Thursday, December 09, 2004

“You’re a racist asshole”

That insult was hurled my way while riding the T today.

"How does a nice, bleeding-heart liberal like you, Dan, become the target of such a nasty accusation?" you ask. I shall tell you.

I was telling my friend, Krista, about my plans yesterday evening to attend the Somerville Board of Aldermen meeting in which they would vote on a resolution to divest from Israel. I explained to her that this proposal, first sponsored by a group called the Somerville Divestment Project, would advise the Somerville Retirement Board to cease investing in companies that are connected to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. One company, for example, is Caterpillar, which makes bulldozers that have destroyed Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza.

I explained to her that such an action would be disgraceful. The proposal, which ignores the complexities of this incredibly complicated issue, would place sole blame for Middle Eastern violence on the shoulders of the Israeli government. I did make it clear that the Israeli government certainly deserves condemnation for many of its actions against the Palestinian people. I specifically singled out the awful wall that has been built along the border between the West Bank and Israel.

But I argued that Israel is fighting for its survival. The Palestinian leadership—NOT the Palestinian people, I made clear—has been extremely vocal in its desire to drive the Jewish people into the Mediterranean Sea.
A man sitting two seats away from me and next to Krista was clearly eavesdropping on the conversation. But he said nothing. A minute before the train arrived at Harvard Square, he stood to prepare to exit. At this moment, he insulted me. Unsure of what he had said, I asked, "What’s that?" and he once again called me a "racist asshole."

When the train reached Harvard and he was leaving, I said, "Have a nice night."

I must say that felt good.


That was not the first time I was called a racist.

In December 2001, I was at the Harvard Coop with my girlfriend at the time, Sarah. A special table had been set up, stocked with books devoted to the September 11 attacks. She picked up a picture book, stocked with Associated Press photos presenting reactions from around the globe. One was of Yasser Arafat donating blood. This prompted Sarah to sarcastically say, "That must make him a great guy." We talked about this for a little bit, and a woman who was standing nearby angrily said, "If you two are going to be racist, can you keep it quiet?"

As I entered Somerville City Hall tonight, a woman offered me a sticker that said, "Support Democracy Support Israel." I happily accepted. They offered the same sticker to several women who had entered immediately after me. One said, "I don’t support racism."

The word racism is clearly bandied about with little regard to its meaning. It’s a great rhetorical device, meant to attack its target at an emotional level. Like calling George W. Bush a Nazi or comparing him to Hitler, it’s powerful. It’s also intellectually weak and dangerous.

When words are neglectfully misused in this way, it weakens their true meaning.


I entered the meeting hall and the tension in the air was palpable. Supporters and opponents of divestment amassed in very large numbers. Signs were everywhere. One said, "Another Jew for Divestment." Another said, "Anti-Divestment Anti-Terrorism."

I’m happy to report that the Board of Aldermen voted against the divestment resolution.

Another resolution was proposed to essentially ignore any future initiative to divest from Israel. Most of the Aldermen agreed that it was not their place to get involved with this issue. There are too many problems in Somerville to worry about violence in the Middle East. They were elected to address local concerns related to issues such as crime, zoning, and budget problems. We elect our congressmen, senators, and presidents to deal with foreign policy issues.

That resolution passed, which should put Somerville Divestment to rest. But somehow I doubt that.

At any rate, for at least one night, the good guys won.


At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Story! and well written at that. I'm still reading


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