Anti-Semitism in Johnson County is not the norm

04/19/2014 5:00 PM

05/21/2014 2:38 PM

Is it possible that Johnson County — specifically, Overland Park — has had its day of infamy, one that may tarnish the community’s reputation?

Overland Park’s notoriety, for some time, could be for anti-Semitic killings. For more than a week, it received intense international attention.

The murder spree that left three dead, as a man gone berserk thought he was mowing down Jews, has given Overland Park recognition for prejudice and violence, when that is the complete opposite of what Johnson County has stood for.

I have experienced its tolerance.

When my family moved to Johnson County in 1947, we were the first Jewish family in Prairie Village and one of the first Jewish families anywhere in Johnson County. My sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school.

But we both would attest that we did not grow up feeling different, nor did we ever feel like victims of prejudice in a community of gentiles.

Quite the contrary. It was a welcoming community, and if there was anti-Semitism, it certainly was well hidden from us. Maybe we lived in a bubble. But if it was, it was a wonderful experience. We were the children of innocence.

The Jewish children of Johnson County today will never know such innocence. They have lived through something so traumatic it may change their view of the world.

Certainly, a child does not have to be Jewish to always remember the gut-wrenching events that occurred last Sunday.

A 14-year-old boy was murdered, along with his grandfather, as well as a woman visiting her mother at a retirement home.

For Jewish children in particular, there is the additional trauma of knowing that the victims were targeted precisely for being thought to be Jewish. It’s an existential threat Jews in this area have read about but probably never before experienced first-hand.

And the question is: If one man hates Jews enough to murder, how many others out there feel the same way?

Suddenly, to be Jewish in Johnson County means something entirely different than it did a week ago last Saturday, the day before hell came.

No one knows for certain how many anti-Semites there are in America.

A 2013 survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that 12 percent of Americans harbor deeply entrenched anti-Semitic attitudes. That means tens of millions of Americans claim to hate Jews.

That’s not to infer that 12 percent of Americans would sympathize with the killer. What it does say is that one obsessed man from southwest Missouri has reignited questions about the reach of anti-Semitism.

He has particularly defined for the Jewish children a new way of thinking about themselves in a gentile world. And it may never be the same pretty world as it was.

How this tragedy came to happen in Johnson County, of all places, is tragically ironic.

Anti-Semitism, in its most virulent form, could not have erupted in a more unlikely place.

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