Creative Destruction

July 7, 2006

Othering and Centering (Jewish Family Driven Out Of Town By Christians)

Filed under: Current Events — Ampersand @ 12:24 pm

Yeesh. Fearing for their safety and their ability to lead an unharassed life, a Jewish family has fled a town in Delaware. From Jews On

The complaint recounts that the raucous crowd applauded the board’s opening prayer and then, when sixth-grader Alexander Dobrich stood up to read a statement, yelled at him: “take your yarmulke off!” His statement, read by Samantha, confided “I feel bad when kids in my class call me Jew boy.”

A state representative spoke in support of prayer and warned board members that “the people” would replace them if they faltered on the issue. Other representatives spoke against separating “god and state.”

A former board member suggested that Mona Dobrich might “disappear” like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist whose Supreme Court case resulted in ending organized school prayer. O’Hair disappeared in 1995 and her dismembered body was found six years later.

The crowd booed an ACLU speaker and told her to “go back up north.”

In the days after the meeting the community poured venom on the Dobriches. Callers to the local radio station said the family they should convert or leave the area. Someone called them and said the Ku Klux Klan was nearby.

Gosh, why would any Jew decide to move out of a swell town like that?

Jesus’ General contacted the folks at the Stop The ACLU Coalition, who had encouraged harassment of the Dobriches (they even posted the Dobriches’ home address and phone number on their website). The director of Stop The ACLU responded:

Pogrom? I’m not sure I want to call it that. That is not an appropriate term, however, I am pleased that we had an effect in this case.

Bitch PhD
worries, justifiably, that blogging something like this is pointless:

…My first thought was, “blog this.” And then I thought, “what for? The only possible reaction is “those people suck,” and it’s one of those atypical weird cases that, if anything, surely demonstrates that the country as a whole doesn’t think that way.”

I think Bitch has a point; but at the same time, I think this case is an interesting illustration of the dynamic between centering and othering. The anti-semitic bigotry which so many Christians in the Indian River School District began not with “Othering” – that is, with singling out Jews for treatment as deviants – but with “Centering” – organizing their town’s institutions to center on the assumption that being Christian is the default.

So, for instance, school vacations are called “Easter Vacation” and “Christmas Vacation,” rather than being called spring and winter breaks. School facilities were used for Bible Club, and Bible Club members were given special privileges (such as skipping to the head of the line in the school cafeteria). School board meetings and graduation ceremonies begin with invited ministers leading a prayer to Jesus.

None of the above acts are implicitly anti-Jewish, and all of them are things that many Christians might well decide to do even if there were no Jews (or any other non-Christians) around to discriminate against. These policies and acts reflect a belief that being Christian is a default state. And some of these policies I approve of; for instance, schools should give Good Friday off, because that’s a reasonable accommodation. Bible Clubs shouldn’t be given favorable treatment compared to other clubs, but I think schools should facilitate them (by letting them use classrooms) just like they should facilitate chess club.

Centering is harmful to minorities not only in material ways, but also because of the message sent that minorities are not part of society. For instance, when Christians are given their holidays off, but classes are scheduled on major Jewish holidays, that obviously gives a material advantage to Christian students. But it also sends a message to the Jewish students that they aren’t full members of society the way Christians are. Centering sends the message that Christians are the default citizen; Jews are some sort of weird exception to the norm.

Othering refers to acts and policies which directly position Jews as deviants. From Jews On First:

Among numerous specific examples in the complaint was what happened at plaintiff Samantha Dobrich’s graduation in 2004 from the district’s high school. She was the only Jewish student in her graduating class. The complaint relates that local pastor, Jerry Fike, in his invocation, followed requests for “our heavenly Father’s” guidance for the graduates with:

I also pray for one specific student, that You be with her and guide her in the path that You have for her. And we ask all these things in Jesus’ name.

Samantha Dobrich was thus “othered” at her own graduation ceremony – and by a pastor who, I have no doubt, is convinced that he acted only out of love and a concern for Samantha’s best interests. But the Dobrich kids also felt less “benevolent” kinds of Othering, such as schoolmates labeling them “Christ Killers.”

What’s important to understand is that Centering and Othering are not opposites or flip sides of a coin. They are manifestations of the same problem, different in degree but not in kind.

Some people may disagree; they will say these two acts are vastly different, not just in degree but in kind. That’s true if we frame the comparison between calling someone a “Christ Killer” and a prayer at a School Board meeting by saying “was this a hateful act? Was the person acting out of bigotry and a desire to hurt Jews?” Clearly, someone yelling “Christ Killer” is acting out of hate for Jews, but a Paster leading a prayer to Jesus at a school board meeting may be acting with total indifference to how his (or her) act affects Jews.

But I think that framing – asking “what did the Christian mean? Were the Christian’s motives bad?” – is needlessly Christian-centered. We can come to different conclusions if we frame this in a more Jewish-centered way: Instead of fretting about the inner moral state of Christians, let’s ask how does this action harm Jews? While the Othering action (calling Jews Christ-killers) is more extreme and hateful, that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. Both Centering and Othering have the same effect, which is to make Jews feel less like citizens, less like equals, more like freaks.

Christian Statue of LibertyI think it’s important to understand that Centering leads fairly naturally to Othering. The Christians of the Indian River School District don’t view themselves as anti-Semites aggressively chasing deviant Jews out of their nice Christian town (although that is what many of them in fact are). Many view themselves as victims of aggression; the ACLU, along with one local Jewish family, is attacking their right to live Christian lives. It is because these folks think their entitlement to worship is under attack that many of them have escalated their acts of Othering to such an extreme level.

But where does that sense of entitlement come from? It is only because of Centering that many Christians have confused their right to practice their religion with being entitled to have a Christian Paster open public meetings and ceremonies; only because of Centering that many Christians consider themselves entitled to take time off from class for Bible study, or to proselytize Christianity in the classroom. If society hadn’t taught them that they are the norm and others are deviants from the norm, then they wouldn’t feel so entitled to have every aspect of public life kow-tow to their religious beliefs.

Bitch PhD wrote that “the country as a whole doesn’t think that way.” But I think much of the country does think that way, if we can take “that way” to mean Centering Christians and Othering Jews; it’s just that the Indian River School District takes it to an uncomfortable extreme. The same kind of Centering is going on throughout the country, whether it’s the unwritten but ironclad law that says all serious Presidential candidates must publicly declare their allegiance to Christianity, or the assumption that if someone says “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas” that means Christmas is under attack, to “one nation under God” and “in God we trust.”

* * *

Note: Throughout this post I’ve mapped Othering and Centering onto Christians as Center, Jews as Other. But of course, the same basic mechanism operates in many other ways. Men are Centered, women are Othered. Whites are Centered, non-whites Othered. “Masculine” men are Centered, non-“masculine” men are Othered. Slender people are Centered, fat people are Othered. The ablebodied are Centered, the disabled are Othered. Cisgendered are Centered, Transgendered are Othered. And so on.

UPDATE: Also on this topic, I recommend this post at Even the Devils Believe.


  1. The “Christian nation” hangup, is alas, widespread, especially in the South and rural America, where there is often not just a Christian majority, but an evangelical one.

    Comment by ohwilleke — July 7, 2006 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve been an “other” all my life in a variety of respects, but I’ve rarely been singled out for the sorts of venomous nonsense described in this post. Centering and othering may not be all that different at root, but when the focus of discrimination is directed at you, the difference is, I believe, quite obvious to the subject of that focus.

    Comment by Brutus — July 8, 2006 @ 9:47 am | Reply

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