Ryan Bellerose is a Metis indigenous rights activist from Paddle Prairie, Alberta. Now living in Calgary, he founded both a native rights advocacy group and an Israeli advocacy group. An ardent Zionist, Ryan is a steadfast friend at this challenging time in Jewish history.
Going one step further, last summer Ryan decided to “become” a Jew for a week. He has no plans for actually converting to Judaism since he is happy with his own faith and honestly admits it would be hard for him to give up bacon! Still, in order to understand what life is like for Jewish people today he decided to find out personally.
As a member of the Metis minority group (of Native American and white origin) Ryan and his family already know all too well the ugliness of racism and bigotry.
Ryan maintains it was the reaction to an attack on some of his Jewish friends at a political demonstration that helped him fully grasp anti-Semitism.
“I decided to really understand what Jewish people go through by ‘becoming a Jew.’ Unlike that dude who tanned and took some pills to look black in that movie, I didn’t really have to do anything difficult. All I had to do to incur the hatred and enmity that comes along with being Jewish was put on a hat.
“I didn’t need to speak, walk or act differently, just putting on a hat identified me as a Jew. I wore the same clothes I always wear, spoke the same way, but by putting on a small piece of woolen apparel, I suddenly became despised to the point where it was uncomfortable for me to walk in certain areas in my own city here in Canada. I had a few people threaten me with physical violence but since I’m not a small man I wasn’t concerned. It just made me think about what smaller people must go through, those who don’t have my gifts. Still, while I wore the kippah, I tried not to behave badly. I maintained my generally civil disposition, I still held doors. I didn’t suddenly keep kosher, I wasn’t keeping Shabbat, I just wore the kippah. But to some people, that made me a target for hate. It made me a Jew.
“I was also very aware that during my one week as a Jew, I couldn’t just walk around trying to educate idiots. While wearing a kippah, I was representing the Jewish people, and if I did something that reflected poorly on them, it could make things harder for other Jewish people. So I had to show restraint, something I’m not always able to do. I learned a lot though, and some of it was actually positive.”
Ryan learned to not make assumptions. A couple of times he felt sure he was about to have a very bad experience, but instead was pleasantly surprised. People said “Shalom” to him and on Friday night, several others wished him “Shabbat Shalom.” A taxi driver from Egypt told him, “You Jews are pretty good people, you got a raw deal.” One Arab woman said, “If they gave my country to the Jews, we would all be rich.”
He wishes those had been the norm rather than the exception, but sadly they weren’t.
He reasons that people have become inured to the quiet bigotry that Jews face, probably because they are pale-skinned and often don’t look different than anyone else. He claims, “We have stopped taking it seriously when a Jew says, ‘What you just said makes me uncomfortable.’ Because they look like us, it’s hard to understand they could be targets. When someone is accused of anti-Semitism, it’s almost always a valid accusation. It does exist and is prevalent. The scary thing is most Jews won’t call it out because people accuse them of being over-sensitive. I’m far from sensitive, but if I see racism or bigotry, I will call it out and if someone wants to debate it, I will.”
Though Ryan had an idea of what Jews often endure, he was taken aback by the depth of the antipathy. He knew anti-Semites often drop the Nazi card or make ridiculous comparisons of Jews with Nazis in order to attack Jewish people emotionally. It’s a natural human desire to want to get an emotional reaction out of someone. He told one man if he ever heard him say, “Jews are the new Nazis’ again,” he would ensure that he ate his teeth. The man walked away quickly but Ryan has no doubt that he will say it again, only to a much smaller person.
During his week as a visible Jew, Ryan was exposed to some bizarre reactions. Strangers asked him very personal questions and if they could touch his kippah. He received glares and dirty looks. That made him realize their irrational hatred towards someone they had never spoken to. He wasn’t shocked that people are bigots. Rather, he was shocked at how accepted it seems to be, and even more shocked at the actual depth of it all.
Still, after his experiences, he now believes even more firmly that he is on the right side. He feels that people who make anti-Semitic comments are not misguided or ill informed. “I can’t even say they are ignorant because in this age of information anyone who is ignorant must be willfully so. The only people responsible for Jew hatred are the ones hating, and the people who will end up paying for that hate in the end are one and the same. I believe that, because I believe in a just and fair God.”
Ryan assures his many Jewish friends that they do have allies. “Anyone who shares the common values of freedom, the right to assemble, the right to speak our minds, and equality for everyone, supports you and everything you stand for as a people. Stay strong, stay resolute in the face of persecution and great pressure. You have a great tradition of doing so and persevering against all odds. I know wearing a kippah didn’t actually make me Jewish. In fact, it really hammered home the feeling of alienation and persecution I think Jewish people feel regularly. If anything, it made me homesick for Israel and for my own home. The former, a place that is not my home, but where I felt real tangible joy at seeing Jewish people living comfortably in a state of their own with no apologies, and my home, because sometimes I just want to hide from the world and the town of Paddle Prairie is a good place to do that.”
When Ryan was a child, his father used to tell him, “Only a moron sits and complains about the dark; a smart person lights a lamp.”
Ryan, taking his father’s message to heart, has already lit several “lamps” to illuminate the darkness of today’s world. He explains that it’s easy to grow tired and disillusioned, as we constantly see things that make us question, that make us wonder why we bother. “But all it takes is for one person to speak up to reaffirm our faith. Because I know what it’s like to be looked down on, to be considered something less because of my blood. We need to stand up for the truth even when it’s uncomfortable. Things may not be where we would like them to be, but the knowledge that we are not alone, that we have friends and allies, often makes this much easier to take. Just remember every avalanche starts with one snowflake.”