One weekend in the fall of 2011, while walking up my driveway to take in the mail, I received a text from an unknown number. With invectives, pungent curses and racial epithets, somebody wrote that he wanted my family and me to burn in ovens. A slew of equally offensive texts and voicemails followed, detailing how the Jewish people were subhuman. And it got worse, much worse.
My first thought was how could someone I know write something so provocative, cruel and threatening? You see, I live in a small city in the North Bay where there isn’t a huge Jewish population: Napa, Wine Country, playground of the rich. It was likely that the texter was somebody I knew.
Before I told my parents, I responded quickly by text and asked who was texting me. Naturally, the texter did not own up or apologize. When I got back inside, I showed the text to my dad. His face turned red with anger, and he immediately grabbed the phone, announcing that he was contacting the police. At the time, I thought he was overreacting. After all, they were just words. But that was before I heard about the voicemails left on my phone after it was out of my possession. While the texts were horrible, the voicemails shook me to my core. Different voices, possibly two or three teen boys using a stereotypical Arab accent, threatened my life, my family, even sexual assault.
That night, my dad talked on the phone with the district attorney. My mom and I spent hours on Facebook trying to figure out who had sent the texts. We thought that the “perp,” as we called him, may have been a boy who had tormented me in elementary school. He had shouted insults my way as I passed by him at school a few days earlier, and his Facebook page had racist and anti-Semitic content. But when he was questioned at school, he denied sending the texts and his cellphone number did not match the perp’s. It seemed that we had hit a dead end.
Surprisingly, the cellphone number was traced to a completely different source: a wine business executive, affluent and “up valley,” as we say around here. His son attended a local private high school, and the police discovered that the son and two classmates were responsible for the texts and voicemails. They had apparently sent the texts to punish me for reneging on attending an airsoft war because of family responsibilities, but it clearly went beyond that, venturing into a dark area of hate, bigotry and prejudice. They regarded the messages and voicemails as a “joke” or “prank,” even a fun “rap,” but there was nothing funny about what they did.
Perhaps these kids believed they would never be caught, but in today’s digital world, nothing is truly anonymous. After a high-pressure interview with a local detective, the three boys admitted to participating in the texts and voicemails.
A few weeks later, with some influence from my parents, the private school called a meeting with the boys, the parents of everyone involved and me. The students involved were very apologetic, saying again and again that they were not anti-Semitic, that they meant it only as a joke (which they later realized wasn’t funny).
The parents seemed deeply ashamed of and surprised at their children, insisting that they were all polite and never racist. But it became apparent to me that this was far more than a joke that went too far. The boys’ actions speak for many, and their racial epithets arose from somewhere, from history, from the memories and stories that we have all inherited.
We live in a culture in which prejudices and stereotypes are a part of everyday life, and we experience them so that we often forget how offensive they can be. My personal experience of this was a shock. For the first time, I realized that anti-Semitism and racial profiling exist right here in my hometown of Napa.
Fifty years have passed since the Civil Rights Act was passed, and many Americans think these biases no longer exist. After all, we elected an African American president, didn’t we? But we do not live in a post-discriminatory world. We still live in a world where we make prejudicial comments about other groups, and if no one from that group is present, we often say or do nothing in response.
This needs to change. I certainly do not believe that I can rid the world of all racism and prejudice, but I can help to promote tolerance in my community, shedding light on the prejudices and stereotypes about other social, religious and ethnic groups that persist in all of us.
Immediately after the event occurred, my family and I contacted the San Francisco office of the Anti-Defamation League, which held a meeting at our synagogue to discuss cyberbullying and anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, the boys’ cases went through the juvenile justice system, and we agreed to drop charges if they would do peer court volunteer community service. The following year, the boys’ school put on a play about the Holocaust.
Although I am grateful for what was accomplished, I remain deeply concerned. Racism is still playing out. Just this month, the NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life for his blatantly offensive and racist remarks.
I hope this article will serve as a lesson for some, and maybe an inspiration for others, to fight against racism and anti-Semitism. I created the Tolerance Club at my high school to combat hateful speech of all types, including texting and social media. It is my hope that we can begin to have open discussions regarding the prejudices ingrained in all of us, and think of solutions to the social and racial tensions in our community.
Jonah Eisenberg lives in Napa and is a junior at Napa High School. He is eager to connect with people who have had similar experiences and want to do something about it. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.