Opinion

It Was a Beautiful Saturday Morning, Save for the Swastikas

It was red, white, and blue, sloppy but unmistakable, disfiguring the trees flanking the kids' playground. 'You should report it,' my husband urged. 'I can’t,' I said. 'I can’t deal with it.'

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, save for the swastikas
Mya Guarnieri Jaradat

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, save for the swastikas.

I’d taken my 16 month-old son to the park, leaving my husband and three-year-old daughter napping at home. It was one of those crisp, clear days, the sky a vaulted cathedral soaring blue. The park is tiny, just a slide and a balance beam, tucked between the rows of identical townhouses in our mile-wide development. 

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As I parked my black double jogger - lighter than usual because my daughter’s side was empty - I noticed some white graffiti on the slide. I took my son out of the stroller, put him on my hip, and walked over to the slide to get a closer look. Some scribblings, nothing important.

I clucked my tongue, tsk tsking whoever had defaced our play space. And then I noticed something on one of the two mahogany trees that flank the park. I drew closer. It was red, white, and blue, sloppy but unmistakable: a swastika.

First, denial: Maybe, I thought, they were trying to make an Indian swastika.

But on the other tree, the hand had held steady, and there was no attempt to dress the symbol up in red white and blue. It was just red - urgent, a warning - the lines and the message clear and strong: a swastika.

I put my son down.

I was immediately glad my daughter wasn’t with me. I didn’t want her to see this. I wasn’t ready to answer her questions. I wouldn’t want to lie to her about what was spraypainted on the trees but I also don’t know how to explain any of this to her. She’s three.

I’ve never liked these cookie-cutter developments because they’re boring and artificial and lack character. But now - as I looked around at the brown fences guarding the concrete patios, as I looked at the beige doors and the sloping brown roofs and the tiny balconies outside of second floor sliding glass doors - all the sameness seemed menacing.

Who were the people hiding behind all these identical doors, behind this manufactured façade of normality? Which one of my neighbors did this? Someone I’ve smiled at? Someone I’ve spoken to? Someone whose children have played with mine?

And then I couldn’t help but wonder: Are these for me? Are these for us?

A worker removing a spray-painted swastika on the gate of the Jewish Passaic Junction Cemetery in Saddle Brook, New Jersey.
AP

I looked at the townhouse next to me, considered the family whose gate opens directly to the park. A young Latin family, with a son the same age as my daughter. They’ve played together. One evening here, as the sun was setting and the air was turning cold and my daughter was reluctant to leave, I told her, "Yalla, zaznu." That’s when she knows that it’s really time to go. And that’s when she moves.

Did they hear me? I wondered. Did they realize it was Hebrew? Are they secret anti-Semites? Surely it couldn’t be a Hispanic person - another minority - who did this. It had to be some white folk. Right?

I felt dizzy.

My son, oblivious to the swastikas and my inner turmoil, had grabbed on to the ladder and was making his way to the top of the slide. I hurried over to help him to keep him safe. Behind the slide, facing the ladder, the trees disappeared for a moment and I could pretend it was just an ordinary day. We were just at the park.

We reached the top of the ladder. As I sat my son down in my lap - him squawking because he wanted to go down the slide alone - I looked at the top of the trees. The leaves were green and the sky was blue and everything was fine.

And then we slid down and the trunks and swastikas were before us again.

Can I keep him safe here? I wondered.

How could this have happened here, in South Florida? In 2019? I wouldn’t be surprised to see this sort of thing in North Florida, where I grew up. When I was in high school, the father of one of my best friends was in the KKK; in 2013, when I was spending the week in Abu Dis and my weekends in Jerusalem, KKK flyers popped up in my hometown, Gainesville.

An hour east of Gainesville, in Jacksonville, in 2017 more KKK flyers surfaced. They threatened violence against African Americans "caught making eyes" at white women, warning the men that they "will be beaten with bats." The fliers also included crude drawings of Jews, replete with large, hook noses; below the faces a statement: "He who fights the Jew fights the devil. He who conquers the devil conquers heaven."

Members of the National Socialist Movement hold a swastika burning after a rally in Draketown, Georgia, on April 21, 2018.
SPENCER PLATT/AFP

These events are upsetting to me but unsurprising  - North Florida is the Deep South. But, here, in Palm Beach County, which is almost half African-American and Hispanic? Or was that, davka, why it had happened here? Because there are so many minorities, the white nationalists feel a need to show their presence? To send us all a reminder?

I try to keep Shabbat in my own loose way - no computers and as little phone as possible on Saturdays - but I took my phone out of the stroller and snapped some pictures.

I should call the police, I thought. I should report this.

But I didn’t. I went home instead.

When I got home, I took my son out of the stroller, folded it up, brought it inside. I picked him up, went upstairs, and woke up my husband. I saw swastikas at the park this morning. It was on the tip of my tongue, pressing against the back of my teeth. But I didn’t tell Mohamed.

My parents came to town that afternoon - we would have a birthday party for my daughter the following day, on Sunday afternoon - and I didn’t tell them either. I saw swastikas at the park this morning. The words pushed on the back of my teeth all day. I clenched my jaw.

It took me three days to tell my husband. And then all I could say was, "Look," as I handed him the phone.

His eyes widened, his cheeks went slack. He understands that here - in America, in the face of white nationalism - the Jews and Muslims are in this together. "If it hadn’t been you, it would have been us," he’d said as he offered his sympathy when the synagogue in Pittsburgh was attacked.

Now, looking at the pictures of the swastika, he said, "Scary. You should report it."

"I can’t," I said. "I can’t deal with it."

I’ve passed the park since then and I’ve seen the Latin family outside their house. Was it them? I wondered again. But then the father gave me an enthusiastic wave and a smile so broad I could see his teeth all the way from here, from the sidewalk some twenty meters away. I smiled and waved back. I wanted to go over and say hello. I wanted our kids to play together but the swastikas were still there and I won’t be going back to that park until they’re gone.

So we went to another park, a larger one, on the other side of the road. As I stepped through the gate, I felt my jaw tighten, my tongue pushing on the back of my teeth again. I felt myself breathing hard as I scanned the trees. They were clear. For now.

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist, writer, and the author of The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others. She is currently working on a memoir about her time in Bethlehem. Twitter: @myaguarnieri