When I was growing up in Gainesville, Florida, the Klan was still a force. Now a pastor wants to burn the Qur’an, what’s changed?
The tall pines of my childhood tower behind him and I was shocked to see those two images together. From my apartment in Tel Aviv, I searched the edges of the photo for something else familiar, something that would soothe me.
Where is my hometown? I thought. This is not the Gainesville I grew up in.
Gainesville is quintessential America. It’s swimming pools and popsicles. It’s kids scooting about on bikes on lazy summer days. It’s Norman Rockwell America.
It’s also Tom Petty’s hometown, the place that gave rise to his famous song “American Girl”. If I’ve had a bit too much to drink and I sing along, I find a southern accent I never knew I had. And if a Jewish girl can discover a southern accent for herself in Gainesville, anyone can find a home there. Right?
Then I remember.
When I was a child, some of my evangelical Christian classmates urged me to convert. Because I was Jewish and didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and saviour, they told me, I was going to hell.
When I was a teenager, I had a close friend whose father was in the Ku Klux Klan. For years, I hid my ethnic and cultural background from the family. Shame began to seep into me and I learned to hide my roots from everyone.
The summer after 11th grade, we were home alone, watching a movie with an African American friend of ours. The gravel in the driveway rumbled under a car’s tires – it was my other friend’s father, the Klansman, arriving unexpectedly. Our black friend hid in a closet. He climbed him out the window later and I met him down the road, tucked him into my car, and drove him home.
My last year of high school, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in a local park that happened to be less than a mile from my house. As I left to go for a run, my mom warned me to steer clear of the park. Just in case.
An obedient daughter, I respected her wishes. When I heard later that counter-protesters outnumbered the KKK, I felt a thrill in my chest. This is my hometown.
I felt the same this morning when I read that the city of Gainesville had rejected Jones’s request for permission to build a bonfire. While the city denied that the decision had anything to do with Jones’s intention to burn sacred books, Gainesville’s mayor, Craig Lowe, voiced his discomfort with Jones’s ideology.
So, which is my hometown? And which is America?
Gainesville’s struggle is a mirror for the country. And so are my memories. In the past, there was antisemitism, roiling just below the surface. Now, there is Islamophobia. If Terry Jones burns copies of the Qur’an in Gainesville, he’ll leave a shameful scorch on us all.