On December 1, 18-year-old Baruch College student Yasmin Seweid reported that she had been attacked by a group of drunken men who chanted “Donald Trump,” called her a terrorist and tried to rip off her hijab. She further claimed that no one in the crowded subway car where the attack allegedly occurred came to her aid. The very next day, dozens of New Yorkers protested in Grand Central Station, carrying signs reading “Not in our city.”
Two weeks later, Seweid was arrested for filing a false police report and for obstruction. The New York Daily News cited police sources that Seweid admitted to fabricating her story because of troubles at home. NBC News reported that Seweid had been out drinking with friends and missed her curfew; the incident was an invention designed to repel her strict father’s wrath.
Readers of a certain age no doubt recognize this story; it’s Tawana Brawley all over again.
For those who missed it, in 1987, Tawana Brawley, then 15 years old, accused four white men (police officers and a prosecuting attorney) of raping her. After being missing for four days, Brawley was found in a trash bag, covered with racial slurs and detritus. Reverend Al Sharpton was one of her most vocal supporters, leading to tensions between the African-American community (who largely believed Brawley’s story) and the white community (which was more skeptical). In 1988, a grand jury concluded that Brawley had not been the victim of an attack. Her motive for inventing such a story appeared to be avoiding the wrath of her stepfather, who had previously beaten her for running away.
Both cases have something else in common: in all likelihood, neither Brawley nor Seweid expected to be national news or politically polarizing.
I very much doubt that Brawley intended to launch a “black lives” vs. “blue lives” crisis decades before those terms were coined. Similarly, while Ms. Seweid no doubt has strong feelings about our President-elect, I don’t think she was trying to make a political statement or inspire vigils of support. In each case, we have a kid who did a dumb thing. In their efforts to come up with a good excuse to appease angry parents, they concocted stories that were too good.
Seweid could face a year in prison for each charge. Personally, I hope they go easy on her. Tawana Brawley – who now lives under an assumed name – will be paying off a defamation suit for a long, long time. Seweid’s strict parents have already shaved her head for bringing shame on the family and her name will come up in every prospective employer’s Google search for the rest of her life. That’s already a pretty hefty consequence for having a dumb idea with no malice aforethought.
But what about those of us observing these proceedings from a respectable distance? How are we to process future such incidents?
While girls who “cry wolf” may naturally make people skeptical, we must not permit the fact that these two women lied to distract us from the reality that hate crimes do occur. As Jews, we know that fact all too well. Hate crimes against African Americans existed long before Brawley and they continue to exist today. (A black president did not change that.) Brawley’s celebrated case may have distracted from the real thing but the real thing is still out there.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes also exist. Women wearing the hijab in particular endure hate speech every day. Just today, a Muslim friend of mine (who lives in Portland) posted on Facebook, “I’ve been in Phoenix for a total of 5 seconds and someone’s already told me to go home. Do you think they mean to Oregon or nah?” This is not the first time she has faced such hatred simply because she chooses to wear a headscarf. (This, too, happens no matter who is president.) Yasmin Seweid is a blip on the radar; we mustn’t let the fact that she lied make us too skeptical to accept that these things do in fact occur.
We have seen racists and homophobes emboldened by the election. Sometimes, as in this case, it’s a false flag. But the real thing is out there. You know the sunken feeling you get when see a swastika painted on a synagogue? We need to have that same sick feeling in the pit of our stomach when a hate crime targets someone because they’re Muslim. Or black. Or gay. Or anything else.
We may have some significant differences of opinion with our Muslim cousins, particularly in matters involving the Middle East, but when it comes to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the ability to walk our streets without fear, all of us are very much in this together.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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