’m guessing that things were pretty tense at Zachary Tannen’s house during the high holy days this year. I feel sorry for him, but I’m kind of trying not to.
Tennen brought national attention to East Lansing, Michigan in late August of this year by alleging that he was attacked at an off-campus party by Nazi/Klan sympathizers because he was Jewish. The story interested me, particularly, because half of my family is Jewish and because I live about ten city blocks from the scene of the reported crime.
The story was horrific. Tennen arrived at the Emergency Department of a local hospital badly beaten, and told his parents and ELPD officers that he was beaten up and had a staple forced into his gum after individuals raised their hands in a Nazi salute. His jaw was broken. It seemed to be a patent hate crime here in the corn-fed wholesomeness of a Big Ten town, an un-provoked and savage attack on a physically slight and totally innocent boy. I remember the sharp sting of tears in my eyes as I read the stories, imagining my own son injured and alone, and panicky and furious at the idea that Michigan State University was home to some group of virulent anti-Semitic thugs. In the days that followed, the story was all over the internet, and locally there was talk of vigils, Facebook groups and other means of demonstrating support for the boy and his family.
Here’s the thing: it didn’t actually happen. Well, Zachary Tennen was beaten up at a party on August 26th, and his jaw was broken, but the rest of it was fiction. The story started to change a couple of weeks ago, when the County Prosecutor reported that the ELPD had interviewed more than 50 witnesses, none of whom saw anything related to Nazis, Klan sympathizers, or anti-Semitism. I will admit, dear reader, that even then when I heard that particular news, my reflexive reaction was “of course they all denied it!”
It is not paranoia that makes a Jew (or even a half-Jew like me) believe that anti-Semitism is out there. Because I don’t identify myself as ethnically or religiously Jewish, people feel free to say things in front of me ranging from the tired but offensive stuff about Jews being “good with money” to one incredible evening spent with a Holocaust denier. Anti-Semitism is out there, alive and well, and it has been (wisely) instilled in the soul of every Jew I know that if we aren’t vigilant and fierce, it can all happen again.
Sorrow for the sad, brave Jewish boy alone in an Aryan nation ended for me this morning. Today’s “Lansing State Journal” reports that Zachary got himself beaten up because he was pursuing a young woman “whose name was redacted in the police reports,” and that he would not leave her alone when she asked him to do so, or after others warned him to back off. “After the sixth or seventh time, when Tennen reached his arm across her breasts and began rubbing her right thigh, moving his hand toward her crotch, a friend of hers punched him in the face.” Not astonishingly, Tennen’s family has written to the Prosecutor “asking that the matter be dropped,” and acknowledging that “’substantial resources were expended to investigate [the] allegations.’”
Which brings me to the end of Zachary Tennen’s story, and the beginning of my own. My first reaction after reading the real account of the beating was to post the newspaper story on Facebook and add my own editorial comments. I wanted the world to know that my town was not, in fact, a hotbed of Neo-Nazism, and I had a strong feeling that the truth should receive just as much attention as the juicy and dramatic lie had been given. It was, no pun intended, a black eye for my town, our local University and its students to let the fictional account stand in the national imagination just because it was more interesting than the truth.
As I considered posting the story on Facebook, I began to run into problems with the likely reaction to anything I could possibly say about the whole, sad mess. My visceral reaction as a mother was, honestly, to feel terribly sorry for a boy who got himself into such a deep hole of shame that he would concoct such a story. How does a nice Jewish boy, a good student, a regular at campus Hillel events tell his parents that he got beaten up because he was forcing his attentions on a woman at a party and just couldn’t stop?
But what about that woman? If I express sympathy for poor, screwed up Zachary Tennen, am I discounting the fact that some poor girl was being harassed by him, and touched against her wishes? Because the whole “if it were my kid” thing works both ways – if I had a daughter who was treated that way at a party, I would want to hit the guy myself. Honestly, I would probably be grateful to whomever it was that finally decided the only way to dispatch Zachary and his wandering hands was to punch him in the jaw, all other measures having failed. If I had a son who behaved that way towards women I would be hard pressed to blame someone who swung at him to preserve the freedom of an innocent young woman.
Then there’s that whole abusing-hate-crime-legislation-tying-up-the-police-department thing. Crying wolf about a hate crime is like mailing gold ingots to every person and organization who thinks that the “whole hate crime thing” is ridiculous and overblown. It is as abhorrent as a woman lying about a rape or a student falsely accusing an adult of molestation. It’s another brick in the wall of “______ lie about that stuff all the time,” and it undermines the cause of every real victim of a hate crime. Anti-Semitism is real, and how ironic that this Hillel-going Jewish boy should choose to lend credence to every denier by making up lies.
In the end, I just feel angry, ill-used and manipulated. I still feel sorry for the kid because I think his spectacularly poor choices have probably ruined his life. I still want to hit him again for making this town look bad, for refusing to allow young women her freedom, and for abusing legislation meant to protect real, innocent victims of hate crimes. This one’s going to leave a mark.