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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service
Op-Ed

How I erased a swastika

May 17, 2024

Antisemitism — real and imaginary — is big news these days. Here’s how I dealt with it in my neighborhood.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

I was living in Riverside County, California, north of the San Diego County Line: a wealthy exurb, with a median income 20% above the national median, though as a newspaper reporter, my income was below those things. I lived in Old Town, among grandfathered-in trailers, where I could afford to buy a house, which was built like a trailer.

I loved that house, after I fixed it up. I sweated hours in the yard, tending to the fruit trees I’d planted, to an enormous volunteer artichoke, and to my tomatoes, grapes and peppers.

Down the block lived a poor family with an unruly teenage son, who taunted me as he strolled by with his small, admiring crew. One day he shouted, “Hey, why are you out here with your sweater on?” (I’m a hairy guy.) His little posse loved it. No real hostility though. I used to be a wise-ass too. Still am.

Then one morning I awoke to find an enormous swastika chalked into the street in front of my house.

Was I angry? Incensed? No. That kid was not antisemitic. He was ignorant. Trying to be cool for his friends.

I sighed, and strolled down the street to his Mom’s house.

She answered the door. I had never met her, though we’d cast eyes over our dogs. Her house was pretty much like mine: a wreck.

“Hi,” I said. “I live down the street.” She said she knew that.

“I think your son painted a swastika on the street by my house.”

Her eyes opened wide.

“Do you want to see it?”

“Yes, I do.”

We walked up the street, chatting of this and that — local news — then took a gander at that enormous swastika, in three colors: red, white and blue.

I told her I had no proof that her son had done it, but I didn’t know of anyone else in the neighborhood who would have. She told me she would take care of it. And she did.

Someone — I don’t know who — scrubbed off that swastika the next day, early.

That weekend that I strolled down the block again to thank the lady, and remind her that I did not know for sure that her son had done it.

O, yes, he did, she told me. She’d grilled him about it and he ‘fessed up.

You know what else she made him do? She made him rent the movie “Schindler’s List,” and watch it with her.

That took care of that problem.

No threats, no violence, no intimidation. No hard feelings, even.

Just a little bit of education.

Me and her kid got along better after that. Lotta jokes. We became good enough friends to insult one another, in the way that Americans do. (I wonder if any other culture in the world accepts insults as friendly jokes as readily as we do.)

When I abandoned California for Vermont, I asked the kid if he wanted the weight-lifting contraption in my garage, and the weights. Of course he did. He wanted to be a football star.

“Haul them away, amigo,” I said, and he did.

So, that’s my little tale about antisemitism, and how I dealt with it. But as I said, that kid wasn’t antisemitic. If you’d asked him what antisemitism was, he wouldn’t have had a clue. If you asked him anything at all about Jews, he wouldn’t have known anything either. He didn’t know what he was doing when he chalked a swastika on our street. He was just tryna do what other supposedly cool people did. And got on TV for it. As if any of them knew what cool was, or is, or ever will be.

I wish I could remember his name, first or last, but I don’t. What difference would it make?

(For the record: Being anti-Netanyahu, or anti-Israel’s present government, does not make a person antisemitic. As far as I can tell, the racists in Israel include Netanyahu and those who bend the knee to him. As for me, the first hero I had in my life was Benny Goodman, and why not? Two Jewish clarinet players from Chicago.)

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