The elementary school I attended as kid in Brooklyn was located in a "mixed" neighborhood --- which in the early 1940s meant Irish, Italian and Jews. Many of my classmates were first generation Americans - the children of immigrants.
These three groups fought constantly - over what, I'm sure none of us had a clue. But we were pre-teens, and so clueless by definition.
I sort of got used to being called Jewboy and Dirty Jew and Kike and Sheeny. But most of my fellow Jews tried to ignore the slurs. I didn't. Somehow, I learned to defend myself - with my fists. And I got pretty good at it.
This behavior seemed to baffle my Gentile classmates - they just didn't equate Jew with fighter. That confluence didn't really transpire until the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the 1948 Israeli war.
As I grew older, the anti-Semitic smears became a lot more subtle. "Some of my best friends are Jews," mindlessly became the politically correct form of bigotry. It was the time of Gregory Peck and "Gentlemen's Agreement."
What reminded me of this long-ago history was the remark made by a woman who was attending a John McCain townhall-style rally in Minnesota last Friday.
She took the microphone to tell McCain that Obama could not be trusted because he is an "Arab."
The happy part of this episode is that McCain rebuked her, reminding some of us about the man John McCain perhaps used to be. He said, "No, ma'am, he's a decent family man, a citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about. He's not [an Arab]."
The sad part is that that's where McCain stopped.
How risky would it have been for McCain to go on to ask, "What if he was an Arab?" Would that mean he was somehow un-American? Well, Straight-Talking John might just as well have said exactly that, because his silence created a verbal void in which his supporters were tacitly enabled to interpret his remarks any way they wished.
And given the McCain campaign's proclivity for incessantly reminding voters that Obama's middle name is Hussein, it doesn't take an advanced degree in geophysics to figure out what that interpretation would be.
Ever since the attacks of 9/11, people of Middle Eastern descent have been viewed as potential terrorists by the public and law enforcement alike. The logic of this says, "Such people were responsible for 9/11. Al-Qaeda consists mostly of Middle Eastern men, and so that's who law enforcement and security personnel should look at first."
Yet multiple studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.
The same can be said of candidates and voters. Having Americans of Arab descent support you has become one of the hottest new Third Rails of American politics.
But lest I get carried away by partisanship, it's worth noting that Barack Obama is not without culpability in steering clear of this new Third Rail. When was the last time we heard him say anything meaningful about our country's several million Arab-Americans or American Muslims? But for McCain, painting Obama as an Arab or a Muslim isn't simply an omission or a misstep or an oversight: It's a core part of his strategy.
What's amazing is that these people - many of whom have been U.S. citizens for generations - are still willing to participate in a political process that increasingly paints them as, at best, invisible or, at worst, pariahs.
Yet they are participating.