What Comes After the Paint and Swastikas

By David Erik Nelson

You almost certainly heard about the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids shortly before the election, where “TRUMP” and “MAGA” were spray-painted over the names of the honored dead.

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Maybe these pictures worried you. Maybe they frightened you. Maybe they embarrassed you—because, let’s be honest: it’s shameful to be bullied, to get the “Kick Me!” sign pasted to your back again and again, century after century.  

Or maybe you didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe you’ve grown numb; one more slap in the face at the tail end of four years of unprovoked suckerpunches, it can all sort of blur together. I get that.

I don’t exactly have words for how it made me feel.

I saw these pictures of the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, and I immediately thought back to the swastikas spray-painted on Temple Jacob last winter, way up in the Upper Peninsula town of Hancock. And I thought about the dozens of swastikas and slurs that defaced our local skatepark back in 2017.

(I go to that skatepark a lot. It was hard not to take it personally.)

And I thought about the increase in anti-Jewish hate crimes here in America over the past four years. I thought about the increasingly violent nature of those crimes.

I thought about the bomb threats. And the synagogue shootings. And the stabbings. And the rallies. And the men with guns in the capitol.

And so on.

And I felt hopeless. And I was afraid.

So I emailed the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel, who maintain the cemetery in Grand Rapids that was desecrated on election’s eve. I wrote to voice our support and solidarity, and to ask what they might need to restore the cemetery.

Rabbi David J.B. Krishef replied almost immediately:

“Hi Dave — the cemetery was cleaned by a small group of people who live around the corner and took it upon themselves to clean the stones without even letting us know what they were doing, and a few other people, including one from Ann Arbor, who drove in and decided to wash the paint off. We are grateful for all of the love and support and positive notes we’ve received.” 

It dawned on me that this second half of the story is rarely reported, but often the case:

A lone jackass skulks around smearing his petty foulness in the dark; the whole community—not just Jews, but people from all over the community unwilling to let ugliness linger—return in the light to set things right.

That’s what happened in the cemetery in Grand Rapids. And when I went back and checked, I discovered it’s also what happened at Temple Jacob in Hancock.

And that’s what happened here in Ann Arbor, too; I know, because I saw it: I went to the skatepark the day after it was tagged. The city had already power-washed away the paint. And unknown members of the community at large had come through with colored chalk and, every place where there’d been a symbol of hate, replaced it with a message of welcoming and love:

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What I saw in Ann Arbor was not the exception; it was the rule, even now, in this time of widely reported “unprecedented division and unrest.” And maybe it feels like we’re mired in a time of unprecedented division and unrest because we only report the first half of the story—the smeared paint, the thrown punch, the shots fired—and then move on to the next catastrophe, without checking back to see what comes after the paint and the screaming: a nation of folks ready to take it upon themselves to fix whatever any single angry loner chooses to break.