Volume 30, Number 2

Standing Up to Anti-Semitism

Fred Schepartz

Last weekend I attended a panel discussion at the science fiction convention Wiscon titled “Anti-Semitism at Wiscon.” The panel was largely in response to an incident at last year’s con but involved other issues as well.

When I saw this panel listed among the proposed panels, my first thought was that, as a Jew, I wanted to be on the panel. But after further consideration, I decided that this panel might be one major hornet’s nest for a wide variety of reasons.

I am a Jew. I feel a need to state that fact.

When I saw this panel listed among the proposed panels, my first thought was that I wanted to be on the panel. But after further consideration, I decided that this panel might be one major hornet’s nest for a wide variety of reasons.

I considered not attending the panel, but thought better of it.

And I am very glad that I attended the panel.

First, the moderator did an excellent job keeping the panel on track. She gave a brief summary of last year’s incident and shut down a member of the audience who wanted to relitigate what happened last year. Second, she firmly stated that Israel would not be part of the discussion. I was frankly relieved about this ground rule because a discussion of Israel and Palestine could have gone sideways very quickly.

What followed was an orderly yet heartfelt and sometimes extremely moving discussion among the entirely Jewish panelists. One panelist discussed micro-aggressions she had suffered at Wiscon, including one perpetrated by the convention committee in the course of putting together this panel.

Perhaps the most amazing moments during the panel came courtesy of one panelist who identified herself as the 74-year-old daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. She told the story of how they fled pogroms that occurred shortly after World War I. She described how her parents always kept a suitcase packed because they never knew when they might have to flee to save their own lives. She described how she never feels entirely safe.

She also talked about how Jews were instrumental in helping to create science fiction fandom and described cons that included Kosher food and Shabbos services, even rooms full of Kosher for Passover food. Sadly, she said, those practices have disappeared, and it is highly likely that today’s SF fans know little if anything about the role played by Jewish fans decades ago, thus reaffirming the issue of erasure described by other panelists.

She also told of an incident at a con many years ago where a fellow SF fan asked her “what her kind of people” were doing at the con. As the conversation degenerated, other fans silently left the room, leaving her to defend herself by herself.

On a particularly positive note, she talked about a book titled Wandering Stars, which is an anthology of SF short stories by Jewish authors, including Isaac Asimov, Pamela Sargent, Carol Carr and Harlan Ellison.

I had to smile when she talked about the book. I bought it at Wiscon a few years ago, but have not found the time to read it.

After the panel, I asked her where in the Ukraine her parents came from. She told me between Odessa and Kiev. I told her my family came from a small town in between those cities called Rotmistrovka. Her eyes got all big and she told me her father fled Odessa to go to that town only to find that himself in the middle of a pogrom. He hid in a haystack and somehow survived despite paramilitary stabbing the haystack with bayonets. This pogrom was one of the worst of the pogroms that occurred after World War I. The significant Jewish population of Rotmistrovka was either killed or driven away.

At this point, her eyes started to water. She thanked me for telling her about my heritage and let me know that she was grateful to feel a little less alone.

The experience has led to a great deal of reflection of my own experiences with Anti-Semitism. First, I’ve been attending Wiscon since 1987. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, I have never experienced Anti-Semitism at Wiscon.

That is not to say that I have never experienced Anti-Semitism.

When I was a freshman at the dorms, I experienced a bit of culture shock. As a Jew from the East Coast, I met Sconnies from small towns who’d never met a Jew. One was shocked to finally meet one. She actually wanted to see my horns. Of course, the inevitable, “But you don’t look Jewish,” came flying out of her mouth.

I’ve had people say, even people I knew and liked, “I’m being Jewish with my money.” Confronting such people is usually a minefield. “Oh, I’m sorry. You don’t look Jewish” is generally the reply when I let them know how and why they put their foot in their mouth.

At my former workplace, I had one co-worker say, “We’re having trouble communicating. It must be because you’re from the East Coast.”

Code: Jew.

At a workplace membership meeting, a drunken co-worker yelled, “Oh, why don’t you go back to the East Coast.”

Code: Jew.

The same co-worker who said we were having trouble communicating gave me the nickname “Grand Nagus,” the name of the Ferengi leader from Star Trek. My comment at the time was “I choose to ignore the obvious Anti-Semitic connotations.” Remember, the Ferengi have extremely exaggerated facial features and are known for their avarice, hence the Ferengi bible: Rules of Acquistion.

To be fair, given that I used to work as a cab driver, I claimed the nickname as a bit of a badge of honor though things ended ugly, and I wish I never would’ve acquiesced. A co-worker, deciding to go down with a blaze of glory, while engaging in troll-attacks against me in our in-house social media, posted a Nagus meme. His intent was crystal clear. I filed a complaint against him claiming protected class. The complaint was never processed because he simply stopped showing up for work.

One last story, many years ago, I published a newspaper about sports talk radio. The hosts of one show were angry at me for no apparent reason and decided to launch a series of Anti-Semitic slurs at me during their show. I called the owner of the radio station to complain. He refused to acknowledge the Anti-Semitism emanating from his station, even though he himself was Jewish. He also claimed that he had never experienced Anti-Semitism.

It should be noted that the young man who owned the radio station was the silver-spooned son of a MAJOR media mogul.

I felt incredible shame at this incident. I internalized it, leading myself to believe that it was somehow my fault. I discussed this with almost no one, not even my parents, which was a shame because a prominent member of the Anti-Defamation League was a member of their synagogue.

A prominent theme during the panel was that these are very dangerous times for Jews, along with Muslims, immigrants and lots of other people. Certainly, right now is the most dangerous time to be a Jew in my lifetime.

The panelists speculated on whether to speak out or hide out given the times we live in.

This is a personal choice, and I will not criticize anyone for their choice.

As I’ve been writing frequently, we are living in an age of tyrants and dictators. Demagoguery rules the day. Such tyrants and dictators rule with division and need someone to scapegoat. Jews have always been a convenience target.

And we have a president who lies more than he tells the truth, who openly advocates violence against vulnerable groups, who claims to support Israel yet cannot denounce Neo Nazism and White Supremacy. Trump may not be explicitly giving credence to notions of Jewish world dominance, i.e. “Globalism” or the “Zionist Occupied Government,” but he is giving sufficient cover to domestic terrorists that attacks on Jews and other groups have grown exponentially during his time in office.

I choose to speak out. Again, that is my choice. I will not criticize anyone for their choice.

I know I haven’t spoken out at times in the past, and looking back, I regret it. The micro-aggressions from uninformed people, perhaps those could have been teaching moments. The incidents at my workplace, again, in some cases, they could have been teaching moments. At other times, they could have resulted in appropriate discipline.

I never should have acquiesced to the use of the nickname Grand Nagus. A recent conversation with a phone answerer, who is a friend of mine, illustrated that point to me. She told me that other phone answerers will talk about me in the dispatch office and denounce me for being greedy.

Code: Jew.

My friend said she couldn’t understand the criticism because they were running me down for being a hard-working, hard-driving cab driver, which are some of the qualities that make a good cab driver.

I can’t help but think that my acquiescence played a role, that if I would have called out the nickname for what it was, maybe these people might see a problem with the way they were talking about me behind my back. Maybe.

As for the radio station, I should have rained hell upon them.

As for Wiscon, I regret my reticence about the panel. Afterwards, I made a point of thanking the panelists for their participation.

I believe Wiscon should have more programming about Jewish themes. For a start, I think a panel about Wandering Stars would be a very good idea. I pledge to propose that panel for next year’s Wiscon and will enthusiastically participate in the panel if it is included in next year’s programming.

And I think I may look into a sequel to Wandering Stars. It was published in 1974. I’m sure a few Jewish authors have written stories in the 45 years since.