Today’s guest post was written by my friend Mark A. Michaels in response to a recent Trump statement that tapped into the long and disgusting heartbeat of anti-Semitism that is still alive and well in the US. I thought it was direct, sincere, and thorough.
A Fourth of July Plea from My Jewish Heart
Regular readers of my feed will know that I’ve tried to avoid political discussions for quite some time. They tend to generate a lot of heat but little that’s productive. Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve found it impossible to remain silent. I’m writing this very personal essay in hopes that it will change a mind or two.
Trump’s latest display of bigotry (anti-semitism this time) and his lame attempts to deny it have left me distraught, devastated, and enraged. They’re no worse than some of his other atrocities, but they have forced me to examine some issues that I’ve tended to ignore or minimize, even as I’ve always known that a certain soft hum of anti-semitism pervades American society. It’s usually more subtle than other forms of bigotry, but it’s present nonetheless. It’s present in the people who assume that all Jews are rich or adept at managing money; it’s present in those who desperately hope they have some Jewish ancestry, for whatever reason; it’s present in some (but not all) criticisms of Israel; it’s present in much conservative Christian support for Israel; it’s present in complaints about the so-called “war on Christmas”; it’s often present in populist attacks on perceived centers of Jewish power – Hollywood, Wall Street, and the banking industry. And it’s present in Trump’s latest atrocity, with its obvious implication that “corrupt” Hillary Clinton is a tool of moneyed Jewish interests.
A commenter on a friend’s Facebook page had this interesting observation: “Antisemitism is unique among racial/ethnic hatreds in that it supposes not an inferiority of the subjects of its hate; but rather a surplus of what we would today call ‘privilege’.” There’s a lot of truth in this observation, though I think it’s an oversimplification. Most American Jews face far fewer obstacles than members of other minorities, and most of us are less vulnerable to the resurgence of white supremacy fomented by Trump than are members of other more visibly different groups. Nevertheless, we remain marginalized and vulnerable. The FBI’s most recent hate crime statistics are chilling: Jews comprise just 1.4% of the American population but were the target of 57% of the religious hate crimes, and when “you include other groupings by ethnicity, race, or sexuality, Jewish people are still at the top. They are more than three times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than any other group.”
I grew up in a secular, assimilated (Ethical Culture) home, ensconced in the strange bubble that surrounded upper and upper middle class Jews of my generation. I don’t know the numbers, but my private high school probably had a higher percentage of African-American and Latino students than white Christian ones. Some of my Jewish classmates were religious, but most were not or were nominally so. Many, myself included, were descendants of German Jews who arrived in the U.S. during the 19th century; a much smaller number were the children of Holocaust survivors. Notwithstanding the proximity of the Holocaust, anti-semitism seemed like an abstraction before I went to college. I can look back at two instances when I was beaten up by older Catholic school kids – one while petitioning against the Vietnam War and the other while campaigning for McGovern – that may have had an anti-semitic component.
It was only in college and after that I became aware of just how pervasive casual and not so casual anti-semitism can be. A few incidents spring to mind – the way some people in my dorm at the University of Michigan talked about the town of Southfield; the lead singer in a band I was thinking of managing referring to someone as a “Jew bastard” (I walked away); the time I stayed at a motel in the Florida Keys and the owners took a liking to me and took me fishing, only to reveal their Klan sympathies and anti-semitism while we were out on the boat (I kept my mouth shut, one of the advantages of not being visibly different); subtle displays of attitude from a couple of professors when I was in grad school at Yale (I think I could distinguish between bias and run-of-the-mill professorial arrogance).
But to return to my formative years, in my deracinated home environment, there was some unease with being Jewish. I remember talking about Israel with my mother when I was a young teenager and being troubled by the fact that it was a country set up for one group of people. This seemed to be at odds with the secular, universalist values I’d imbibed at home and at school. I can’t remember her exact words, but the essence of her response was indelible and seems especially important given the rise of Trumpism –
You’ll always be a Jew if another Hitler comes along.
There’s some backstory I didn’t learn about until adulthood but that is very much on my mind this week.
My maternal grandfather was born in New York in the early 1890s. He came from a family of cabinetmakers, and he never finished high school. He started his own furniture business in the 1930s, the Depression notwithstanding. By 1937, he was prosperous enough to get several relatives out of Germany. My mother recently told me he also paid their rent and provided them with basic necessities so they could get started in the U.S. My grandfather’s ancestral town was a fairly important center of Jewish life in western Germany. Of the the Jews who remained there in the early 1930s, 21 escaped, but at least 44, some of whom were undoubtedly my kin, were killed in Buchenwald and Theresienstadt.
When I say that Trump’s bigotry offends and frightens me, it’s not because I’m hypersensitive; it’s not because I’m demanding political correctness or because I’m hypervigilant about anti-semitism. If anything, I’ve been insufficiently conscious of it. And when I say that abstaining or voting for anyone other than Hillary is being complicit, I hope you’ll think long and hard because “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”