The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw

Reflections on White Jewish Intersectionality

Monday, August 15

Dear Jonathan,

We arrived in Stockholm four days ago. This is the first chance I’ve had to write. We’re here to celebrate my wife’s cousin’s 40th birthday, and, in addition to us and the other relatives who’ve come from New York, family and friends have gathered from Tehran, Toronto, and Milan. Our days, as I’m sure you can imagine, have been busy, filled with reunions and first meetings, the reliving of old memories, the making of new ones, obligatory sightseeing, and lots and lots of eating and drinking. The birthday party itself was the night before last, a Madonna-themed affair that kept us dancing—sometimes to music I hadn’t danced to since the 1980s—until the very, very early hours of the morning.

I’m sitting now in the empty dining room of the house where we’re staying. Our hosts—the birthday girl and her husband—and their three young children are still sleeping, as are the more than two basketball team’s worth of siblings, cousins, and in-laws who’ve also been staying here. I wish I were still sleeping as well, but, as I told you in an earlier letter, once I’m up, I’m up, and so part of me is actually glad to have this time alone. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wrote to you before we left Scotland, and there is more I’d like to say.

A quick glance at my calendar while my laptop was booting up reminded me that this weekend was Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. Shabbat Nachamu always falls on the sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the fast day on which Jews mourn the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians and Romans respectively. Each of those conquering nations sent the Jews into exile, and so Tisha B’Av also memorializes the dissolution of the Jewish nation, which makes it easy to understand why the rabbis scheduled Shabbat Nachamu when they did. The day takes its name from the first words of the week’s haftorah, Nachamu, nachamu, ami:

Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40: 1–2)

Jerusalem, God seems to be saying here, the Jewish nation, has suffered enough, the implication being that God is finally ready to bring the pain and loss of exile to an end. As the facts of Jewish history demonstrate, however, God did not keep this promise. Indeed, over the centuries, Tisha B’av’s significance has been expanded to include disasters that befell the Jewish people exile long after the Roman conquest in 70 CE. None of these occurred precisely on the ninth of Av, but they all occurred during that month:

  • The beginning of the First Crusade, which resulted in the deaths of 10,000 Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.
  • The expulsion of the Jews from England
  • The expulsion of the Jews from France
  • The expulsion of the Jews from Spain
  • The Nazi Party’s formal approval of “The Final Solution”
  • The beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp

The full list contains about a dozen such calamities, but I have focused on these six since they are all unambiguously rooted in the idea that Jewish existence is somehow existentially threatening to the non-Jewish communities in which we live. For the medieval church, this threat was religious in nature. The Jews refused to accept Jesus as the messiah and son of God, putting us in league with Satan by definition. For the Nazis, the threat was racial, embedded in their belief that the different “races” of human beings were pitted against each other in a Darwinian struggle for survival and ultimate domination.

The “racial” characteristics that made the Jews so dangerous to the Nazis, however, were essentially the same as the spiritual and other deficiencies that, according to the Church, marked us as perhaps the most loyal of Satan’s followers. Indeed, while the specifics of antisemitic expression have been different in different times and places, Jew-hatred retains a remarkably consistent internal logic wherever you find it. Whether you’re in Poland or Venezuela, Singapore or Egypt, Indonesia or the United States, antisemites will tell you that to be Jewish is to be some combination of greedy, conniving, sexually rapacious, financially corrupt, congenitally dishonest and/or biologically deficient. What’s more, they will say, we are always, always, hell-bent on destroying everything that’s pure and good in the world, whether pure and good is defined as the Church, the ideal of the Aryan nation, or the prosperity everyone would be enjoying if only the Jews did not control the world’s financial networks.

I have written elsewhere—here, here, and here—about the all-too-often violent antisemitism that has been a regular feature of my life since I was in third grade. In recent years, this antisemitism has most often been expressed in the context of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinians. I’m not talking about criticisms of Israel or of Zionism that cross the line into antisemitism, which I think happens both more and less frequently than the people on each side of that issue are willing to admit. Rather, I am talking about people who have used the suffering of the Palestinians to dismiss concerns about antisemitism in general, or who have insisted that, because I am Jewish, my primary, unquestioning, unconditional loyalty must be to the State of Israel—that, to use the framing I talked about in my last letter, I see myself as a “Jewish American,” not an “American Jew.”

Like the person who said to me, when I criticized Israel’s use of torture in interrogating Palestinian prisoners, “I know you don’t really mean that. You might say it in public because it’s the right thing to say, but you Jews always stick together, right? Especially when it comes to your ‘homeland,’” and he raised his fingers to put scare quotes around the word. When I pointed out that I was American, not Israeli, he looked at me incredulously. “But you are Jewish, aren’t you? I don’t understand.”

Or the acquaintance who agreed that “of course antisemitism is a problem” when I expressed concern about an antisemitic incident in upstate New York, but who went on to say, “But Jews aren’t really in danger here, are they? What’s really a shame is how the Jewish people, who have suffered so much, are causing the Palestinians that same kind of suffering.”

Or the impeccably progressive relative who, one year at Thanksgiving dinner, was incredulous that I would ask her to condemn former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. “You do know,” she said, “that there are Palestinians dying right now at the hands of the Israelis.” Then she went on, “The Holocaust happened more than fifty years ago. Shouldn’t we be worrying about things that are happening right now?”

Then there are the people who say outright that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the root cause of contemporary antisemitism, like the friend who insisted that you really couldn’t blame the European protesters who chanted Jews to the gas chambers! during a march against the most recent Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014. “The Palestinians,” she said, “are suffering more than you can imagine.”

As if all Jews everywhere, by definition, endorse and/or materially support, and are therefore morally and materially accountable for, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and as if, even if that were true, the Final Solution is the appropriate form for that accountability to take.

Or as if antisemitism did not have the history I alluded to above, long predating not just the Israeli occupation, but also the Zionist movement of the 19th century.

Or as if, were the miraculous to happen, were there to be tomorrow a real and true and mutually fulfilling peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, all the people in the world who hate Jews would suddenly wake up and say, “Well, that’s a relief! Hating them was such a burden. I’m glad we can finally stop.”

I don’t want to pretend that writing about antisemitism like this is less complex than it actually is. It feels inhumanly callous to set aside in what I wrote above the moral imperative to at least bear witness to what the Palestinians are suffering; and even as I finish the sentence I’ve just written, it seems an unforgivable omission not to remind people that the very beginning of Hamas’ charter frames its resistance, its call for Israel’s destruction, not as a struggle against Israel and Israelis, or even Zionists, but against the Jews, and to ask how Israel is, how Jews in general are, supposed to respond to that. I’m not trying to create a false equivalence here, as if Israel is not an occupier and the Palestinians are not the ones being occupied, or as if the support with which many Jews around the world respond to Israel’s occupation is not deeply problematic. I just want to acknowledge what focusing on my own experience of antisemitism in the United States inevitably leaves out of the conversation.

Thirty years ago, just after I started a new job as the Hillel director at a private college on Long Island, I took part in a racial awareness workshop, the purpose of which was to bring all campus constituencies together to confront racism on campus. As participants, our goal was to identify areas of campus life where issues of race needed to be addressed, and, in committees we would form when the workshop was over, to devise a plan of action to address with them.

On the third day of the workshop, in response to something someone said that I don’t remember, in an exercise where white people were just supposed to listen to what the people of color in the room had to say, one of the African American men in the group raised his voice in anger. “We need to organize just like Minister Farrakhan says, and don’t talk to me about his antisemitism! Not when he is working so damned hard to improve the lives of Black people.” I looked around the room in the few seconds of silence that followed, waiting—especially since we’d spent so much time talking about white people’s responsibility for speaking out against other white people’s racism—waiting for someone who wasn’t Jewish to call out that more than obvious swipe at the Jews in the room. Not one person spoke up, not even from among the workshop facilitators, whom I would have expected to know better. The moment passed and we moved on, and not only was it as if nothing problematic had been said, but also as if the Jews who were present had not actually been there at all.

Sadly, this experience of watching the non-Jews around me back away, or prevaricate, or stand in silence when antisemitism rears its head is an all too familiar one. Here are a few from much earlier in my life: the teachers who stood by while my elementary school classmates threw pennies at me for being “a cheap Jew;” the neighborhood adults who could have intervened but didn’t with the kids who almost daily threw rocks at me while calling me “heeb” and “kike;” and the leadership of the town where I grew up, which failed for more than a decade to sufficiently erase from the wall of the public library antisemitic graffiti written about me when I was fifteen. The words—Newman is a penny Jew—were still legible when I was in my early thirties and I brought my wife, then my fiancée, to meet my mother, who was still living in the neighborhood at the time.

To say I felt at best unwelcome in the place where I lived would be an understatement, as it would be hard to understate just how thoroughly that feeling dovetailed with what I’d been learning about Jewish history and how unwelcome the Jews have been in almost every place we have lived, except for the Land of Israel. Notice that I wrote the Land of Israel, not the State. I want in what I say next to distinguish between the idea of a Jewish homeland and the political reality that Israel currently is. The distinction is important, because while it’s been a long time since I thought of the State of Israel as a homeland I would want to claim, I’d be lying if I said the idea of such a place, where I would be unconditionally welcomed, valued, and safe as a Jew, does not still resonate with me. Not to feel this way, it seems to me, even just a little bit, is to deny a reality of Jewish history, which is that wherever antisemitism has been allowed to run its intellectual, cultural, socioeconomic, and political course, the end result has been an attempt to eliminate—either by killing them or kicking them out—the Jews who call that place home.

The first person in my life who wasn’t Jewish to acknowledge this feeling as an irreducible part of what it means to be Jewish in an antisemitic world was June Jordan, the African American writer I told you about in my first letter. She did this in an essay she wrote some time in the 1980s. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of her books with me here in Sweden—and a quick internet search hasn’t helped—so I can’t provide you with a direct quote or accurate citation. Still, I believe that this is an accurate paraphrase of what she wrote: I accept that, on an emotional level, the safety Israel represents for Jews is a non-negotiable necessity.

No one who wasn’t Jewish had ever said that to me before.

I need to write those words again: No one who wasn’t Jewish had ever said that to me before.

And again, No one who wasn’t Jewish had ever said that to me before.

Perhaps more to the point, though, all too few people who aren’t Jewish have said that to me, or anything even resembling that, since.

Well, my hosts’ youngest child has made his way here into the dining room, and he wants to play. The other kids won’t be far behind. There’s more to say. I will write again.

Till then,
Richard

Richard Jeffrey Newman

As a poet and essayist, Richard Jeffrey Newman’s work explores the impact of feminism on his life as a man. As a co-translator of classical Persian poetry, he writes about the impact of that canon on our contemporary lives. His most recent books are For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016) and the translation The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi's Shahameh (Junction Press 2011)He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY. His website is www.richardjnewman.com

 

 

Edited for Unlikely by Alan Fyfe, Prose Editor