Are there fewer Jews in places with more anti-Semites, or are there more anti-Semites in places with fewer Jews?
At the beginning of Greg Mottola’s new movie Paul about two friends who accidentally discover an alien, Graeme, a comic book nerd (there’s no stigma to that word anymore), asks Paul, “Are you an alien?”
Graeme asks Paul, “Are you an alien?” Paul replies, “To you I am.”
Paul replies, “To you I am.”
If the wording of that sentence sounds too Jewish, it’s because it is. Paul is a typical Jew. He’s considered an outsider even though he’s technically been around for longer than almost anyone else. He’s paranoid, racked with guilt, and he came to America in the late 1940s. He’s also big into matching up couples, and he likes bagels.
Jews in general have always been likened to aliens, From E.T. to Alf to Clark Kent. We’re sometimes very hairy but sometimes surprisingly bald, we’re maybe a little short, and we’re surrounded by legend – some good and some bad. Those who misunderstand us allege we’re here “to enslave humanity”, but we also love chocolate and are obsessed with phoning home. We hold the secrets of the universe, we’ve always been a little misunderstood – to be fair, it’s a complicated religion, with a lot for even us to misunderstand – and people have always been after us, to harvest our brains.
Sure, the people who actually know us realize that we’re great once you get to know us. And we have a lot to offer society in the way of knowledge, spirituality and stand up comedians. The main characters of the film -- Graeme and his friend, whom he introduces as “The Writer, Clive Gollings” (I think that’s really cool – I’m going to start asking my wife to introduce me as as “The Writer, Mark Papers”) come to discover this about Paul as well. But when they first meet him, they’re not as accepting. First, The Writer Clive Gollings faints. And then, Graeme immediately turns to Paul and starts accusing him. And no answer that Paul gives is good enough.
“What have you done to him?”
“I didn’t do anything to him. He fainted.”
“Yeah, but you made him faint.”
“Yes. But it’s not like I set my phaser to ‘faint’.”
“You’ve got a phaser?”
It doesn’t even matter if there’s no logic behind the accusation. When they don’t know us, the accusations still flow. Similarly, people think things about Jews that make no logical sense. Is there really a Jewish conspiracy to run the world? We’re the oldest surviving religion, and we’ve been around for thousands of years. If we had a grand plan, don’t you think we’d be running the world by now? When is this whole thing going to culminate? It doesn’t seem to be a very good plan.
Historically, most people who actually get to know us have no problem with us. It’s just whatever media or word of mouth they’ve heard that teaches them to hate. It’s like they think we’re going to probe them or something, and half the people who’ve never met Jews think we have horns. Likewise, the only people in the movie who actually have a problem with Paul are the ones who never got to know him as a person. In fact, much of the humor in the movie, as with all comedies about outsiders – aliens, witches, superheroes – comes from the extras who don’t know them screaming or fainting or peering out through their blinds and seeing things they don’t understand, while a spouse calmly reads the newspaper and assures them that they’re crazy.
In this movie, for example, we have two hunters who, from the very beginning, seem to have a problem with Clive and Graeme, mainly because they’re two guys hanging out together, even though the hunters themselves are technically two guys hanging out together. When they’re finally about to beat up Clive and Graeme, Paul appears, and the hunters faint. The humor comes from the fact that we, the audience, who have actually met Paul, know that he’s harmless.
We have to be proud of those things that make us uniquely Jewish.
Am I saying that Jews should blend in? No. We have to be proud of those things that make us uniquely Jewish, even if you do get strange looks when you are chomping loudly on those “funny crackers” during Passover or if your coworkers have trouble pronouncing “Yom Kippur.” Because as history has demonstrated, we Jews can’t hide.
So too Paul spends a lot of the movie hiding from people. He turns invisible, wears a cowboy hat, and pretends to be a statue. And sure, it saves his life. But in the end, the only people who’ve gained any understanding are the ones that he came clean with.
Hate, and by definition anti-Semitism, is a product of ignorance. It’s always the people who don’t know Jews, or don’t realize they know Jews, who think we’re dangerous. There are plenty of movies that portray aliens as evil, or as cold and emotionless. But judging something before you try it for yourself is denying yourself things you didn’t know you could have had.
A lot of people hate Brussels sprouts. Perhaps you do as well. But do you hate Brussels sprouts because you’ve tried them and came to that decision on your own, or do you assume that you hate them because everyone else hates them, and because they’re the same color as broccoli, and you hate broccoli?
FUN FACT: Jews might not always get along with each other, but not one Jew thinks that Jews are dangerous. It’s not like you assume that there is in fact some grand conspiracy that you personally are just not in on. To be honest, based on those of us that you know, you’re pretty sure there’s no way we’d agree on a conspiracy to being with.
Don’t make assumptions about other people before you get to know them. People have been doing it to us for years. But we’re not evil or anything. Like Paul, we just come from a different place.