We who live in the sprawling exurbs east of Los Angeles tend to think of El-Lay as a smog-covered megalopolis ruled by space aliens, with some interesting tourist attractions.  Sometimes we have to go there for things.  When that happens, we pack coolers, snacks, and our favorite CDs, and prepare to sit in traffic for hours.  We see El-Lay’s car chases, shootings, and street demonstrations on TV, and think, from the fastness of our peaceful hinterland: “Man, I’m glad I don’t live there.” If we’re ever sentenced to go through the domestic terminal at LAX, we haul out the old body armor and make sure our combat-vehicle quals are up to date.

When social ugliness erupts in southern California, it’s in El-Lay.  Nazis taunting and gibbering, La Raza shrieking, gangs offing stray children and each other, black rioters beating up Koreans – it’s all “over there in El-Lay.”  That’s where the political anger is.  Where kids are being radicalized in the schools and taught to hate America.  Where the La Raza and MEChA crowd hangs out in academia, where Black Liberation Theologists haunt pulpits, where a crowd of Neo-Nazis consists of more than one jackass with a tattoo – where no matter what your cause, no matter how wrong-headed, hateful, founded on lies, or just plain stupid it is, you can get a bunch of people together on a day’s notice and make an impressive amount of noise.

We like being away from that, here in the “Inland Empire” between El-Lay and Palm Springs.  Out here, the streets are safe, people are nice to each other, family life is by far the biggest cultural influence.  We like our neighbors.  There’s space.  Quiet.  An absence of fellow citizens whose whole lives are one big, angry, sweaty political agenda.  A lot of people have moved here because they couldn’t take El-Lay or its immediate suburbs anymore.

So when the news broke in Los Angeles-based media about the area high school where a group of students was playing a “game” called “Beat the Jew,” the first thought for most people was probably like mine; i.e., there’s some sick, terrible stuff going on in El-Lay.

But then I quickly discovered that this didn’t happen in El-Lay.  (I’ll switch to “LA” now.)  It didn’t happen in the old suburbs.  It didn’t happen in The OC or south Ventura County.  It didn’t even happen in the older communities of the “Inland Empire” proper – Riverside, San Bernardino – where the LA patterns of gangs, crime, and victim-group politics are encroaching with the march of time and population.

No, it happened in the “Desert Cities” community of La Quinta, even further east of LA than I am.  La Quinta has for some years been a relatively peaceful, sleepy community known for its golf courses and retirees; but, like the rest of the Desert Cities in Coachella Valley, it has seen explosive growth in the last decade.  (Due to the construction boom, its population increased by an incredible 75% between 2000 and 2009, from the 20,000s to over 43,000.)  Indeed, La Quinta’s profile is very similar to that of a couple dozen medium-size towns in this area that grew very rapidly in the last two decades.  Originally populated by retirees, farmers, and people who like the rural life and keep horses on a few acres, these towns have hosted massive residential construction projects – mostly single-family developments, with vast infrastructure improvements required of the builders – and have absorbed the influx of thousands of families with school-age children.

La Quinta is about half the size of my town; it started out sleepier and less developed in 2000; it’s further out in the desert, and further from LA.  It’s hard to tell if it has some demographic distinctiveness in comparison with other local cities.  I tend to think not.  The population influx seems to have been pretty evenly distributed:  the percentages of white (60%) and Hispanic (32%) have hardly changed between the 2000 census and the statistics of 2009.  It’s a mix of the older and well-off, if not wealthy, and younger working families who – at least up through 2008 or so – could afford to buy homes there.

It’s not, ultimately, that different from the nice, tolerant exurban enclave I live in.  And La Quinta is where high school students were playing this game of “Beat the Jew,” in which some students played “Jews” and agreed to be kidnapped, blindfolded, and dropped off somewhere so they could be hunted by other kids playing “Nazis,” while they tried to navigate back to the high school campus.  A “Jew” who was captured in the course of this “game” faced “incineration” or “enslavement.”

And believe it or not, this tale of the “game” is not even the main piece of information I want to communicate here.  That honor goes to the character of the reader comments at the website of the Desert Sun, the newspaper that serves the Desert Cities area.

As we would expect, La Quinta High School’s officials were appalled to discover what was going on, and have suspended the seven out of the 40 “friends” of Beat the Jew’s Facebook website who were actually participating in the live game.  Along with referring the matter to the police for investigation, they’ve also invited a local rabbi to provide outreach and tolerance training.

What really struck me was the reflexiveness with which readers of the Desert Sun launched into the “oppressed Palestinians” narrative in their comments.  Here’s one:

As for an emergency meeting with regards to rabbis, the school, the students and the parents, I think it would also be entirely appropriate to invite Arab-Americans and in particular Palestinian-Americans to join in on this discussion of showing tolerance for all people, especially people who have been and, in the case of Palestinians, continue to not only be “beat” but massacred, robbed, starved, maimed and denied basic human rights by the Jewish state of Israel, which is propped up with US tax payers’ money and our bought out government. I think this should be discussed in “our” media, too, and by “our political leaders” as well, but I don’t think the ADL would let that happen, do you?

There are others.  Click through to the different stories on this and check them out at your leisure.  They reminded me, naturally, of Helen Thomas’ video screed about occupied Palestine and the rants of the usual suspects from the US media.  But they also reminded me of the reporting about a Swedish mayor whose lax enforcement of the laws protecting Jews against assault has been due to this sympathy with the “Palestinian” cause.  Anti-Semitic attacks increased dramatically in Sweden last year, and Jews who have lived there for decades – or all their lives – are leaving in unprecedented numbers.

This dynamic isn’t unique to Sweden; anti-Semitic attacks are up across the European continent.  They’re also up in Latin America.  And the line separating the USA from that fate is narrowing, as more and more people, either through ignorance or hatred, propound the morally bankrupt (not to mention deceptive) notion that basic respect and solicitude for the Jews among us, as human beings, should be contingent on Israel allowing Hamas to use Gaza to attack her territory.

There is no validity to the Hamas narrative, of course.  It is false in every particular.  Hamas regularly holds the interests of Gazans hostage to its anti-Israel agenda, and it is doing so now.  Hamas has refused to accept both of the aid shipments brought by the recent flotilla, even though Israel convoyed them to the border crossings. Israel herself is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Gazans.  Hamas’ interest is in breaking the blockade so that it can receive weapon shipments unhindered from Iran.  Conditions in Gaza, meanwhile, are substantially better than presented by Western media.  And it is Hamas that launches rockets at Israel from Gaza, Hamas that executes bombing attacks inside Israel, and Hamas that uses women and children as human shields for its headquarters, arms caches, and supply routes.

But that’s only part of the issue here.  At least as important is the challenge this situation represents to our character as a people.  We are very close today to seeing the things we believe in the most being effectively undermined by a facile, cynically-maneuvering “victim” narrative.  Parts of Europe have been paving the way in recent years, failing to deliver basic police protection to Jewish citizens while railing in international forums about Israeli “barbarity” in Gaza and the West Bank.  This is something more than the feckless paralysis of too many local governments in the face of general jihadist attacks (e.g., on cartoonists, opera producers, and human rights activists).  It amounts to some European officials behaving as if Jews are disqualified from the entitlements of citizens by the fact that there are political complaints by third parties against Israel.  Whatever name we want to give this pattern, it deviates inexcusably from – at the very least – our principle of equality before the law.

Sadly, comments at the Desert Sun about how to put the “Beat the Jew” players in a better frame of mind have tended to focus on emphasizing the horror of the Holocaust:  e.g., bringing in Holocaust survivors to talk to the kids, telling them stories of the evil brought on by Hitler and the Nazis.  But while that kind of interaction is always worthwhile, the direction implied by this approach is ultimately weak and situational.  Its tacit premise is that Jews are to be treated with the same respect we accord all human beings because they were victimized in the Holocaust.  And that is a profoundly fragile premise, contingent on no one else trumping the high “victim card.”

Yet as we see with the Hamas “Palestinian” narrative, it is cheap and easy to create victim narratives that gain wide favor through playing on people’s emotionalism, prejudices, and ignorance.  Western audiences have been responsive to the political game of “The Biggest Victim” for decades now, and the result is moral chaos.  Swinging in the breezes of victimology like weather vanes, we are losing all sense of why we should “treat each other right.”

None of us, not Jews or anyone else, is reliably protected by being perceived as a victim.  It’s not victimization that qualifies us for humane and respectful treatment by others; those aren’t even valid terms for an effective morality.  It’s the obligations we levy on ourselves that are the actionable elements of the moral code.  From that perspective – the only perspective that yields reliable patterns of behavior – there is exactly one thing any of us needs to know about Jews, and that is that they are our fellow human beings.

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I believe it will always be essential to remember the ghastly lessons of the Holocaust, and to communicate them to succeeding generations.  But when white and Hispanic high-schoolers of varied non-Jewish backgrounds are playing a game they call “Beat the Jew,” I don’t want to just send in a rabbi to explain how the Jews were victimized by Hitler.

I want to see these children’s parents, and the Christian and political leaders of the city, standing shoulder to shoulder with the rabbi and telling the students that this is the most basic thing they will ever learn from their forebears.  That it’s our legacy, our character, our meaning, our testament before God and eternity: we don’t do this.  We don’t treat each other this way under any circumstances.

Those parents and community leaders are people just like you and me.  If we lived in La Quinta – and so many of us live in “La Quinta” by another name – they’d be us.  The time when we could shrug these things off, or comfortably assume that they are happening somewhere else, or even view them with ironic ambivalence – that time is past.  The time when we could delegate this task to “the system” – to anonymous curriculum planners and scheduled sessions with rabbis-on-call – is in the rearview mirror.

We have to stand up.  We have to go the “Greatest Generation” one better – one very big one – and not remain silent and imagine ourselves to be disengaged from the problem, or distant from it, or imagine it to be someone else’s.

We are it.  It’s on us.  Are we a moral, honorable, and reliable people?  Or are we merely whipsawed by sentiment, morally adrift, paralyzed or confused by whoever can depict himself as the victim of the week?

If we are the latter, then nothing we have and nothing we are – none of the blessings in our peaceful, hopeful, agenda-free, quintessentially American communities – will survive.

If we are the former, then speak up, and speak up now.  Rabbis and Holocaust survivors aren’t the only ones who should be saying “Never again.”

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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