Back when I was an 11th grade student at Randallstown High School, we had an English teacher who was one of those rare types among her breed in that she could keep your interest and attention at all times. She just had a way of connecting with students and keeping the material fresh and intriguing, which is no small feat among fidgety suburban kids raging with hormones and insecurities. I fondly remember developing a love of literature in her class with her intense reading and scrutiny of “The Great Gatsby” and other novels, showing us that these weren’t merely boring old tomes but living, breathing guides to art and culture, with lessons about our lives today.
But unfortunately, beside her gifts as an educator, I’ll also always remember this teacher – whose name I’ll omit – for something she once said as an aside. It just demonstrates to watch what you say fleetingly—someone might still remember it 30 years later.
It was right before the High Holidays, and she noted at the start of a class that some of us might be out of school for a couple of days. “Of course,” the teacher, who wasn’t Jewish, said with a bit of a sneer, “I really wonder how many of you will actually be in synagogue, praying, and how many of you might be elsewhere, like the mall or someplace like that.” She then rolled her eyes.
Now I’m not saying that this belongs in the Anti-Semitism Hall of Fame, but I recall never feeling quite the same way about that teacher. After all, even though I was going to shul for those holidays, whose business was it to question the beliefs and motives of my fellow Jewish classmates? Does every Christian student go to church on Christmas Day? Are we going to send out truancy officers or the thought police if someone takes off for a religious holiday and doesn’t go to their particular house of worship? Can’t someone pray at home on their holiday, if that’s their choice?
This memory came flooding back to me recently when a friend of mine told me about a recent situation with his child. One day in school, when about to discuss a book about the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II, the kid’s teacher prefaced the conversation by saying, “Just remember that we had concentration camps in America, too. It wasn’t only the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust who had concentration camps.”
First of all, if this teacher had just bothered to read the book’s introduction, she would have noticed that the author stressed that what Japanese-Americans endured were internment camps, not concentration camps.
That’s not to minimize what Japanese-Americans went through during the war. These people, most of whom were upstanding, hard-working American citizens, were forcibly relocated to these camps and lived under difficult, deplorable conditions, all based on racial prejudice, hatred and hysteria. They were slapped in the face by their home or adopted country, to which they were loyal. It was largely a blatant case of guilt by association, one of the darkest moments in U.S. history.
But to compare such dire circumstances and naked unfairness to the Nazi concentration camps in any way, shape or form is unconscionable. What America did was absolutely wrong, unjust and mean-spirited, but the U.S. did not slaughter millions of Japanese-Americans. There was no “final solution” of Japanese-Americans. We did not herd them into gas chambers or perform medical experiments on them or turn them into piles of ashes.
I don’t know this teacher. It may have simply been a slip of the tongue. I don’t want to sound too paranoid here. But my hunch is that she – like some non-Jews, and even more than a few Jews on occasion – gets tired of hearing Jews talk about the Holocaust and the other episodes of persecution throughout our history. I could be wrong but my guess is that she thinks we may be a bit of a whiny breed. After all, other people have suffered, why do the Jews have to outdo everyone else and kvetch about it all the time?
If only we couldn’t outdo everyone else in the category of genocide, hatred and oppression.
The fact that an educator is so historically-illiterate and poorly-equipped is a bit disheartening. And scary. But it reminds you how we have to constantly be on our guard to explain why the Holocaust was different from other tragedies in history. That’s a sad task to still have to perform, but unfortunately it’s still with us.
And no doubt will be for a long time.