On the way to Los Angeles International Airport this afternoon, I thought I was about to be murdered.
In the run-up to a weeklong business trip, I called the car service I've been using for years to pick me up at my home. The driver arrived promptly at 1:30 p.m., the arranged time.
The ride to the airport started out just fine. The driver began making small talk. I noticed he had a Jamaican flag on his dashboard, so I asked if he was Jamaican. He said he was, and he asked if I was American.
"Were you born in California?" he asked.
I told him I was born in Chicago, and he commented how different the two cities are. I asked him if he came directly to Los Angeles from Jamaica. He told me he was first in New York.
He was playing reggae music, so I told him I liked the music and asked if he was Rastafarian. He said he was and explained that Rastafarian is a form of Christianity. He asked what my religion was. I told him I was Jewish.
One of the things I like about the drivers of this company is that they are always from other countries. When I ride in their cars, I get to learn a lot about where the drivers come from and their views of life in America.
We were both quiet for a while, and then he began tapping to the rhythm of the music. I noticed he had a plethora of CDs stuffed into his visor. I asked him what other reggae or Rasta singers he had.
"My music is political," he said.
That was a pretty interesting comment, so I asked, "About what kind of politics?" "I hope as Jew," he now raised his voice and sneered, "you can take what I am about to say. My politics are about the Jews."
And then the rant began. Continuing to raise his voice, he told me that Mel Gibson knew what he was saying. He told me he used to favor the Jews until they, themselves, became the Hitler under whom they suffered. He told me that the Jews are indeed the root of all the world's problems today.
"The Jews, who were the victim of the white man, now think that they are white. They have forgotten and have become the oppressor," he said.
He continued to rant for another 10 minutes. Between his shrieking voice and the Jamaican accent, I could barely understand the things he was saying -- about Oprah becoming rich and just like the white man because of the Jews, and that Saddam Hussein's hanging was posted on the Internet because of the Jews. He then turned to look at me in the backseat, while driving on the freeway.
"You Jews are the cause of the black man's suffering today," he screamed at me as he took his hands off the wheel. "I suffer, because of you."
Until this point, I had been quiet.
"Please sir," I said calmly understanding my predicament, "please keep your hands on the wheel."
That was it.
"Just like a Jew -- always telling the world what to do," he responded. "Don't you worry about me. Worry about what you do in the world. You make my life miserable. I don't care if I die. Maybe I'm a terrorist, like my Palestinian and Arab brothers whose lives you have destroyed. Maybe I am just going to now crash this car and kill both of us."
He was completely hysterical. The car was swerving out of control.
I wanted to get off the freeway and onto a city street, so I could have an escape route to jump out of his car if need be.
"It would be best," I said quietly, "if you get off at Howard Hughes Drive, so that we can come directly into the airport the back way, because it is quicker, and I am late."
"There you go again, always knowing better than anyone else. I drive all the time. And now you Jews know better how I should drive."
He continued to rant. But he did get off on Howard Hughes.
"The tables are turning, mon," he said. "The tables are turning. You will no longer have the power. The world is sick of you and knows who you are."
We were now inside the airport, and I felt safer. I leaned forward, "You have no idea who I am or who my people are. All you did was spew hate."
"I don't want to listen to anything you have to say," he said. "You think about what I said. We've heard enough from you."
As he handed me my bags, he said, "Are you going to report me like the Jew did about Mel Gibson? Are you going to get all your Jewish organizations after me now?"
I walked into the airport, relieved to be alive and away from the guy. I thought about Gibson; about recently fired publisher Judith Regan, who was going to publish the O.J. Simpson book; about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; about the brutal torture and killing of Ilan Halimi in France; about all the recent pronouncements of anti-Semitism throughout the world.
I looked around me and thought, "Who else hates us? Hates me? Do I need to live in fear right here in Los Angeles?"
Aside from studying the Holocaust and being marginally active in the Soviet Jewry movement, I never gave much thought to anti-Semitism around me. I believed it hardly existed and had little to do with living in the United States.
I was uncomfortable when other Jews talked and acted with what I considered to be a victim mentality. I drew my Jewish political lines around who saw the world as victims and those who saw the world as accepting. Victims were right wing. Those who saw acceptance were more liberal.
I remember my Wexner Heritage class of just nine short years ago and the many discussions we had about the golden age, in which we were living as Jews with growing world acceptance. "Never have Jews lived with such freedom and openness," I recall one of the professors saying.
Israel was in a peace process. Jewish life was forming across the former Soviet Union. Israelis were attending conferences in Qatar. Here in Los Angeles, Peace Now was sponsoring dinners between its members and members of local Arab organizations. Israelis were spending their Saturday afternoons shopping in the casbah of Nablus. Walls were coming down everywhere.
Indeed the driver was right about something -- the tables are turning, mon. People in high positions and people living at the grass-roots level are feeling empowered to hate Jews and articulate their feelings.
Perhaps the greatest resonance of the Gibson affair is that when a Hollywood somebody of such fame feels free to let fly his anti-Semitic beliefs, it gives permission to others to do the same. There is no doubt in my mind that the golden era of our acceptance is in decline. As Jews, we must see what its implications could be.
Personally, I am now faced with a terrible moral dilemma. This man knows where I live. My wife stays in our house alone when I am away on frequent business trips. He is crazy, and I believe has great potential for violence.
If I report him, are we in danger? If I don't, is someone else? How safe are we in the world today?
Gary Wexler is founder and president of Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing, consulting with Jewish and general nonprofit organizations throughout the world.
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