I would like to have lunch at Grandpa's Kitchen, a convenience store and deli on East 55th and Chester. But despite its warm and fuzzy name, I fear that I would not be entirely welcome there. I say this because of the huge mural on the side of the building that depicts Jews as monkeys wearing yarmulkes. The owner, a Mr. Brahim "Abe" Ayad, has made it pretty clear that he is none too fond of people of my faith. He has his reasons, many of them involving his father, a Palestinian who he says was driven from his land to make way for the state of Israel. Today, Grandpa's Kitchen is a kind of local landmark, a testament to unmuzzled anti-Semitism. But the fact that this animosity has been allowed to fester publicly is one that I, the grandson of a rabbi, applaud without reservation.
I am drawn to Grandpa's Kitchen because it is contested ground between those who argue that they have a right to be rid of such venomous expression and those who say it is a vital exercise of free speech. It is a debate being carried on not only on this seedy Cleveland corner but also by the Supreme Court, which last week heard arguments on whether cross burning should be considered protected free speech.
Even Harvard Law School, where generations of students have been trained to defend the First Amendment, is now weighing a speech code targeted at the lexicon of hate. In this it is hardly alone. Corporations, clubs, elementary schools and universities have convinced themselves that the enlightened thing to do is to declare that "Hate speech is not free speech," to quote Robert A. Corrigan, the president of San Francisco State University.
I believe they are not only wrong but dangerously wrong. Any effort to stifle hate speech is a betrayal of democratic values -- the very ones that ultimately protect diversity and dissent. It seems to me that unfettered speech is to bigotry what a vaccine is to smallpox.
I understand the emotional appeal of speech codes, and I well know how noxious and hurtful words can be. As a Jew growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, I was branded a "shylock" and a "kike." I was threatened and, on occasion, beaten. In junior high, two classmates stabbed me with a pencil, and four decades later, two graphite points are still plainly visible in my left hand. That helped clarify for me the difference between speech and action, or the "sticks and stones" rule of the playground. Today my sons, adopted from South Korea, also know that words can be ugly. I listen in pained silence as they tell me of classmates who taunt them by pinching the corners of their own eyes or call them "chinks." Over a soda, I tell my son who gets off the yellow school bus with a black eye that I understand, even if I can't explain what fuels his tormenters.
But as a journalist and as an American, I feel a curious, almost perverse, sense of pride that Grandpa's Kitchen, with its notorious mural, could find a secure place in this city of immigrants and minorities. Beyond that, I have a feeling that Abe (as I have begun to think of him) may have something to teach me and that I owe him -- no, I owe myself -- a visit. And so I call him at the deli, identify myself as both a journalist and a Jew, and ask if his door is open to me. "I'm open to all good people," he says with such warmth that I am left almost speechless. "Thanks," I hear myself say. "Look forward to meeting you." (Did I really say that?) "All right, brother," he says. Brother?
On a scrap of paper, I jot down -- "Monday/Lunch/Grandpa's Kitchen" -- as if I might forget.
The first thing I see as I pull up to the deli is the mural, a pastiche of offensive images and accusations. One depicts a Jewish conspiracy in control of American network television. Another shows Jesus Christ in agony on the cross. Just inside the door, a news article is tacked to the wall: "Tel Aviv Mayor Seeks Help in Cleveland." Above it is written "Proof Implicating Jews." Am I not now in hostile territory?
I have a pretty good idea of what Abe will be like -- crude, mean-spirited, not too smart. But the man well-known for the past several years for his offensive murals approaches me in a white apron and extends a huge hand. He is courtly, soft-spoken and oddly vulnerable. He offers me a cup of coffee and puts a fresh pot on to brew. At 36, he is a big man, 6-foot-1, 250 pounds. His eyes are hidden behind gold-rimmed sunglasses. He seems as curious about me as I am about him. There are no tables or chairs, only a takeout counter, so he stacks plastic milk crates in the aisle should we want to sit.
I had expected someone consumed with hate and at first he confirms my stereotype. He hands me a book entitled "The Ugly Truth About the ADL [Anti- Defamation League]." He calls 9/11 a Jewish conspiracy and produces a poster depicting Israeli leaders astride missiles labeled "Nuke" and "Chemical." Their target is spelled out: "Islam World or Bust."
But if he is a bigot he is most selective. A moment earlier, the poster was hidden behind a painting celebrating Black History Month, a work done at his expense and featuring Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson and others. Elsewhere are certificates recording his contributions to a Baptist church (he is a Muslim), to George Washington Carver Elementary and to an organization for foster children. Maybe, I tell myself, he's just a shrewd businessman ingratiating himself with the African American community. But he seems so earnest. Most of his patrons are black, and he greets them with a hug and calls them "Brother."
His menu also reflects a certain ecumenicalism: gyros, Polish Boy sausages, catfish and okra, and a Reuben (What Jewish deli would be without?).
I have come to find out who Abe is and what he wants. The answer to each is the same. He is the son of a Palestinian who immigrated to the United States in 1926 and whose service to the U.S. Army in World War II left him disabled, he says.
Abe was born in Dearborn, Mich. At 6, he and his family moved back to the West Bank. At 8, he says, he was on his way to school when an Israeli soldier shot him with a rubber bullet. At my request, he rolls up his pant leg to show me the dime-sized scar on his knee. He says he was also shot in the rump. We both laugh as he declines to proffer the evidence. That same day, he says, two of his friends were shot dead.
"How do you like your coffee?" he asks.
What is it, I ask him, that he hopes to accomplish with his attacks on Jews? "It should be perceived as a plea for help," he says. "I'm not going to hurt anybody. That is not even an option." He adds, "I just want to vent my frustrations and my disappointments. How else could I get their attention?" And then there is his quixotic effort to win back lands he says were his father's and are his rightful inheritance, land on which, he says, there are now Jewish settlements and factories. "ALL I WANT IS MY LAND" is painted on the mural. "I just want justice. I can't ask for revenge -- that's God's. I'm just trying to break the cycle of hate that's been consuming us."
But how can he expect to promote understanding while using words of hate? How misguided, I think. He is also critical of the Palestinian government and suicide bombers. "We're at fault just as much because we're targeting innocent people," he says. Hurting anyone is "the last thing I'm trying to do."
He is a father of eight. I ask him what lessons he teaches his children. "I tell them to stand up for what's right. Don't let anybody step on anybody and don't step on anybody. You don't have to be afraid of anybody. Not here. Never here." Not so different from what I tell my own sons.
The landscape of my youth had no such murals of intolerance. Instead, prejudice was hidden behind disingenuous smiles and behind the manicured hedges of off-limits country clubs and the ivied walls of universities with secret quotas. As a boy in Canton, Ohio, I remember my family fantasized about living beside a lake on the edge of town, but we knew it was closed to "our kind." The word that was used, if it was uttered at all, was "restricted." How antiseptic.
The year Abe was born, I was attending a Midwest boarding school where I suffered overt anti-Semitism from some of my classmates. But I also suspected that the school itself was complicit. I felt unwelcome and inadequate. For years, I wondered whether I was just paranoid. Then, two decades after graduation, I was invited to return as a "distinguished" guest-lecturer. That was when I got a glimpse of my student file. There, on the outside jacket, was a Star of David and a tiny notation that suggested that perhaps in the future, local fathers might screen out such applicants.
The note didn't upset me as much as it brought a sense of relief that my suspicions were being confirmed. If only I and others of my generation had had the opportunity to confront the authors of such notes. If only they had spoken their objections and aired their biases publicly. Why in the world would we now, in the name of speech codes, want to drive them back into the safety of their secret lairs?
Speech codes threaten to take us back to the old days when prejudice was vented only in whispers between like minds. My own history has convinced me that a silenced bigot can do far more mischief than one who airs his hatred publicly.
From my parents I learned the difference between the acute sting of an ethnic slur and the anguish of a polite cold shoulder. Years ago, a clerk at a fashionable Virginia Beach hotel discreetly asked my parents about our family name, then turned them away into the night. They were on their honeymoon. That was 1947, the year the movie "Gentleman's Agreement" captured the silent complicity upon which anti-Semitism -- indeed all bigotry -- depends. The other evening I lent the film to an African American neighbor. He returned it the next morning shaking his head and told me about his own experience. Working through a team of lawyers, only weeks before he had been close to buying a company. Then the owners discovered he was black. The price tripled. The deal fell through. Nothing uncivil was ever said, but it seldom is. That's why I defend Abe's right to express his hostilities. I see it as my own best defense.
Don't get me wrong. The murals make me cringe, but I much prefer that his feelings be out in the open. They tell me where I stand with Abe. They also invite the possibility, however slim, that we might find some sliver of common ground, that confrontation could lead to conciliation.
Even the most reviled of hate symbols, the burning cross and the swastika, are just that -- emblems of unspeakable evil. But their sporadic resurfacing has produced not waves of terror but waves of public revulsion, not Kristallnachts and lynchings but community rallies against racism. Hate speech need not be a precursor to violence. On the contrary, it can defuse tensions that could turn explosive. Hate speech can discredit nascent movements that might otherwise draw strength from authoritarian efforts to snuff them out. Intimidation invites intimidation.
Speech codes empower the impotent. I wince when I hear raw ethnic, racial and sexual slurs. But even worse is the notion that people who think that way could move about among us, unknown and unchallenged. "You can't cure it if you can't hear it," my mother says. She's right. Bigotry is an affliction not of the mouth but of the mind.
And while free speech often causes pain, it also holds out the only real promise of progress. In the end, like it or not, hate speech is the very essence of free speech and its airing is and always has been a potent self-corrective. This is what Abe may be able to teach Harvard Law.
I have no illusion that my visit with Abe changed his mind about Jews or put out years of smoldering resentment, but it did open a dialogue and, humble as that may be, it is a start. Not long before, a local columnist, Regina Brett, did something similar by suggesting a new use for a billboard next to Grandpa's Kitchen. Today, in red letters two feet high it declares: "The Hate Stops Here." It may be an opening salvo. The feelings Abe has stirred have triggered something larger -- a community campaign against bigotry.
I ask him what he thinks of the sign, expecting him to denounce it. " 'The Hate Stops Here.' I hope it does." He adds proudly, "That's my sign. That's my message. I mean look at what one man can do -- me." Once more he's left me speechless. "Let's make sure the hate stops here," he says, "and not just sweep it under the rug. Let's resolve it like human beings."
Well, maybe the hate doesn't quite stop here -- not yet anyway, but maybe someday.