A little more than two years ago, I took a picture of a man holding a sign that said "Jews control America."
Yesterday, I left my office in Manhattan to get some Chinese food for lunch. On the way, I saw the same man outside my office, holding a similar sign, but this one said, "GOOGLE IT! The Jews funded black slavery."
He was standing at the intersection of 42nd and 2nd Avenue, one of the busiest parts of Manhattan, made even busier this week by the last U.N. General Assembly of President Obama's term. Midtown has been flooded with people from all over the world, and they were all getting an eyeful of his sign. As I walked by him on my way to lunch, I told myself that this was just another crazy person in New York, and tried not to let it get under my skin.
But on my way back, food in hand, I couldn't help but stop. I saw swathes of people walking by and saw the way they took in his sign, reading this message for a brief moment before looking away. I swear I even saw a few people pull out their phones and Google it. So I stopped.
"Why?" I asked him simply, cutting straight to the point.
"Awareness," he said.
"Do you think this is bringing people together?" I asked him.
"Fuck bringing people together. It's about the truth. Jews run this country and get away with everything they do. Nobody ever says Jews do anything bad," he responded. I could feel the venom coming to the surface.
"Because they run the media?" I asked him, remembering all the people on Twitter who have called me a slimy Jew and told me I was part of a mass media conspiracy for being a Jewish reporter.
"Because they run the fucking world. The whole fucking country!"
"C'mon, man... you can't honestly believe that. Jews were some of the first slaves."
"Did you learn about Jews funding slavery in high school?"
"Well, no, but I learned about —"
"Exactly. They run the fucking country."
"Well, what do you want? What's your goal?"
At this point, I wasn't sure what he'd say. I thought maybe he'd tell me he just wanted an apology from a Jewish coalition. Maybe he wanted reparations for the black community. But instead he said something far more vile than I would have guessed.
"A holocaust," he told me plainly. "A big fucking holocaust."
As you might imagine, this answer sort of sent me — someone who knows Holocaust survivors, has interviewed Holocasut survivors, has lived in Israel and met Jews who fled Europe during World War II — into a bit of a rage.
I wish I had kept my cool, found a way to reason with this man, but I couldn't. Instead, I reminded him that we already had a Holocaust. I told him that six million Jews died in that Holocaust. I told him to take off his cross because he wasn't doing God's work. I told him he was disgusting and should be ashamed of himself.
But when I got back to my office, I couldn't help but Google it. "Jews funded black slavery." One of the top results was a story on the website of David Duke, the white nationalist who has endorsed Donald Trump for president. In case you forget, Duke was the man Trump at first refused to disavow.
And it's true, Jews did play a part in the funding of black slavery. But so did millions of people and millions of non-Jews. It's also true that free blacks owned African-American slaves in each of the first 13 colonies. People of all creeds participated in this horrible, ugly history of ours. But this man's previous signage, his admitted desire for a holocaust, is proof that it isn't about a grudge against Jews for slavery. It's about a hatred for Jews, period.
Unfortunately, this isn't just about some "crazy person" in midtown.
I can't stress this enough: these people are here. They are alive. They are emboldened. They are fervent. They are passionate. And they are exercising their free speech in more powerful, effective ways than the people that oppose them.
This is not just a whackjob in Midtown. It's Donald Trump Jr. comparing refugees to Skittles. It's Trump himself retweeting statistics and pictures from white nationalist message boards. It's Chris Christie claiming Donald Trump stopped talking about the birther movement after Obama gave us his certificate (he didn't, he continued to question Obama's place of birth until last Friday). It's Breitbart and Kellyanne Conway and Drudge Report and the millions of people who repeat, share, and believe their messages of hate.
Peter Carney / Shutterstock.com
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to have a productive conversation with this man, but I tried. Now I'm asking you to try, too. Silence in the face of this kind of hate is no longer enough. We all must work to end divisive rhetoric that is forcing American communities back into their own corners, into their own clans.
After I posted about this incident on Facebook, I had friends comment and message me saying they were shocked this kind of thing still existed. Apologizing, saying they loved me, maybe cracking a joke or two to the lighten the situation. It felt great, it was good to know those people were there for me, but it's also important to recognize that just like them, I don't see the hate that other Americans have to face either.
So do your part. If you hear someone say something that you know isn't true, correct them. Or engage them in a conversation. If you see someone post a fabricated story on Facebook that's promoting hateful a ideology, call them on it. Correct them. Open a conversation. If you believe in standing up for a diverse, tolerant and welcoming country, join me in pushing back against men like this.
For so many in the United States, it's the absolute least we can do.
Isaac Saul is a reporter for A Plus and host of his weekly Facebook live show "A Grain of Saul." You can follow him on Twitter here.