"There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews
every day. There's been books written about this -- people who are raised
Jewish and find Christ, and then their parents stop talking to them."
"Jews are stubborn. Tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept? They had his blood on their hands."
-- Charlie Ward, quoted in the New York Times
Magazine, April 22, 2001
Antisemitism! Bigotry! Outrage! “BOOOO!” cried the crowds at Madison Square Garden when the Knicks’ Charlie Ward took the floor. “Blood!” smelled the reporters -- chalk Ward up with John Rocker as another shamefully bigoted athlete slamming minorities, speak in serious tones about his grave offense. And “Opportunity!” sensed the Anti-Defamation League, which quickly condemned Ward’s remarks in harsh language: Ward’s bigoted words have led to pogroms, the ADL reminded us. His ideas are odious. Et cetera.
Here’s another view: Charlie Ward did nothing wrong. He said nothing wrong. He said nothing anti-Semitic. He is the victim of media frenzy and the sort of political correctness practiced by the same institutions who like to bash political correctness. Oh, and, as a committed Jew with a heavily-identifying Jewish family, let me assure you that I’ve heard much, much worse said about Christians – and African-Americans, who many of my relatives and their friends still refer to as shvartzes, ‘blackies.’ The only difference between what people of my parents’ generation said only a few weeks ago over a Seder table and what Charlie Ward said was that Ward had the indiscretion to say his words to a New York Times reporter.
Yep, Charlie Ward’s biggest sin was naivete. Don’t say anything to a reporter that you don’t want read by everybody, no matter how much the reporter does to earn your trust. Even Ward’s naivete shouldn’t be overstated; if you read the whole article, you can see a lot of complicated factors in the air. The reporter, Eric Konigsberg, went out of his way to mention that he’d formed a bond with the Knick – “E,” they called him. The article he’d written wasn’t about Charlie Ward at all – it was about the Knicks’ coach, Jeff van Gundy, and his surprisingly aloof management style. The quotes from Ward were stuck in, without any real relationship between his ideas and the rest of the article, right towards the end. Konigsberg’s tone introducing the lines is almost apologetic – he knew he had a scoop, his editors really knew he had a scoop, and so, well, sorry Charlie, here goes.
What, really, did Ward say? He observed, correctly, that many Jews ostracize (true, “persecute” is a bit of a strong word) children who are born again and become Christian. Certainly nothing specious or false there: my mother and thousands of mothers like her have threatened to disown their children if they intermarried, let alone if they themselves became Christian. His larger, implied point about Jewish insecurity – that they’re stubborn but ultimately afraid of Christian truth – may be off-base, but it’s not odious. It’s a reasonable reading of the facts, coupled with a faith in the truth in question.
Next, with more than ample scriptural support, Ward characterized “the Jews” as stubborn, because they rejected Jesus. Generalization aside, this is a point made dozens of times in the Gospels and Epistles, and thousands of times since then, and is a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine: the Jews stubbornly erred when they refused to see the light of Christ. Surely, Ward, as a Bible-reading Christian, couldn’t possibly have known ‘better.’ You might as well expect a Jew to be sensitive to the polytheistic belief systems of the Philistines and Moabites. Sure, Ward elided the difference between the Jews of Jesus’ time and those of today. And, yes, he blamed them for killing Christ, when really the Sanhedrin turned Christ over to the Romans for execution – an important, though fine, distinction.
But there is an enormous conceptual difference between Ward’s (and Paul’s) anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism that the ADL and their ilk are supposed to be fighting. Anti-semitism is about Jews with horns, Jews poisoning wells, Jews being untermenschen. Anti-Judaism, on the other hand, is a theological argument – a clumsy one, maybe, but, as every serious scholar of anti-Semitism in the last quarter century has noticed, an argument about the truth. You can’t say anything to an anti-Semite except “your ideas are false, and so false as to be surely motivated by hatred.” With an anti-Jewish Christian, however, you can have a dialogue.
Every indication in Konigsberg’s article was that Charlie Ward was reaching out for just such a dialogue. He had established a personal connection with someone who was Jewish. They were talking about religious matters. And Ward wanted to know – how can you be Jewish? How can you reject Christ when the Old Testament clearly prophecies his coming, when his miracles proved his divinity, when he came to save you from sin?
I have answered these questions dozens of times over the years as they have been posed to me by religious Christian friends. They are sincere questions, not hateful ones. Most religious Christians I’ve known, except for the scholars, have never seen the Old Testament from a non-Christian point of view – one friend of mine had no idea that the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’ were even different documents (or anthologies), that it might make sense to subscribe to the truth of one but not the other. Most Christians don’t know about the mistranslations of Isaiah, the differing doctrines of human innocence or sinfulness; they have no idea. And sincere Christians want to know. Some are interested in proselytizing – a central tenet of the Faith. Some are just plain interested. But every sincere Christian I’ve met is curious about how Judaism could possibly make sense – sincerely. Given the opportunity, and put at ease that I would avoid the kind of name-calling that Ward’s been subjected to, they ask honest questions about how it can all make sense.
And yet, what have we taught these people by the reaction to Charlie Ward? Don’t ask. Bottle it up. You may have your issues, but if you do, you have a problem. Rather than more dialogue, the lynch mob that’s gathered around Charlie Ward beats the drum for more repression. How are we supposed to increase understanding that way?
Now, one might object: Jews don’t need the Christians’ understanding, they need their respect. Ward’s anti-Jewish remarks have led to anti-Jewish riots in the past, and so we should condemn them in the present and demand that any future inquiries not be couched in such judgmental rhetoric. Fine. But in a candid conversation, I want my conversation partner to be as frank with me as possible. If she thinks my ideas are nonsense, or incoherent, I want to know that – I don’t want courtesy or political correctness getting in the way of a good argument. Otherwise, I can’t possibly address her real concerns. I can only dance around the edges, as afraid to step on her toes as she is of mine.
This sorry state is exactly where American race relations often end up, at least in public discourse. Privately, whites and blacks (at least the ones that I know) speak frankly about stereotypes – their seeming truth and underlying falsity – and speak honestly about their fears. Publicly, no white person would admit to being scared of walking down the street in African American neighborhoods, or of harboring lingering vestiges of racist ideology. Everyone is so nervous of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing. Or platitudes that equal nothing.
It’s hard to know who’s being honest when everyone is so mealy-mouthed. Maybe this is why the media so rabidly attacks those who aren’t – I’m reminded of Ross Perot’s ill-advised use of the phrase “you people” when talking to the NAACP a few years ago. Of course, there’s nothing inherently racist in the phrase “you people,” and the context of the phrase was actually a statement meant to evoke solidarity: Perot was talking about the need to improve America’s economy and noting that it was ‘you people’ (the African Americans in the audience and people like ‘them’) who often bore the brunt of economic hard times. This is hardly a right wing argument: the NAACP itself has made the same point numerous times. But the rhetoric seemed to indicate a certain divisiveness in Perot, as though he saw them as “them” and us (whites) as “us.”
How ironic: the repression of honest speech makes
honest speech rare. And so when it looks like we’ve got some, and
it smells foul, we leap on it. We grab it. Aha! You were
hiding racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic feelings! Gotcha!
Imagine if we actually took what people said at face value. Then we could distinguish, on the merits, bigoted speech such as John Rocker’s from innocent speech such as Ward’s. We could note that Rocker just spewed bile, but Ward actually had a (wrong) point. We could engage with Ward’s ideas, in a public forum, and show how they are innocent, non-hateful misunderstandings that can, if left unchecked, lead to serious mistrust. Sincere, caring people will then correct their misconceptions.
But if we just heap scorn on the voicing of an idea that millions of people around the world possess, we only increase mistrust. More and more discourse is removed from the public square, branded as bigotry by people with something to gain from doing so. Charlie Ward has already apologized to the Knicks, the fans, and the NBA. Maybe he’ll apologize to the Jewish People too, with the ADL as our designated representative. But it’s we who owe him an apology – for jumping down his throat when he voiced a sincere, though misguided, belief. We need to apologize for those in the media who profit from sowing division, and then we need to talk.
April 24, 2001
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