This I Believe

Joanne Seiff - Bowling Green, Kentucky
Entered on May 4, 2005
Age Group: 30 - 50
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We sat in assigned seats in first grade. Charity sat near me. Charity was big and she smelled. She poked at my lunch and broke the matzah sandwich my mother made for me. I explained I was Jewish, and why I couldn’t eat bread during Passover. Charity returned to the lunch table the next day, triumphant.

“I told my mama you didn’t believe in Jesus. She said if she had a gun, she’d shoot you.”

When my parents heard what happened, my assigned seat was changed, but the hatred wasn’t. When being Jewish was hard, my religious community tried to strengthen me so I felt proud of who I was. You’re an American, they’d say, we have freedom of religion here. When I got kicked out of the public school chorus because I wouldn’t sing Christmas carols, when there were swastikas on a locker, when I was called “dirty Jew” in the school parking lot, and when my synagogue was vandalized by a guy who rode my schoolbus–these were times when I tried to stand up straight and confront prejudice.

Even with the law on my side, it’s hard to stand up against hatred. When I tell friends about these stories, they’re incredulous–this happened in Northern Virginia in the 1980’s? They don’t realize that religious discrimination happens all over the USA, every day.

There’s been a change for the worse since September 11th. Some say “they don’t feel safe anymore” in the US. What it’s like to feel safe in the first place? I never did. The religious right campaigns for making evangelical Christian morals the prerequisite for being an American. I’m an American. My Jewish values don’t agree with evangelical Christian ones.

I live in a “red state.” People here claim the founding fathers thought this should be a Christian nation. I suggest they read George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island or Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. Learn about our country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, a Deist. Historical documents are irrelevant, they say. Then I feel threatened and frustrated to live in my home, the USA. Their message is clear, even if it doesn’t agree with the Constitution. Non-Christians are guests here, and if we mess up, we should leave.

I’m a fourth generation American. I’m a Jew. I believe in this country’s ideal of religious freedom. I believe in church and state separation that allows everyone to observe their religions in peace, but I don’t believe the United States lives up to its ideals–not with its harassment of Muslims and tolerance of religiously motivated hate crime. The Anti-defamation League’s 2005 survey says nearly 35 million Americans hold significant anti-Semitic beliefs. My response? No religious person should promote hate or discrimination. Even I know it’s not the Christian thing to do.

I’m not a guest; I’m a citizen, just like you. I believe in the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state for good reason. It doesn’t just protect non-Christians like me against hate and discrimination. It protects all of us.