve our owners, employees, and customers the Board of Directors is committed to:
Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.
Offering our customers an exceptional selection and value.
Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.
Providing a return on the owners’ investment, sharing the Lord’s blessings with our employees, and investing in our community.
We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.
This is a crystal clear worldview, spelled out institutionally for the company. Perhaps we are the naive ones to expect to find Hanukkah decorations at a place that defines its mission so clearly. We may not like that we will have to go elsewhere for our holiday decorations, and maybe because of that we will decide to not go there for anything at all – which is completely within our rights. But this is not an act of anti-Semitism. If they wouldn’t sell their products to Jews, or were discriminatory in their hiring processes, and that sort of thing – that would be another issue. But that’s not what we’re discussing here: The issue is simply that they are not selling products for a religious holiday outside of their corporate religious adherence.
In the South, we are very familiar with dilemmas like this. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This incident was in New Jersey, but feels familiar. But I’m hesitant to call something “anti-Semitic” when it’s really just “a different demographic.” We can always shop at Michael’s, or Target — or, of course, our synagogue’s Judaica shop, where there will be plenty of Hanukkah decorations, but probably no candy canes.
The idea of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world has long been a canard of anti-Semites. Its most infamous example is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery first published in Russia in 1903. Influenced by these claims of an international Jewish conspiracy, U.S. auto magnate Henry Ford published a series of anti-Semitic essays in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent in the 1920s. While southern Jews have certainly faced anti-Semitism, most notably the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, such claims of secret Jewish power and conspiracy have rarely been made in the South. Perhaps the fact that Jews were such a small minority of the population prevented such beliefs from taking hold.
One fascinating exception to this took place in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1912. Guthrie had been named the capital of Oklahoma when it became a state in 1907. Jews were active in the new state government, including Leo Meyer, who was appointed assistant Secretary of State in 1907. Some called for the capital to be moved to a larger city, and in 1910 the citizens of Oklahoma voted to move the seat of government to the state’s largest city, Oklahoma City.
The day after the vote, Meyer took the official state seal from the capitol building in Guthrie and moved it to Oklahoma City under cover of night.
The people of Guthrie were enraged after the capital moved as the town lost population, investors, and priority on the railroad lines. Many residents with the means to do so moved to nearby Oklahoma City, including several of Guthrie’s Jewish merchants. In 1912, the Guthrie Daily Leader ran a front-page banner headline announcing that “Shylocks of Oklahoma City Have State by the Throat,” and the sub-header promised to reveal the “Unparalleled Conspiracy on the Part of Jews and Gentiles of a Rotten Town to Loot the State for Twenty-Five Years.”
The article claimed that prominent Jewish businessmen in Oklahoma City had conspired to steal the capital away from Guthrie. The long accompanying article used parodied Yiddish accents to illustrate its claims that the capital move was the result of a conspiracy of Jewish businessmen who wished to profit from increased real estate values in Oklahoma City.
Rabbi Joseph Blatt of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City publicly attacked these claims as slander, claiming they were “a disgrace to the civilization of our state.” He then called on Oklahomans to band together to combat religious prejudice.
Rabbi Blatt’s bold response helped to quash the paper’s claims as the Leader’s attempt to reclaim Guthrie’s status as the state capital failed and its efforts to blame the Jews were soon forgotten. Today, Oklahoma City has 2500 Jews and two active congregations, while Jewish life in nearby Guthrie is long gone.
The Guthrie episode was an exception. Far more common in Oklahoma and across the South was an elitist anti-Semitism, which sometimes led to the exclusion of Jews from country clubs or social organizations. Despite this, Oklahoma Jews became active in the civic and economic life of their state, thriving and accepted within their communities, as they continue to be today.
Read more fascinating histories of Southern Jewish life in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.