South Africa had a policy of apartheid. Lots of people boycotted, marched and protested what was going on there. South African officials were chosen in a democracy — well, a democracy for whites. Nobody ever said you are anti-South African for protesting this.

Mississippi had Jim Crow laws. Lots of people boycotted, marched and protested what was going on there. Mississippi officials were chosen in a democracy — well, a democracy for whites, not blacks. Nobody ever said you are anti-Mississippian for protesting this.

Israel is a country that embraces, for lack of a better word, apartheid; it is even complete with a wall. But to point this out — to boycott or protest — is somehow anti-Semitic. I hear people criticize folks for turning a blind eye to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s purported anti-Semitism; ironic how these are the same people who have a blind eye to the apartheid in Israel.

Yes, anti-Semitism is alive and well in the United States, and getting uglier every day, along with your run-of-the-mill racism. But I believe Omar’s allegation in a 2012 tweet that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” for which she recently apologized, was innocent, though unfortunate. Not everyone is aware that the Nazis promoted an older idea that Jews, somehow, had some magical power to hypnotize people. She now knows something that she did not know before. I like that in a congressperson.

Not everyone knows every hidden meaning and nuance of every phrase in the English language. A couple of examples:

• Not everyone knows that the term “paddywagon” has to do with hauling away drunken Irishmen.

• Recently, a 60-year-old woman with a long history of progressive activism and who is a convert to Judaism said to me, “That was very white of you.” Then she added: “Hmmm, that is a funny expression; I wonder where it comes from.” She really had no idea that it was a racist phrase, originally used to convey the assumption that white people were inherently more virtuous, and she was surprised about its origin when I pointed it out to her.

• When I was working in the backcountry of Mississippi in the 1960s, I used the phrase “by the way.” A very devout Christian woman asked me to stop taking the name of God in vain. What? In this woman’s thinking, because Jesus said, “I am the way,” the word “way” was synonymous with “God.” Wow, I did not see that one coming. Did that make me anti-Christian?

I have seen any number of posts on Facebook to the effect: “Ilhan Omar knew that she was using anti-Semitic language.” We cannot really know what others know. Really, we can’t.

Let us lighten up and help one another to grow and to confront our own racism and the institutional racism that surrounds us, and stop demonizing our friends and neighbors. Everything I now know, I once did not know. I’m assuming that is true for everyone, except the self-righteous, of course.

 

Dean Zimmermann is a former member of the Minneapolis City Council.