The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw

Reflections on White Jewish Intersectionality

Monday, August 8

Dear Jonathan,

As you might imagine, everyone in Edinburgh has an opinion about Brexit. The driver who picked us up at the airport, the shopkeeper from whom I bought yesterday a bottle of Ileach whiskey to take home with me, the museum guard who helped us find our way in the National Museum of Scotland, and the owner of the souvenir shop who told us she was going back to school at fifty-one-years-old to get her master’s in International Relations—all had something unsolicited to say, and all but one were furious that Scotland’s majority vote against leaving the European Union would not count. The couple I told you my wife and I were meeting for drinks the other day were furious as well. We sat at a table in the back of Bennet’s Bar—built in 1839, when Victorian notions of modesty and decorum required that women use the small, private room at the front of the establishment when they wanted a drink—and we worried over a couple of pints of Deucher’s about the parallels between the racist, nativist ugliness that’s been surfacing post-Brexit in England and the racist, nativist ugliness that Donald Trump’s campaign has been mainstreaming in the United States.

For me, the divisiveness of Trump’s campaign hits closest to home in his stance towards Muslims, especially the call he made in November of last year for a registry of all Muslims living in the United States. My wife is Muslim, which means that even though I am not, and even though our son is not—he identifies as Jewish—all three of us, in Trump’s world, have targets on our backs. As does every member of my wife’s family living in the States. As does every other Muslim American, or friend, or spouse, or lover, or even neighbor or coworker of a Muslim American—because let’s not kid ourselves: if Muslims are the new communists in Trump’s very McCarthyesque way of looking at the world, then “Muslim sympathizers,” or people who could be threatened with the label “Muslim sympathizer,” are also at risk.

The idea of a Muslim registry also hits home for me because it raises the specter of the Nazi registration of Jews during World War II, which in turn raises the question of how, were such a registry to be imposed, “Muslim” would be defined. I am thinking specifically of one of my wife’s cousins, who happens to be an ardent Trump supporter, but who does not identify as Muslim in any way at all. Would he have to register and on what grounds? Because he was born in a Muslim country? Because both his parents were born there? If he didn’t have to register, on what grounds would that exemption be granted? And what about people like my son, or any children my wife’s cousin and his Italian American girlfriend might one day have? Would they have to register? Regardless of what such a registry might ultimately look like, in other words, and even if the registry itself is never implemented, the simple fact of proposing it raises the specter of a racialized definition of Muslim not so different in kind from the racialized definition of Jew used by the Nazis.

Trump has not yet been elected, of course, but it’s still worth noting that the United States is no stranger to this kind of registry, though we didn’t call it that at the time. During World War II, the Census Bureau provided the government with what should have been confidential neighborhood information on Japanese Americans, whose Japanese ancestry, the government feared, would make them more loyal to the Japanese Emperor than to the United States. Our government used that information to force Japanese Americans into internment camps, the constitutionality of which the Supreme Court affirmed in the 1944 Korematsu decision. We may be a long way away from having to deal with a similar situation regarding Muslims, but we do need to face, and Muslims in particular are being given no choice but to face, the divisive assumption underlying Trump’s proposal, i.e., that a Muslim American is more likely to see her or himself as a Muslim first and an American second.

The first time I confronted this kind of thinking as a Jew was during and after the Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s. Imposed by the Arab members of OPEC when the United States started arming Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the embargo precipitated what came to be known as “the energy crisis.” I remember sitting in the gas lines with my mother or father, hoping to make it to the pumps before the station ran out of gas; and I remember when the federal government instituted rationing. People with even-numbered license plates could buy gas only on even days; on odd-numbered days, only people with odd numbered plates could buy. I remember the concern in the voices of the adults around me as they discussed the toll rising gas prices would take on individual families and on the economy as a whole; and I remember the questions people started asking—the father of one of my non-Jewish friends in particular—about why the US government had put Israel’s interests before those of its own citizens.

I was only twelve or thirteen years old at the time, so a lot of what the adults said went over my head, but I understood perfectly well what my non-Jewish friends meant when they asked me their version of that father’s question: If Israel and the United States went to war, on whose side would you fight? Or, in its slightly more diplomatic form: Do you consider yourself a Jewish American or an American Jew? They were testing my loyalty, asking me to prove I put the country of my birth first, even though I was  Jewish and even though the State of Israel had asserted itself—and many Jews living in America had certainly accepted it as—the Jewish homeland. Ironically, some of my Jewish friends went around asking the same question. The loyalty they were testing, however, was precisely the inverse of what my non-Jewish friends were worried about. For my Jewish friends, to say that you thought of yourself as an American Jew—that, in other words, you would put America first—showed how little you understood that Israel was the only nation on earth that would accept you as a Jew unconditionally and without reservation.

Given the facts of Jewish history, it’s not hard to make that argument. Especially in Europe, the list is long of communities and whole nations using as an excuse to expel or kill us the idea that Jews are congenitally unable to be anything other than Jewish first—that, in other words, our primary loyalty will always be, by definition, to ourselves. The medieval church, for example, declared us inherently alien. Our religion, our language, even our biology—in the 12th century, there were those in the Church who seriously believed that Jewish men menstruated—all conspired to create within us the intransigent nature that rejected Jesus Christ, which meant, a priori, that we could not be trusted. This idea, that Jews could not be trusted, was still alive and well during the 1970s. Some institutions, like Yale University, had not ended until the 1960s what had previously been pervasive quotas designed to limit the number of Jews not only in higher education, but also in certain industries and professions. In 1978, when I was sixteen, I was told not to bother applying for a part-time job as a busboy in the country club near where I lived. It neither admitted nor hired Jews, I was told.

Once you started connecting these antisemitic dots—the biggest one, of course, being the Holocaust—it was hard not to fall into a circle-the-wagons mentality. This, in fact, was the default perspective in the yeshiva high school I went to, having switched from public school (though this is another story entirely) because I thought I wanted to be a rabbi. “The goyim next door,” my 10th grade gemara teacher would tell us, sometimes as often as once a week, “may be very nice people. They might invite your family to dinner; their children may be your friends; when you get older, the children of those friends might become friends with your children. That’s okay. But don’t trust them. Ever. Do not marry them. Do not allow your children to marry them. If a Hitler ever comes to the United States, they will turn on you in a heartbeat, and they will continue to think of themselves as nice, good people while doing so. The world hates Jews. Don’t ever forget that.”

Clearly, given who my wife is, I did not take that advice to heart, but I’m thinking now about a relative whose home my wife and I visited some time ago. It was an important family occasion, so a lot of people were gathered there, most of whom I’d known for much longer than our host, having met her previously only a handful of times. I knew, because people had told me, that this woman had been making “cheap Jew jokes” about me since almost the first time we were introduced. She’d never made one to my face, however, until this occasion, when she took my coat with a smile and a laugh, saying, “Better take your money out of your jacket.”

“Why?” I asked. “Are there people here I shouldn’t trust?”

“Look at all of them,” she said, waving her hand towards the crowd in the next room. “You never know.”

“True,” I said, looking around, “but I’ve known these people for much longer than I’ve known you. They wouldn’t steal from me. Are you telling me you’re the one I should worry about?”

She laughed and walked away.

I don’t know how this woman understood my response, and, on one level, I don’t really care. I don’t think she consciously, willfully hates Jews. I’m even willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was trying to use her “joke” to jump start a sense of intimacy between us. In fact, I’m sure that if I told her I found the joke offensive, she’d say something like, “Oh, come on, we’re family. I was only kidding.” More than that, I predict she’d assume a wounded posture, as if I had done something wrong by failing to appreciate both her humor and her intent—as if, in other words, I were the one who ought to be apologizing to her.

This is not a situation unique to Jews, of course. Nonetheless, I experience it as a Jew, and, as a Jew who knows his history, there is no way for me not to connect “jokes” like the one this relative tried to make to the possibility of genocide. This is not hyperbole and it is not fear-mongering. The Holocaust really happened, and it was justified in large measure on the strength of ideas like the one that woman’s “joke” depended on. The fact that she made the “joke” unselfconsciously and without irony, that she expected me to appreciate its humor despite the fact that we were practically strangers to each other, that she makes these jokes when I am not around, is enough—and it hurts me to say this—is enough for me to wonder if she could be one of “the goyim next door” that my gemara teacher warned us about.

I wish I could say that I don’t carry this doubt with me wherever I go, but I do. Look, for example, at the intensity of the antisemitic vitriol unleashed by Trump’s neo-Nazi supporters on Jewish journalists who have been critical of him. While there has been some coverage of this phenomenon in the press, I have yet to see a full-throated calling out of that antisemitism from people or organizations that do not identify as Jewish, and I certainly have not heard a single word about it from Trump’s campaign or from any of his supporters. How should I not consider the possibility that this silence is a screen some of those goyim next door are hiding behind?

I know that Black people ask, and have to live with needing to ask, their own version of this question when it comes to white people. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is the same question—which unfortunately is as much as I can say for now. We have a lot planned for the rest of our stay in Scotland, starting in an hour or so, in fact, and I need to get ready. We’re going to climb Arthur’s Seat. Then, in a couple of days, it’s on to Sweden, for the second leg of our trip. I’ll write from there when I can.

Till then—
Richard

 

 

Richard Jeffrey Newman

Richard Jeffrey Newman is a poet, essayist, and co-translator of classical Persian poetry. He has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006). He has published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), and three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. www.richardjnewman.com

 

Edited for Unlikely by Alan Fyfe, Prose Editor
Last revised on Thursday, December 8, 2016 - 21:33