Context and Subtext

 There are days when, after reading an article or listening to the radio or watching TV, I stop and wonder: where am I? It’s like I’m living the lyrics from the Talking Heads’ fabulous song, “Same as it Ever Was”:

And you may ask yourself
what is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

When the video of the high school boys from a Covington, KY Catholic school went viral last week, I admit to being utterly horrified. Here was a group of mostly white high school boys standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, who were sent — on a school field trip! – to join in protesting a woman’s right to choose the destiny and the sanctity of her own body. As they waited for the buses to pick them up, decked out in freshly purchased MAGA hats, they began to harass an older Native American man, named Nathan Phillips, who was chanting a traditional song and playing a Native hand drum.

The video focuses on a boy named Nick Sandmann, who stands very close to the tribal elder, smirking the classic smirk known to all who work with or live with adolescents. It is a look of condescension and derision. His classmates, who are mocking the tribal elder by jeering and crassly imitating Native American dances, back him up. 

Watching that video was a profoundly disturbing experience. It reminded me of an infamous photo from Nazi-occupied Poland. A group of young SS officers have surrounded a religious Jew and are cutting his beard off. They are laughing, having a great time exercising their unbridled cruelty and animus at the expense of this poor man. The one who is closest, inches away from his face is smirking; it’s the same smirk. It’s the same message: “You are nothing. I am superior. You will not replace us.” 

I was filled with revulsion and disgust watching this display of hatred. Is this my country? Is this what passes for appropriate conduct? I know deep in my heart that our Midrasha high school students would never engage in this kind of debasing behavior. And I pray that they are never on the receiving end of it. 

As a few days went by, the story got much more complicated. Nick Sandmann’s parents hired a pr firm that specializes in crisis management. They produced a longer video that shows these same kids being harassed previous to the encounter with Phillips, by a group of Hebrew Israelites (who are neither…), who are essentially like Westboro Church, committed to extreme provocation to make a point of their chosenness. 

Some people have suggested that the full context of the day is crucial in order to gain a true understanding of events. They say that these boys are being singled out and vilified for behavior that they did not even engage in. If you had been there, some say, you would have seen that the boys were being actively heckled by the Hebrew Israelites and that their seemingly over the top, hyped up behavior was a response to that. Some also say that Mr. Phillips moved towards the boys and that some of them may have felt intimidated. Of course, context is essential, and so many stories that we see and read on social media are shaped to provoke us, and not inform us.

I watched the hour-long video to gain a sense of context, and I can say that the general scene at the Lincoln Memorial was utter bedlam. Adolescents and chaos are not a good combination, and so I think my initial disgust and my association with the Covington boys and Hitler Youth may have been a bit of an over-reaction. 

But if we acknowledge the importance of context, how can we not see a Native American man being disrespected? How can we not acknowledge that the tomahawk gestures, along with the mocking of the Indian chant, were ignorant and crude behavior? We can empathize with Nathan Phillips and the fear he experienced that day. Looking at Nick Sandmann’s face as well as the faces of some of his classmates watching Sandmann smirking and blocking Phillip’s attempt to pass, gives me valuable context. Like many, I have attenuated my initial outrage; however, it is still a sad display of just how far we are from MLK’s dream. 

Where am I? Waiting for justice. Working for justice. Teaching about justice. God, give us all the courage to stand with those who are disenfranchised, to remember that the message of Passover is an everyday, year-round obligation: none of us are free when someone is still treated with scorn and derision.

 Shabbat Shalom 


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