3/6/09: Some details have been edited to protect people’s privacy.
Antisemitism has been a tangible and, to varying degrees, violent presence in my life since at least third grade, which would have been in 1970 or so, when John W–it’s amazing that I remember his name–having learned the day before that I was Jewish, came up to me in the playground while we were choosing sides for dodgeball and said, “My father told me I’m not allowed to play with Jews.” I can’t recall whether or not I was permitted to be part of the game that day, but I can see very clearly the one and only fistfight I have ever had, which happened later that year. I don’t know why John B and I ended up in the middle of the schoolyard circle of boys pushing us towards each other, trying to get one of us to throw the first punch, but I do know that John W’s was not the only voice I heard reassuring John B that I was “only a Jew” and therefore “weak and easy to take.” In the end, the first and only punch was mine. I landed one right on John’s chin and he started bleeding and the sight of his blood frightened us all into running wherever it was that we ran to. I was scared because I thought I’d really hurt him, but I found out later I’d only broken a scab on his face. For the next couple of years at least, no one called me a “weak Jew” again.
Next came the pennies. Still in third grade, my classmates started throwing pennies at me in the schoolyard. At the time, I did not know the antisemitic canard of the cheap Jew, and so I did not at first understand why they thought it was so funny when I picked the pennies up. Since I would often end up with as much as twenty cents–an amount that meant something to a third grader back then–I laughed at them for being so stupid that they were giving me free money; I wasn’t even curious about why they were also laughing at me. Eventually, someone explained to me just what the pennies were supposed to signify–I wish I could remember who it was–but I continued picking them up anyway, since it still seemed to me that my classmates were the ones making idiots of themselves. Then, in fifth grade–which means people had been throwing pennies on and off for two years–someone started one day to throw pennies at me in the classroom; someone else actually handed me an entire roll of pennies; and then a group started chanting “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!” My teacher stood by and did nothing, and even after he’d calmed the class down and got us all back in our seats, he did nothing to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of what had just happened. And I was one of his favorite students!
Then there was the music teacher, who made a point of embarrassing me in front of the entire class for not knowing a reference in a Christmas song–”Don’t you Jews know anything?”–and who was mortified when I asked if we could learn to sing a Chanuka song, and who once almost refused to let me go the fifteen minutes early I had permission for so that I could get to my Hebrew School class on time because “Jews were always asking for special favors,” and why should I get out of singing the Christmas songs that everyone ought to know? In sixth grade, in my graduation signature book, Jim wrote on the very first page, “Rose are red, violets are blue/I never met a nicer Jew.” Evan: “To the Jew, Have a penny good time in 7th grade.”
In seventh grade, I was accused of truancy because I stayed home from school for the first two days of Succot, the Festival of Booths, a holiday in the Jewish calendar that is as major as Passover–meaning that it is a holiday you are not supposed to work or go to school on–but which very few Gentiles know about because it does not coincide with any Christian holidays and is not as easily explainable as Rosh HaShana, the New Year, or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When the attendance officer called my house, she was surprised that I answered–I guess she figured I would try not to be found–and when I explained to her about Succot, she thought I was lying. “There are Jews at work here today,” she said. When I suggested to her that maybe they were not religious (I was, at the time time, thinking I might want to be a rabbi when I grew up), she told me to stop being so sneaky. “You’re all alike,” she said.
In eighth grade, I changed schools and started going to a yeshiva about twenty minutes by car away from my house. I no longer had problems with antisemitism at school, and I cannot even begin to explain how relieved I felt not to have to explain myself all the time, but the problems in my neighborhood continued. From about ninth grade on, I was more or less constantly harassed in the street, called Jew, kike, heeb.I was threatened with being cooked in an oven, crucified as revenge for the killing of Christ and being sacrificed to the devil because all Jews were going to hell anyway; I had beer bottles thrown at me, rocks the size of softballs. My home was robbed and my room was singled out for particularly vicious attack. The thieves carved the word “Kike” into the door of my closet; they threw the books of Jewish learning that I had on my shelves on the floor and walked all over them. There were entire years when I had to carry something I could use as a weapon if I was going into certain areas of my neighborhood, especially if I was walking alone, but even when I went with “friends,” because the antisemites hung out in those areas and I had learned from experience that I could only rarely count on my friends to stand with me if I was assaulted or even just threatened with physical assault.
These antisemites wrote antisemitic graffiti about me on the walls of the library. The cop who arrested the kid doing the spray painting was very smart; he made sure to wait until the kid was done so that the antisemitic nature of the graffiti was clear, and the kid could be charged with a more serious crime. It took the town where I lived, however, three years before they decided to try to clean the graffiti off the wall, and then they did such a bad job of it that, fifteen years later, when I brought the woman who is now my wife to meet my mother for the first time, you could still read the words, “Newman is a penny Jew,” and make out the drawing of a penny that the artist had drawn, just in case you didn’t get the point. Sixteen more years later, actually just one year ago, making it thirty one years after the graffiti had originally been written, when I drove by one day with my son, I stopped to show him where I lived when I was growing up, and you could still make the graffiti out, though I don’t know if you’d be able to read it if you didn’t already know what it said. The point is that the town never actually bothered to erase it; they waited for the elements to do it.
In eleventh grade, my class went on a trip to somewhere that included a tour of a ship of historical importance. (I don’t remember which one.) We were standing on the deck, when a group of much younger kids, probably in elementary school, came on board. One of the girls asked one of the adults accompanying them why the boys in my group were wearing those “funny hats.” The adult explained that they were called yarmulkes and it meant we were Jewish. “Oh,” the kid said, a tone of wonder completely bereft of irony creeping into her voice. “Then where are their horns?” I did not hear the adult’s answer.
Finally, in twelfth grade English class–I had switched from yeshiva back to public school–while discussing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Mr. Giglio asked if anyone knew the biblical reference in the poem’s closing lines: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” I raised my hand and said it referred to Joshua making the sun stand still at the battle of Gibeon. Mr. Giglio looked at the rest of the class, “You should be ashamed of yourselves! This boy who doesn’t go to church knows the bible better than you; the Battle of Gibeon was in the reading this past Sunday!”
That same year, Joan invited me to her house for dinner. It was a big deal for me. I didn’t have many friends in my class, and it helped a lot that she was cute. As we sat around the table after the meal, I don’t remember why, but the subject of the Holocaust came up. Joan’s father said something to the effect that, well, maybe a couple of thousand Jews at most had been killed in the concentration camps, but the idea that 6 million had died was just preposterous. Moreover, he said, the fact that so much of the world believed it was 6 million the result of some very good propagandizing on the part of the Jews and, particularly, Israel. He said this in the most friendly of ways, trying to educate my misguided self. To her credit, Joan argued with me against him, but I sat there feeling like I was being punched in the stomach over and over again. I wanted to throw up. I had heard about Holocaust deniers, but I had never actually met one in the flesh, and hearing what he said made me physically sick. I was not invited to Joan’s house again, and what had been the beginnings of our friendship stopped growing right there.
If I were to continue this accounting of antisemitism in my life and tell you about things that happened to me in college, in the working world, in my career as a college professor, and in my marriage to an Iranian Muslim woman, the examples would, in general, grow less and less frequent, more and more subtle and the overt violence or threat of violence would completely disappear. With the exception of having been advised when I was a teenager not to bother applying for a job at the country club near my home, since it was well-known that they did not hire Jews, I have never been denied a job because I am Jewish; I have never had a hard time getting a loan, renting or buying an apartment, or in any of the other aspects of life that are made difficult if not impossible for people who are structurally discriminated against in this country. I live a relatively comfortable life. I am not afraid when I walk down the street that someone, because of who I am, will decide to call me out in some way or attack me outright—though it’s also important to acknowledge that I live in New York City, probably one of the safest places to be Jewish in the US, and that there are places in this country where it would be foolish of me not to feel that fear at least a little bit. (I also should point out that all of the examples of antisemitism I gave above took place in a town on Long Island just over the border dividing Queens from Nassau County; for all intents and purposes, in other words, in New York City.)
So, on the one hand, antisemitism was a central experience of my growing up a Jew in the United States; on the other hand, as I have grown older, it has receded in prominence, partially because of where I live and partially because its structural manifestations have been almost, if not entirely eliminated–to the point where I can sometimes pretend it does not exist.
Except when it comes time to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Zionism.
I have never, not even among Jews, not even among Jews with whom I pretty much agree 100%, had a discussion about that conflict where the question of antisemitism has not arisen. Either someone’s critique of Israel is nakedly–or not so nakedly–antisemitic, or someone who is not Jewish feels it necessary to instruct me when I want to point out the antisemitism in a critique of Israel or Zionism that not all such critiques are by definition antisemitic, or someone who is Jewish calls antisemitism when it isn’t there, or, among Jews, we spend time analyzing the antisemitism in critiques of Israel, or complaining about the antisemitism in critiques of Israel, and so on and so on and so on.
Indeed, it often feels these days that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only context in which a discussion antisemitism is taken seriously. It gives antisemites an opportunity to cloak their antisemitism in an argument that has a considerable amount of moral high ground built into it, and to call foul when Jews and our allies say, “Wait a minute! We’re not going to let you get away with antisemitism just because the policies of the Israeli government deserve criticism.” More importantly, I think, for Jews and our allies, precisely because antisemitism is not taken seriously enough as a phenomenon in and of itself, a reality of Jewish lives independent of what goes on between Israel and the Palestinians, and precisely because secular Zionism and that State of Israel were founded largely in response to antisemitism, discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict become one of the few opportunities we have to talk about antisemitism period, all of it, how it has worked and continues to work all over the world. The result is that what should be a conversation about Israel and Palestine and the people who are living and fighting and dying there ends up bearing the burden of, for example, not only every instance of antisemitism I listed above, but the history out of which that antisemitism arises and that continues to give it context. No single conversation should have to bear that burden. Antisemitism is thousands of years old; millions upon millions of Jews have suffered and died, and there are places where they continue to suffer and die, worldwide because of it. Inevitably, then, trying to fold into a discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict all of the discussion that needs to happen around the fact that antisemitic values are still very much alive in the world, including within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is going to result in the invisibility of the extreme suffering the Palestinians endure daily at the hands of the Israelis, of which the recent assault on Gaza is only an extreme example.
This is the point, though I am late in the game in terms of the timeliness of this post, at which I want to enter the frustrating, fascinating, and, at times, infuriating discussion generated by David Schraub’s guest posts on Feministe titled, “We Cannot Live Without Our Lives” Either: Jews, Privilege, and Anti-Subordination and Anti-Semitism and Subordination Part II: The Myth of Jewish Hyper-Power. I am not going to recap all of the ways in which David was critiqued, accurately or not, nor am I–at least not at first–going to address head on the points where I disagree with him. Rather, I want to explore the ways in which I empathize with him, because even though I disagree with him now quite profoundly, there was a time when I would have agreed with him almost absolutely and the empathy that would have led to that agreement still remains.
Final note before I move on to Part 2: There have also been a number of posts at Alas in response both to David’s posts and the discussion they have generated that I think are important to read: Talking about anti-semitism now, by Maia and Posts About Anti-Semitism Often Hit Home For Me by Mandolin. Julie has written Why I’ve Stopped Talking About Gaza, as well as Dear Non-Jewish Activists: and This is not my community. (Other posts on Alas that are important include Links to Israeli and Jewish voices opposing Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Inhuman. There are others as well.)
There is also a tangentially related post up at Feministe, “Distinguishing a Political Stance from a Racist Stance”, the discussion of which deals with the issues raised by the common use of the term anti-Semitism to mean Jew-hating, especially when the term is used to describe the words or actions of Arabs, who, obviously, are Semitic (far more so than I am, for example). Indeed, the rhetorical question asked by the Arab author of the paper to which this post refers is, “How can we, as Semites, be anti-Semitic?” Julie’s comment, I think, does a fine job of critiquing that question and how it is often used, so I am not going to repeat it here. My point in raising the whole question of the term anti-Semitism is to explain why I write it the way I do: antisemitism.
I wish I could remember the book where I first encountered this tactic so I could quote for you accurately the original rationale behind it, but I can’t. I have been writing the term this way ever since I read that book, however, because it allows me to continue using the word in common usage for Jew-hating while at the same time drawing attention away–however slightly–from the fact that in its original form it referred to Semitic people, and even then, it did so inaccurately. When Wilhelm Marr popularized the term in 1879 so that Jew-hating would have a scientific and therefore objectively, legitimizing word that could be used to refer to it, he obviously did not even consider the Arabs worthy of notice. The term, in other words, has a double oppression embedded in it, and it would be much better if we could find a different word, especially since discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation of Jews in the Arab world and so on inevitably involve questions of Arab antisemitism. Antisemitism, however, is the word that we have. “Jew-hating” is difficult, I think, because the word “hating” inherently raises the stakes and implies that all expressions and manifestations of antisemitism exist at the same level of intensity and harmfulness and so it removes, for me anyway, the feeling that nuance is possible in these discussions. “Orientalism,” which is mentioned in a quote in one of Julie’s comments might be a term that encompasses as April Rosenblum–the person Julie quotes–says, “a larger oppression that both groups [Arabs and Jews] experience,” but it would take quite a bit of work, I think, to make that term really useful in describing the oppression of European Jews who are so clearly not “Oriental,” even though I would agree they were “orientalized” as part of their oppression; and since I do not want this series of posts to have to do that work, I am going to stick with the term that we have, though in a form that is, I hope, alienated enough from itself that people will be willing to accept it as the word that refers to the (usually racialized) hatred of the Jews.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.