Confronting indifference dressed in a gorilla suit

The two eyes staring back at me expressed no emotion. They were filled with a kind of gray and foreboding emptiness. I realized the man behind the mask had no conscience.

A woman holds a sign opposing antisemitism at a rally. Credit: AndriiKoval/Shutterstock.
A woman holds a sign opposing antisemitism at a rally. Credit: AndriiKoval/Shutterstock.
Bruce Pearl
Bruce Pearl

A few years ago, I attended a Major League Baseball game with my family. Near the entrance to the stadium, a man dressed in a gorilla suit held a large sign that read, “F**k the Jews! They dominate the world!” The message? Jews are descendants of apes (an age-long anti-Semitic trope that depicts Jews as inhuman), they control the world’s economy, and they must be annihilated.

As we stood in line to purchase tickets to the game, I was motionless and paralyzed. I wondered why someone would crawl inside a sweltering gorilla suit on a hot summer day to foment hatred. Hundreds of people passed by the gorilla but seemed indifferent to his message. I was born into a Jewish family, and my relatives endured this kind of vile antagonism for a long time. My protective fatherly instinct kicked in because I felt his violent message was targeting my Jewish children that stood in line with me. Here was a guy blatantly calling for another genocide of the Jews, and no one cared to interfere. I decided to interfere.

With my children tugging on my shirt saying, “Daddy don’t”—out of concern for what might happen to me in a confrontation—I stepped out of the long line of fans and walked towards the gorilla. With every step I took, I sensed I was teaching my Jewish children never to be silent in the face of evil. Someone once said, “Silence is evil’s greatest ally,” and I believe they were right. I wasn’t filled with rage. That would have been too easy. I was motivated by righteous anger. There is a law in the Torah that forbids apathetic indifference towards a person or group oppressing others. The rabbis teach this law (Leviticus 19:6) places a binding obligation upon us not to be silent when others are being threatened or harmed.

When I stood before the gorilla, something within me—a kind of deep awareness of the historical suffering of my people caused by anti-Semitism—rose to the surface and with tears filling my eyes, I pointed to my heart and I heard myself saying, “Juden.” Juden is the German word for Jew inscribed on the yellow Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. It was the only word I could muster. The man said nothing. Again, I pointed to my heart and said, “Juden.” This time I was shouting! Again, the gorilla said nothing. Up to that point, I doubt the man had faced any objection to his threatening rhetoric to harm Jews. As I stared passed the mask into the eyes of the man, I saw cold contempt. Again I shouted “Juden” and then added, “Take off your mask so we can talk face to face, and if you want, you can throw the first punch!”

Was I hoping for a brawl? Maybe. The two eyes staring back at me expressed no emotion. They were filled with a kind of gray and foreboding emptiness. I realized the man behind the mask had no conscience. At that point, almost robotically, the gorilla slowly turned his back on me. There I was, a lone Jew in a sea of indifferent onlookers, facing the hairy back of an anti-Semitic gorilla that held a sign demanding my family’s slaughter. I took his sign and broke it apart, holding the two halves in my hands and hoping the man would take off his mask. Instead, he walked away.

In that moment, I learned two important things: An anti-Semite is a coward at heart who hides behind derogatory stereotypes, fabricated history, Jewish conspiracy theories, religious myths, and, in this case, an ape costume. Secondly, I learned most people would rather remain silently indifferent to anti-Semitism because they think it doesn’t affect them.

One of the more insulting stereotypes, promoted by the person in the gorilla suit, is that the Jewish people are all rich and control the world’s monetary system. My Jewish upbringing did not match this false narrative. My paternal grandparents, Papa Jack and Nana Rose Pearlmutter, emigrated from Europe in 1909. They settled in Mattapan Boston, a thriving but poor Jewish community mainly from Poland and Russia. Papa was a plumber and an observant Orthodox Jew. I watched him tie the tefillin around his arm during his daily morning prayers. I can assure you that controlling the world’s finances was not something that crossed his mind. The poor Jewish neighborhoods of Mattapan, Mass., were dotted with dilapidated triple-decker Victorians that lined a three-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue. The Jews of Mattapan became known as “The Blue Hill Avenue Jews.”

During Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, I saw my Papa crying as he watched the evening news. He told me about Israel and how she was under attack, and that he feared for her very existence. I discovered in that moment that I, as a Jew, am somehow intricately and spiritually connected to the land of Israel. I sense that my Papa was passing down to me, his only grandson, a love for my heritage and for Israel. When I hear the violent rhetoric today about Israel’s annihilation, my thoughts go back to 1967 sitting at Papa’s feet in that little duplex in Mattapan on Greendale Road just off of Blue Hill Avenue. Whenever I travel to Israel—maybe it is the Zionism inspired in me from the Blue Hill Avenue Jews of Mattapan—I kneel down and kiss the earth.

Today, Israel once again stands at the crossroads as her enemies rage against her. Sadly, within our own Congress, there are voices calling for the support of Israel’s sworn enemies while others are even calling for Israel’s destruction. The alarming rise of anti-Semitism—the beliefs that gave that man in the gorilla suit permission to proclaim his hatred—is contagious. In America, it’s becoming the norm for some sports figures, musicians and Hollywood celebrities to tweet anti-Semitic tropes. It has been reported that every 83 seconds, a new anti-Semitic message is posted on social media. More than half of religious hate crimes in America are against Jews. Three-fourths of Jewish students on American college campuses have witnessed anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic acts on their campuses. A multitude of angry anti-Semites are attempting to smother the voices of the younger generation through fear and intimidation. I worry about this.

Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Jewish engagement director Aaron Keyak tweeted out to the Jewish community, “It pains me to say this but if you fear for your life or physical safety, take off your kipah and hide your Star of David.” Where is the moral courage in that statement? Anti-Semitism succeeds when Jews are forced out of the public arena. The objective is to isolate and weaken Jews, making them defenseless. Historically, once we as a people have been forced into compliance we become easy prey. This is why today we say: “Never Again!”

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said “man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright with the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl was reminding us that in the darkest moments of our history, the light of our Jewish dignity has never flickered out. Before the radical Islamists beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, he said, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Like the three Hebrew children who were intimidated to bow or be thrown into a furnace, he refused to betray his convictions and nor should we.

Anti-Semitism is an early warning sign that hatred and bigotry are on the rise—not just towards Jews but towards everyone, which is why we must confront it together. If we in the human family do not challenge it, we become an accessory to its evil. We cannot shrink back in silence as anti-Semitism grows ever more vocal and violent. It’s time we choose to interfere rather than pass by the man in the gorilla suit. May we have the moral courage to stand up together, and break in half the signs that would seek to diminish and destroy us.

Bruce Pearl is the head men’s basketball coach for the Auburn Tigers at Auburn University. In 2019, he led Auburn to the Final Four in the NCAA championship. He is one of five Jewish coaches in history to reach the Final Four. He also served as the head coach for the Maccabi USA men’s basketball team in the 2009 Maccabi Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he led the U.S. to win the gold medal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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