I read an article about Norwegian immigrants facing discrimination in Iceland. Not surprising. As an anthropologist I know that humans in social groupings over 12-15 individuals stratify themselves. For a group to justify control, someone has to be oppressed, and that requires a rationale. They look different, have a different religion or nationality, but somehow they must represent the “other.” In one of my favorite examples, a friend told me, as a Catholic growing up in Minnesota he wasn’t allowed to play with the Lutherans. My response: “how did you tell each other apart?” The answer: “We just knew.”
I grew up in New York, London, Connecticut, attended college in Montreal, New York, Nevada and worked professionally in South Dakota and Minnesota. Some places had a substantial Jewish community, while in others being Jewish made me a novelty. But nowhere did I feel the Jewish community was a surrogate for the problems in the Middle East until I moved to Olympia. Perhaps it’s because Rachel Corrie attended Evergreen, or it’s where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement encountered success, but somehow, in Olympia, the small Jewish population seems an unwitting proxy for the Israeli Palestinian conflict. From the Olympia Food Co-op’s decision to boycott Israeli goods, to intimidation against a local Jewish business if they hosted LGBT Israeli speakers, to discussions of whether Temple Beth Hatfiloh (TBH) needs to keep the doors locked and have a doorbell for security ... it just, at times, feels oddly uncomfortable.
During the conversation about safety measures at the temple, it wasn’t clear to me who we were trying to lock out, but it was obvious that some members were feeling insecure. I wondered whether anyone else was having these conversations. Was the Board at St. Michaels discussing how to protect themselves from the Gloria Dei Lutherans? Was Gloria Dei taking preventive actions against the Westwood Baptists down the road? Jews all over the world worry about security, but it seems especially sad that in the small city of Olympia, the Jewish community also feels compelled to take precautions.
Letters and comments to The Olympian discussing Rachel Corrie, BDS or the co-op board and Israeli policy often state that being against Israel isn’t being anti-Semitic. But what they fail to appreciate is that these boycotts aren’t affecting Israel at all – they just punish the local Jewish population and make life in this city less peaceful and uncomfortable.
Only human evolution will ever solve the problem of discrimination and racism – and sadly evolution is a slow process. In the meantime, the situation in the Middle East won’t be solved by attempting to penalize the Jewish community of Olympia. The Israeli government will not change their stance because Temple Beth Hatfiloh feels the need to lock their doors for safety, or because sea salts aren’t sold at the food cooperative, or because the owner of an Olympia business was harassed. Instead, taking a page out of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” BDS, the co-op and others have simply become the same oppressive entities they claim need changing.
Last month the temple hosted Blintzapalooza. The event was full of people happily enjoying food and buying books. No one had to knock to enter or seemed nervous about security. It would be terrific if it was like that in the Middle East, where regardless of religion or nationality, good food and conversation were the priority. But that isn’t the situation, and only the people who live there can change it.
If we are to reach a nirvana of world peace and social justice, change needs to begin at home. And that means starting right here in Olympia. No harassment, boycotts or accusations, doors happily unlocked and welcoming – where every day feels like a Blintzapalooza.
Allyson Brooks is a historic archaeologist for the state Department Archaeology and Historic Preservation. She volunteers as a board member for the League of Women Voters of Thurston County, Temple Beth Hatfiloh and the Governor’s Mansion Foundation and Preservation Action. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.