Columnists apology for Juden reference is courageous

It isn't easy to say "I'm sorry," it is even more difficult to do so in writing, and harder still to publish it in a newspaper. But that is precisely what Tim Keown did, and we all should be supportive of him for being courageous enough to do so.

What was he apologizing for? He fell victim to a bizarre coincidence which set off a furor in our community, and all because of his use of one word: "Juden." As in Jeff Juden, pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. Or is it Juden, the German word for "Jews"?

Keown writes a sports column in the San Francisco Chronicle, and one day last week he turned his sights on Latrell Sprewell, the NBA player who choked and beat up his coach. Sprewell is now suing the NBA for $30 million, charging defamation of character, among other things.

Keown thought this was ridiculous and said so in his column. He wanted to compare Sprewell to Jeff Juden, who has the reputation of being another ill-mannered, bad tempered, sometimes violent professional athlete who was very recently in the news for deliberately hitting a batter.

After criticizing Sprewell for "stupidity" and arrogance, Keown penned the following sentence: "What's the name of Sprewell's law firm anyway — Juden, Juden and Juden?"

Ouch!

Due to the Jewish community's strong vigilance, it is my understanding that the phones were ringing so frequently at the Chronicle that the switchboard had a meltdown. And rightly so. For many, myself included, the name Jeff Juden just doesn't mean a thing. As a non-sports fan I am peripherally aware of such names as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Joe Montana. But Jeff Juden? Who he?

As a Jew, however, I understand just enough German to know what the word "Juden" means. Many Jews have read at least one history book on the Holocaust. We learned how the Nazis invented such memorable phrases as Judenrein ("clean of Jews"), or Juden raus! ("Jews out!") or the slogan "Die Juden sind ünser unglück," ("The Jews are our misfortune"). For Holocaust survivors, I'm afraid, no history books are necessary: Their knowledge of German is forever seared into their memories.

The universal initial reaction upon seeing Keown's juxtaposition of the word "Juden" with the phrase "law firm" was: anti-Semite! But, as with much in life, things aren't always what they appear to be.

Realizing his error, Keown wrote an eloquent and heartfelt apology the very next day. He said that "when I heard the first voice mail messages, I felt sick and stupid and speechless." He said that the "double meaning never occurred to me; I was making a reference to a baseball player, nothing more, and when I typed his name I thought no more of it than I would have had his name been Jones or Johnson."

Keown spoke of Ken Colvin, a prominent member of our community, whose reaction apparently left a strong impression on Keown. He related Colvin's experience as a 19 year-old GI who "spent four months liberating concentration camps" where he saw "the words Juden frei [`free of Jews'] written on signs and walls everywhere." Keown continued, "Understandably he was furious yesterday morning. To him, I didn't make a simple mistake. I used a word that brought forth visions and attitudes that represent the worst humanity has to offer."

In his conclusion, Keown wrote that for anyone whose lives "were affected in any way by such atrocities, the Holocaust is not something that happened 50 years ago. To them it's still there today, and every day, in their minds and thoughts and actions. And sometimes a single word can bring it all back."

These are true and honest words, the words of a contrite individual who never intended to hurt Holocaust survivors, or anybody in the Jewish community. These are the words of a real mensch, all the more so as they are coming from the pen of practitioner of a profession which has made cynicism a fine art. I offer my personal kudos and thanks to Keown for doing something he wasn't under any obligation to do.

What is the moral of this episode? While the sports page is probably the last place one would expect to find a lesson on the Holocaust, nonetheless it appears to be a lesson well learned.