Alexandra Schwartz’s short, informative essay in the New Yorker — well, the title almost says it all: “The Tree of Life Shooting and the Return of Anti-Semitism to American Life.” Almost, but not quite. Please read it.
Why? To glimpse the seemingly evergreen historical uses of antisemitism if you didn’t grow up like me, constantly reminded by the absence of ancestors and the words of those around you that we are always in jeopardy, that we live here on sufferance, on a provisional tolerance that can always be withdrawn. Read it to glimpse the experience of so many in my generation: the perpetual anticipation of the other boot dropping — on our necks, this time.
Reading this short, informative essay could help some people begin to understand that genocide happened to us in living memory, but not for the first time, not by a longshot. Even now, nearly 75 years after the end of World War II, there are fewer than half the Jews on the planet than had the Holocaust not happened. There are approximately 14 million Jews today; in 1939 there were about 16 million — so we haven’t even recouped the loss. Authoritative estimates say that with normal birth rates and no Holocaust, there would be upwards of 32 million today. Glimpsing history might help readers understand that for those in my generation, when Nazis march in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” when an assassin opens fire in a synagogue yelling “All Jews must die,” we are reminded that exterminating more than one out of every three of us isn’t enough, not by a longshot. And in a nation that has more guns than people, our fear grows realer every day.
The ordinary antisemitism I grew up with: being chased every year when the Catholic kids got around to the chapter in catechism class that inspired them to punish us for killing Jesus; going to the principal’s office while the entire public school population sang Christmas carols in the auditorium; knowing all the words to all the carols and all the Christian holidays anyway, and never once being asked to show-and-tell something about our own heritage. Learning all the names for Jews my classmates imbibed with their mothers’ milk. Hearing that my father had been beaten for the crime of being Jewish by a man who worked down the street where he and his fellow housepainters kept their brushes and cans and ladders; and that someone had summoned the police, and the policeman made my father shake hands with his assailant. Microaggressions is the wrong word. Try macro.
No one burned a cross in front of our house. We were never carted away on trains. But the message of disbelonging came through clearly, and it could jump out to surprise me in any dark corner of conversation or any headline or any overheard slur. And even though it was more subtle, it rhymed so closely with the stories of our collective past and the element of surprise they all contained, we knew we had to stay awake.
I’m first generation in this country. I was taught by my immigrant forebears — who had trouble distinguishing homegrown uniformed men with guns from the ones who killed my great-grandfather in Vitebsk — to fear the police. I have never called the police in my life, and I doubt I ever will.
I have been a person of the left all my life, believing that neither justice nor mercy can come from special pleading for one’s own. They must be fundamental, universal human rights. Yet my commitment has been tried by the times my experience and history are trivialized by fellow progressives who decide on the basis of the white skin privilege many (but by no means all) of us have — the fact that I will not be stopped for driving or walking while Jewish — that to be a Jew in the USA is more or less the same as being a white Protestant and I ought to get over it, drop my paranoia, focus on real oppression. By the times that stereotypical views of Jews are casually accepted while speaking in similar ways about other identities gets called out, and not necessarily by those whose identities are being disparaged. By the times calling attention to what is actually happening in this country (as I did in this essay in June) has brought charges of exaggeration, of alarmism. By the expectation that I will accept the assurances of those who bloodlines don’t carry the same sensors for impending fascism, that I should relax and trust them to care about what happens to me and my ilk.
Jewish history confers no special virtue or status. Neither does any other. In every group, certain people have amassed the economic power or kissed up to the king hard enough to be crowned exceptions and do the oppressors’ work: for every Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson there is a Sheldon Adelson or Jared Kushner. Persecution is just as equal-opportunity: the appalling frequency with which Christians and Muslims have been threatened or attacked in their houses of worship tells the same story of leaders who peddle death, who use terrible words and actions to draft broken men into their scapegoating strike force, then disclaim the blood that is spilled in their names.
No livable future can emerge from a hierarchy of oppressions. Having compassion for my fear and understanding the very real danger that triggers it in no way limits the compassion I or anyone else can have for your very real history and present-day jeopardy. There is enough empathy to go around. If we make it a competition, we serve those who feast on our division.
May the memories of all those who have died of hatred stoked in high places be a blessing to all who love freedom. And may the fear felt by survivors carrying history in our bones be answered with compassion.
And that is the silver lining. Compassion is one good thing to come out of this: that so many non-Jews are finally speaking up when we are targeted. I don’t have words to say how different this feels from the ordinary run of my experience, and how much I welcome and appreciate it. Let me close with another short piece, this one written by Phyllis Bennis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for the Nation. The title almost says it all: “In Response to Pittsburgh, We Must Come Together as One.” Almost, but not quite. Please read it too.