With the current conflict in Israel, and the seemingly non-stop coverage of back and forth bombings and cease fires between Israel and Gaza, suddenly anti-Semitism is all the rage, popping up in places I thought I would never see it again. With everyone, even people not involved in the conflict, picking sides, it seems fashionable to hate the Jews again. That hatred seems to be disguised in the uniting behind a common enemy (the Israelis) around whom even the left can rally. And it is further disguised, disingenuously, by the argument that those who criticize the Israelis are not really criticizing the Jews as a whole.
Those rationales might sound logical; they might be true in the sense of the individual. But the climate surrounding all Jews as the latest villain (you do remember that just a few short years ago it was all Muslims) perpetuates the kind of stereotyping and violent prejudice that is now littering the airwaves and the internet. Where once you had to go looking for it on insane websites, it is now obvious and front page news.
These events make me remember earlier times, another war, and other small personal betrayals, which all make today’s no-longer-under-the-radar anti-Semitism particularly disturbing.
Some years ago, as the new wife of a new faculty member I attended a dinner party during which the hostess used the word “nigger.” Ten years later at a different dinner party a hostess used the word “wetback.” These words were used casually and as if they were acceptable. I was nearly speechless. I say nearly because I managed to speak. I managed to tell the gathered that those words were unacceptable. And I made sure to decline further invitations to those houses. But recently it seems as though certain ways of speaking about minorities have become once again both casual and acceptable.
As a Jew, although I may be able to “pass” in a way that other minorities may not, I have, since I reached adulthood, somehow managed to slip that part of my identity into most conversations as much to avoid my own pain as to save others from embarrassment. I suppose that, in a passive aggressive kind of way, it worked; on the other hand I was never able to tease out what people might have really wished to say: I was not privy to the sorts of statements made about me which were made about others at those two dinner parties. Those, of course, were not unique events.
I think I simply did not wish to keep discovering that people I knew could be ugly. And I recognized that I took my cues early on from witnessing the end of segregation. When black children first turned up in my 4th grade class, they were obvious, of course, but also unapologetic. That seemed a good thing. But for too long I was neither. I wanted to believe the best. Yet I know that I was fooling only myself.
Recently acquaintances and friends of acquaintances on Facebook in particular have told me not use the “Holocaust card” in talking about Israel. Others have said, quite sincerely as though it were fact, that the Jews run Hollywood and will brook no disagreement from those who do not support Israel. Several people who I presumed had more sense tried to defend Jews by saying that that old Hollywood thing was what used to be, not what is now, as though the Jews had given up a power they had actually had. Old myths die hard and sometimes not at all.
I have tried to withdraw from the public conflict the most recent war in Israel has stirred up but suddenly anti-Semitism is all the rage, popping up in places I thought I might not see it again. It once again seems fashionable to hate the Jews. It is disguised in the uniting behind a common enemy (the Israelis) around whom even the left can rally. And it is further disguised, disingenuously, by the argument that those who criticize the Israelis are not really criticizing the Jews as a whole. That statement might be logical; it might be true in the sense of an individual. But the climate surrounding who is the latest villain (you do remember that just a few short years ago it was all Muslims) perpetuates the kind of stereotyping and violent prejudice that is now littering the airwaves and the internet. Where once you had to go looking for it on insane websites, it is now obvious and front page news. And I remember an earlier time, another war, and another small betrayal.
On September 11, 2001, I was standing in a papeterie in Paris’s 15 Arrondissement trying to finish my children’s school shopping list. The day before I had lugged home on the bus two tied packages of notebooks, fountain pens, folders and all the assorted things the school required and then the kids had come home with another list.
We had been living in Paris just under a month; my language skills were minimal. My then husband was in Tours with 25 college students whom he was in charge of for their junior year abroad. They took intensive language classes in Tours and then headed back to Paris to live with families and attend French universities.
The woman behind the corner rang up my order and then said, noticing my clear American accent and the fact that I had just handed the list to her with a shrug and a s’il vous plait?: “An airplane just flew into your Empire State Building.” Then she paused and cocked her head to listen to the radio again. “I think. I am not sure. There has been something big.”
I hurried out of the store and to the school a block away to pick up my children. It was three in the afternoon there. Everyone, American expats and people from half a dozen countries who had children at the bilingual school, had a mobile phone glued to the side of their face. People from other countries were asking “What? What?”
We soon found out what. And like the rest of the people at the school I stood in shock, holding my kids hands and wondering what on earth I was going to do next. That is when Sylvia, a Brazilian woman I’d met at orientation and with whom I’d had coffee a couple of times, came up to me and asked if there was anyone I needed to call. I couldn’t think of anything at that moment, other than the fact that my husband was hours away and the French bureaucracy had prevented us from getting phones or satellite television until we had a month’s apartment bills to show. When Sylvia next offered her lovely home, close to mine, and CNN International, my children and I followed her and her daughters down the street and to the metro and we rode back to the 16th together. There the six of us sat transfixed for hours as we watched the horror, still not quite believing it.
At some point I headed up the road to get takeaway pizza for all of us and the man who took my order said: “You are American, yes?” When I nodded he came around from the back of the counter and hugged me, hard, and said: “I am so sorry. We are all Americans today.”
I never grew terribly close to Sylvia as my kids made friends in their own grades and the mothers of those friends often became my friends. People with whom I had more in common became my close friends there, but Sylvia had thrown me a lifeline on a terrible day and my husband and I had her and her American husband and children over for dinner a few times. We went to their house several times. I helped her shop for draperies for her flat.
In the spring of 2003, Sylvia asked me if I wished to take a porcelain painting class with her. I did. I had painted as a young woman and wanted to get back to it. I was intrigued by the idea of panting on porcelain and was happy in the class of four French women, Sylvia and me. The meticulousness of the art was a tiny Zen retreat from a world caught up in war and the fact that Europe, with the U.S. intervention in Iraq, no longer supported Americans in the same way they had immediately after 9/11. But a couple of months into the class, Sylvia sighed, put down her brush, sipped some tea and said casually to the group of us: “Oh this awful war. I don’t know why we are in Iraq anyway. You French (she said to the other women) were smart to stay out of it. We never would have been over there if the Jews hadn’t pushed it.”
I took a deep breath and said, as calmly as I could, in French, “What did you say?”
She shrugged. “The Jews. You know. I mean YOU know. There are those who think you are responsible for the whole towers thing, too. But for sure you talked us into this other war. You run government. You run banking. And now look what you have gotten us into.”
I kept calm but my hands were shaking: “Sylvia,” I said, switching to English, a language the other women did not speak. “That isn’t true.”
“What do you mean? Of course it is. Don’t get so upset. You guys always get so upset over everything.” The hostess asked brightly: Everything okay?
I assured her it was. But it wasn’t. Not at all. I never spoke to Sylvia again other than a polite hello. I made my way to the class on the other side of the city alone, rather than with her. I could have said more but what good would it have done? I had encountered this sort of thing many times before but never, after childhood, from someone I thought I knew.
The age of five is not an age where one expects to have a life-altering experience. But I did. In kindergarten one day a girl came up to me and told me I was going to hell. I had no idea what hell was, but rather than ask her I just said what a child would say: I am not! She argued back that I was. Because I did not believe in Christ. I was not a Christian, she said. I had not been saved. I was a Jew.
I went home and accosted my mother: “Am I going to hell? I asked. Am I?”
My mother listened to my story and then shook her head and smiled. In a moment of pure reason and kindness, two things I would seldom get from her, she said: “Well, if you are you should not be afraid. We will all be there with you. Your father and I, your sisters, your grandparents, your cousins. All of us are Jews and so we will all be there. And what kind of awful place could it be if everyone you loved was there?” She laughed. “Don’t worry. It will be fine.”
That was the beginning of my self. The way I thought of me, who I was, what I was, what I would do and how I would do it. That tiny moment, as a child, when I knew that I was an Other, part of a group of Others. A very small group in the quite small town I grew up in.
A year later in temple I would see films of the liberation of the concentration camps, and while the emaciated bodies of those who were freed disturbed me I did not see them as victims. I did not see myself as a victim. I saw us all as survivors. I read the Ann Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” for the first time in second grade. That was the same year that my teacher, an otherwise decent and loving woman, denied me a gold star for Sunday school attendance, even though, each Sunday morning, I traveled an hour each way to Knoxville for three hours of Hebrew instruction and Jewish education. My five-hour day in my own house of God didn’t count, according to the teacher, because it wasn’t a church. I was the only child in class without a row of at least a few stars after her name.
A couple of years later I drove with my father out of town to collect payment from one of his clients. My father was an old-fashioned salesman and business owner in a time when that counted. He established relationships and made personal visits to the people who bought from him. Occasionally he took my sisters or me. On that day, as I sat in another man’s office bouncing back and forth in chair, the man held out the check to my father and then quickly pulled it away. He cocked an eyebrow and said, “Now you aren’t Jewing me down, are you Jay.”
A look of fury mixed with pain ran across the normally cheerful face of my father. Almost nothing fazed him and I had never seen this look before. He took a deep breath and then looked the man in the eye. “Don’t say things like that, Bob, please,” my father said. “Ah, Jay, I was just kidding,” the man replied, his face flushed red. In the car my father explained what the man had meant. “He’s been a customer for years,” my father said, angry again. “Years! What would make him say a thing like that?” At 10 I had no answer.
That same year I came home and asked my mother if we were rich. If all Jews were rich. This was another thing I had heard in school, a sage pronouncement that was spoken as if it were real. The same look that had crossed my father’s face crossed hers. She gathered my sisters and me up and we went visiting: an elderly couple, Holocaust survivors, who live on the largess of the small Jewish community, who were taken in and taken care of by a half-dozen families. We took them soup and challah. I found out my mother visited them regularly.
My 18 years in east Tennessee were, despite the wonderful friends I made (friends I have to this day), marred by incidents like the ones I have described. My 8th grade homeroom teacher (homeroom is a concept that no longer exists. In my day it was a ‘class’ of a half hour in which roll was taken and the day was started), a former Baptist minister, insisted we all pray to Jesus, eyes closed, devout. Until my mother came in and spoke to the principal and asked that I be allowed to step outside the room until the prayer was over. My teacher liked me even less after that. I sat in a chair outside the door and wondered really which was worse: talking to God silently and apologizing for the Jesus thing or just being quiet with myself for five minutes. Everyone who wandered by wanted to know what I was doing out in the hall. How had I misbehaved? How had I indeed?
There were a few other Jewish kids scattered about the public school system, including two girls of my exact age, one of whom became my best friend and still is the person who knows me best; the other was a woman with whom I was friendly for many years basically because our parents were. She and I had little in common but circumstances kept us in each others’ orbit until about ten years ago. My best friend’s father had been a Jewish gangster and was shot to death in his home in St. Louis. But no one but me knew that. Her mother had remarried a non-Jew and what my friend knew about Judaism I could fit into a thimble. She also had the kind of sunny personality where bad stuff just slid off her. My other friend’s mother had been born and raised in our little town, her uncle ran the shoe store in town; being a native seemed to carry more weight than being Jewish. She was very pretty and very popular and things went fairly smoothly for her, too. Although the truth was she never wanted to talk about the serious stuff, never about anti-Semitism.
My family consisted of a bunch of troublemakers, especially my mother and me. My parents were essentially carpetbaggers, my father was a business owner, they were exotic and ethnic looking even if I wasn’t, even if I could have passed had I wanted and had I been prettier. But my mother was the one always dragging the menorahs and Passover plates to school to explain “our” holidays. She was the one who went to the principal and got me out of praying; she was the one who fought with the administration when they wanted to count the High Holidays as days absent (not that I ever was even close to perfect attendance). My mother wrote a column for the newspaper. She said political stuff. She was involved. Therefore I was visible whether I wanted to be or not.
And from the age of five, so was I.
With each traveling tent revival (and there were many back in the day) one or another Christian at my school would invite me to go. I heard they got extra points for saving a Jew along with getting saved themselves. That may have been as false as the things they said about me. But as I had already attended a half a dozen churches of a half a dozen different Christian denominations with my Girl Scout troop as part of the religion badge, I didn’t bite.
A very cute boy told me he wanted to ask me out but he didn’t date Jews. His mother wouldn’t let him.
My mother insisted I join B’nai Brith, an organization of Jewish boys and girls. This meant even more trips to Knoxville after my Sunday school years were over but I also went to conferences in Nashville, Biloxi, Birmingham and other large cities where there were tons of kids just like me. I felt sometimes that I lived a double life: the small town me who acted like everyone else. Mostly. And the other me, the Jewish me. I felt that I needed to arm myself with information, with knowledge, so that when kids in my town asked to see my horns (they did, honest) or if the holiday I was celebrating was the one in which we killed baby boys and drank their blood (real question) I could answer, well, reasonably. Even if the questions were unreasonable.
The questions did not end. Years and years later as a grown woman and mother of two, I was sitting in the dentist chair in yet another small Southern town in which I lived, when the hygienist who had known me for a long time, asked me if we Jews still made sacrifices.
My first thought was to tell her that, yes, it was indeed a sacrifice to live in a town without a Bloomingdale’s, but I knew that was a smart ass remark and that she wouldn’t get it and I would not have accomplished anything. So, patiently, in between pokes and prods and rinsing and spitting, I told her that that sort of thing had gone out of fashion thousands of years ago. She looked at me and said, “You know I don’t know anything about being Jewish. Would you come and talk to the women at my church about it?”
My mother, who had done that sort of thing all of her life, would have been proud of me for saying yes. I put on my nicest churchgoing clothes and went deep into the country to a small primitive church where I spoke, dispassionately and informatively, to 30 women about the history of Judaism. After my talk, one of the older women came up and touched me gently on the arm and told me I was the first Jew she had ever met. She also said that I seemed quite nice. That was right after the turn of this century. The 21st.
All this is by way of saying that the current climate, while terrifying and disturbing for so many reasons, is not surprising. Sadly. And my experiences, past and present, are small compared to the physical brutality of past events. But I have been saying for years that anti-Semitism, like racism, has just gone underground for a while, become less “acceptable” in polite society. People continue to pretend we are all decent people. We aren’t. Too many of us are not. Anti-Semitism is always there, hidden and not so hidden, underneath polite discourse. It is there. It is and has been and always will be.
Small moments for me: yesterday’s, last week’s, last year’s, when I was a child. Small incidents piling on to many, many other small moments. But those moments sit atop not only my history but the entire history of the Jews. Those moments sit atop marches and protests and banishment and extermination. People actually feel comfortable calling Jews the new Nazis. And there are once again too many people who conflate Jews with Israelis and Zionists, who lack both education and subtlety and the deep-seated knowledge that that kind of conflation, anyone can tell you, only leads to more violence.