Thursday, November 15, 2018

Hatred, Fear, Hope

Like most Jewish Americans, I was caught off-guard back in 2017 by the sight of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, and carrying aloft the flags of the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany.  (That they were also carrying the so-called Gadsden Flag that was originally used by the Continental Marines during the American Revolution—the one designed back in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden featuring the words “Don’t Tread on Me” beneath a coiled-up, scary-looking rattlesnake—struck me primarily as a sign of how little these people know about the values upon which the nation was founded in the first place.)  The sight of those flags being held aloft proudly and defiantly was beyond upsetting, but not particularly confusing. But what was confusing—to me and I suspect to most—was the chant “Jews will not replace us,” which I hadn’t ever heard before and which I now realize I misunderstood, taking it to mean something entirely different than what it apparently does mean.

Taking the slogan at what I thought was face value, I understood the marchers to be declaring their determination not to allow themselves to be replaced by Jews eager to take over their jobs and leave them without work and eventually destitute.  In other words, I imagined this somehow to be tied to the marchers’ skittishness about the job market and their need to find someone to blame in advance for losing jobs they fear they only haven’t lost yet and in which they fear they will eventually, to use their own word, be “replaced.” It hardly seems like a rational fear, but that’s what it felt like it had to mean, and so I ended up taking it as just so much craziness rooted not in anything corresponding to actual reality but in the malign fantasy that, left unchecked, we Jewish people will somehow take over the world and install our own people in whatever jobs we wish without regard to where such a move would leave the people currently holding them. And that is what I sense most Jewish people—and maybe even most Americans—hearing this chant took it to mean.
But now that I’ve read more, I see that that is specifically not what “Jews will not replace us” means and that the slogan specifically is not about Jews replacing Christians at work at all. Instead, the chant encapsulates the marchers’ fear that we Jews are working not to take over their jobs ourselves but to replace them at work with third-party others chosen specifically to deprive them of their livelihoods and their places in society. And who might these other people be? That, it turns out, is where anti-Semitism and racism meet: the hordes of jobseekers the marchers fear turn out not to be Jews at all, but hordes of dark-skinned immigrants feared already to be pouring over our borders and insinuating themselves into an already-tight job market. And it is those people who, because they are presumed ready to work at even the most menial jobs for mere pennies, are imagined to be threatening the white (i.e., non-immigrant) people who currently hold those jobs and who earn the American-sized salaries they use to support themselves and their families.

To say this is crazy stuff is really to say nothing at all. Yes, we have a huge and so-far-unresolved issue in this country with illegal aliens living in our midst and I’m sure that those people do take jobs that legal residents might otherwise have. And lots of non-crazy people, myself definitely included, are eager to find a way out of this morass that we ourselves have created by failing to police our borders adequately and by allowing the number of undocumented illegals in our midst to grow from a mere 760,000 or so in 1975 to something like 12.5 million today with no obvious solution in sight.
So wanting a reasonable solution to be found—one that is fully grounded both in settled U.S. law and in our national inclination to be just, fair, kind, and generous, and one that doesn’t make after-the-fact chumps out of all those countless millions of people who followed all the rules and immigrated here fully legally—is not crazy at all. What is crazy is the fantasy that Jewish Americans somehow possess the secret power to order Walmart’s and Costco and every other American business to fire specific employees and replace them with pre-selected others regardless of whether those others are or are not here legally. Crazier still is the contention that American Jews somehow control American immigration policy, and that we are somehow able imperiously to issue instructions that must be obeyed both to Democratic and Republican administrations. But craziest of all is the belief that, precisely because American Jews are so supremely powerful, we must be attacked violently before we order the administration to let even more immigrants into our nation. That, after all, was the specific reason the Pittsburgh shooter gave for his savagery in a comment posted online just before the attack: to give the officers of HIAS pause for thought before they work to bring in any more “invaders [to] kill our people.” My post-Pittsburgh proposal is that we stop dismissing that line of thinking as aberrant looniness that no normal person could actually embrace and start taking it far more seriously.

It feels natural to consider the various kinds of prejudice that characterize our society as variations on a common theme. And in a certain sense, I suppose, that is true. But these pernicious attitudes are also distinct and different, both in terms of their root causes and the specific way they manifest themselves in the world: misogyny, racism, and homophobia, for example, are similar in certain cosmetic ways, but differ dramatically in terms of the specific malign fantasies that inspire them and thus should (and even probably must) be addressed in different ways as well. And we should also bring that line of thinking to bear in considering anti-Jewish prejudice: similar in some ways to other forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism also has unique aspects that it specifically does not share with other forms of bigotry. Indeed, the fact that the anti-Semitism put on public display in Charlottesville was rooted in the haters’ groundless yet powerful fantasy about the almost limitless power imagined somehow to have wound up in the hands of the hated is all by itself enough to distinguish anti-Semitism from other kinds of prejudice. And not at all irrelevant is that it appears not to matter at all how impossible it feels to square that fantasy about Jewish powerfulness with the degree to which powerless Jews have suffered at the hands of their foes over the centuries, and particularly in the last one. In that regard, I would like to recommend a very interesting essay by Scott A. Shay, the author and Jewish activist, that was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few days after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue and which readers viewing this electronically can access by clicking here.  

Nor is this a problem solely of one extreme end of the political spectrum. In the wake of Pittsburgh, the spotlight is on the anti-Semitism that characterizes the extreme right, but the same light could be shone just as brightly on the anti-Semitism of the extreme left…and particularly when it promotes hostility toward Israel’s very right to exist and to defend itself against its enemies. Indeed, the assumption that Israel—instead of being perceived as an outpost of democracy smaller than New Jersey trying to survive in a region in which it must deal with nations and political terror groups that openly express their hope to see Israel and its Jewish population annihilated—is perceived as an all-powerful Goliath seeking to eradicate its innocent opponents militarily rather than to negotiate fairly or justly with them, is part and parcel of this fantasy regarding the power of the Jewish people. Coming the week after Hamas fired over five hundred missiles at civilian targets in Israel, each capable of killing countless civilian souls on the ground, the image of Israel as the aggressor in its ongoing conflict with Hamas sounds laughable and naïve. But maybe we should stop laughing long enough to ask ourselves how this myth of Jewish power—whether focused on American Jews imagined to be in control of American foreign policy or Israeli Jews imagined to be intent on crushing their innocent victims for no rational reason at all—perhaps we should ask ourselves how we might address, not this or that symptom of the disease, but the disease itself.
Distinct (at least in my mind) from theological anti-Semitism rooted in the supersessionist worldview promoted for so long by so many different Christian denominations, this specific variety of anti-Semitism seems rooted not in messianic fervor but in fear. And that, I think, is probably how to go about addressing it the most effectively: by pulling that fear out into the light and exposing it as a fantasy no less malign than inane. By forcing young people drawn to the alt-right to look at pictures of the innocents murdered in Pittsburgh and to ask themselves if they truly have it in them to believe that U.S. government policy was until two weeks ago being dictated by 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or by Cecil or David Rosenthal, both gentle, disabled types whose lives were built around service to their house of worship. By forcing young people poisoned with irrational hatred of Israel to look at the portraits of the 1,343 civilians murdered by Palestinian terrorists since 2000 and to see, not predators or fiends, but innocent victims of mindless violence. By insisting that young people drawn to fear Jews and Judaism be exposed to the stories of Shoah victims—and, if possible, to surviving survivors themselves—and through that experience to understand where groundless prejudice can lead if left unchecked and unaddressed.

To hope that no one is drawn to extremism is entirely rational, but it really can’t be enough. Just as young people who seem drawn to a racist worldview should be forced—by their parents and their teachers in school, or by society itself—to look into the eyes of those poor souls gunned down in the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, after welcoming their murderer into their midst for an hour of Bible study, so should society itself rescue young people from themselves once they are perceived to be embracing the kind of anti-Semitism that led directly to Pittsburgh…and be forced to confront the bleak hatred that has taken  root in their hearts and to see it for what it is: a fantasy rooted in fear that can be overcome and eradicated by anyone truly willing to try.

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