Hateful cries made me uncomfortable in my own skin

“Can you wear a Star of David necklace there?” my grandmother asked, her voice automatically falling into a semi-conscious whisper. Back then, I thought her question was absurd and ignorant. Why on earth would I not be able to wear a necklace with a Star of David? And who exactly did she think was going to overhear us, the Gestapo?

“Of course we can,” I answered her. “America’s not like that.”

It was a few years after my family’s move from Israel to America — the early ’90s — and I was visiting my grandparents in Jerusalem for the summer.

Back then, I couldn’t fully comprehend my grandmother’s question. I never had to think twice about displaying my religious and cultural identity — and I never thought the day would come when I would.

Today, as I enter my final year of undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University, I see my grandmother’s question from a different perspective — tainted, enriched and provoked by my experiences and observations at my notoriously “politically outspoken” university.

The recent slew of horrific world events — Sept. 11, the current uprising of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the war in Iraq, etc. — has directly and indirectly affected people in all parts of the world. Some of the strongest reactions, both politically and emotionally, have come from students on American college campuses, from Harvard to U.C. Berkeley to SFSU.

Although the preservation of freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, the spread of hateful propaganda is not always so pretty.

On my way to class one day in the spring of 2002, I inadvertently walked right through a sea of protest signs at an ongoing pro-Palestinian rally. Out of curiosity, I skipped class and stayed to watch and listen to the speakers.

I stood in the back, leaned against the wall in an affectation of indifference and listened intently — often in agreement and empathy. That is, until one of the speakers suggested that all Jews be sent back to Germany. At that point, I looked around and realized that few in the crowd had (at least outwardly) responded to that comment with as much horror and disgust as I had. I did hear a few shouts of encouraging agreement and anger, though.

At the height of my discomfort and the peak of the emotional incitement of the crowd, I overheard someone in the audience yell out “death to the Jews” in Arabic. He was quickly silenced by one of the protest organizers, but, of course, the impact of his words had already seeped through me.

For the first time in my life, I was happy not to be wearing my Star of David necklace, not to be blatantly and obviously Jewish, Israeli or (God forbid) one of those Zionists.

I thought of the stories I was raised with, including my grandparents’ past in Morocco — from the pogrom-like massacre in Oujda, the town they were from, to their eventual escape to Israel with the aid of fake Spanish passports. I thought of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Until that day at SFSU, I had never been able to empathize with those familiar stories or to understand the context behind my grandmother’s question. Of course, my little experience at SFSU pales in (horrid) comparison to Holocaust stories and, luckily, my discomfort that day was mostly not an issue of safety or fear. However, it’s something — it’s not feeling comfortable in my own skin, in my own school, in my new country.

My Star of David necklace from Jerusalem is slowly gathering a fine layer of dust, neglected in my jewelry box at home.

With the new semester beginning, I am busy tackling new assignments and challenges. I am also emotionally preparing myself for the unknown. What will the political atmosphere be like this year at school? What verbal confrontations will I foolishly get myself into this time? And, most importantly, will that day ever come, when the clinging, bitter taste of (for lack of a better word) anti-Semitism fades from my memory, and when my grandmother’s question once again seems comfortably irrelevant?

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at

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