Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) starts Saturday night. I love it that the central metaphor of Jewish spirituality is liberation from slavery, and that the holiday that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt turns on symbolic re-enactment of that liberation. For me, the greatest opportunity for growth lies in the elimination of chametz from one’s life during the Passover week.
Chametz is usually translated as “leavening.” During Passover, we eat matzo — unleavened, quickly baked, plain, large crackers that reproduce “the bread of affliction” — the bread eaten by fleeing slaves, who had no time to wait for dough to rise. Jewish practice for this holiday is to remove from one’s household and one’s diet all foods associated with leavening. That means no bread raised with yeast or muffins with baking powder, and indeed, no use at all of five grains traditionally made into bread — wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt — unless they have been converted to matzo through the rapid process dictated by tradition.
But chametz is also a spiritual metaphor for anything that clogs our ability to connect to spirit or puffs us up like yeast, expanding our egos to occupy space we might otherwise give to compassion and other matters of the spirit. In preparation for Passover, while we clean our homes to remove chametz, we also search our hearts, trying to clear away whatever obstructs or bloats our awareness, impeding the flow of loving-kindness.
This week, in preparation for the holiday, I want to write about some of the chametz that is congesting my own channels. I’ll start by diving straight into the heart of my painfully mixed feelings about people’s ideas concerning Jews.
On April 7th, I posted an essay about a documentary examining Hollywood’s representation of the Holocaust. A friend wrote in reply, asking me to respond to some troubling feelings evoked by the column, which resonated for him with other experiences and observations. I was glad he wrote: better to know what people are thinking, better to have the opportunity to talk it over, to deepen understanding and, one hopes, to find a meeting place in dialogue. I believe and respect that he was struggling with questions that made him (as well as me) uncomfortable; at the same time, it is hard when such questions touch on one’s own fears.
To summarize, my friend had several concerns. He felt Jews (and in particular, the state of Israel), had not demonstrated sufficient empathy for other targets of genocide: “It is as if the ‘never again’ slogan means never again for Jews only.” he wrote, citing Israel’s support for South Africa and silence on Darfur. He asked whether Holocaust images “cause people there to pause at the outrages in Israel/Palestine over the last fifty years?” He asked, “Why is it I am seeing so many programs on the holocaust recently?” He said that in his middle-sized hometown, Jews, so active in other progressive causes, have not been part of peace movements focused on Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, complaining that, “In all conversations with my Jewish colleagues including the most liberal and radical…all criticisms of Israel turn the conversation back to the holocaust. Any criticism of Israel is anti-semitism.”
Here is my reply, with minor edits for the sake of anonymity:
“The first thing I would ask you to consider is the ease with which you conflate Jews and Israel and make sweeping statements about both categories. I’m no more in support of Israeli foreign policy than of American, and it isn’t as if you or I would feel comfortable generalizing about the views of all Americans based on assumed responsibility for our national policies. As you point out, there’s an active peace movement in Israel. There’s been a highly visible movement of refuseniks who will not serve in the occupied territories — certainly proportionately larger than outright antiwar activity by U.S. soldiers and vets. And as for Jewish involvement in peace movements, check out Arthur Waskow’s Web site for links to much of what’s going on, rather than me enumerating a long list here.
“Are you part of online peace and justice lists? Just about every day I get something from True Majority over the signature of Ben Cohen, and from MoveOn.org over the signature of Eli Pariser, Adam Ruben, Noah Winer or Ben Brandzel. These are all Jews, and both their organizations have been very active on Darfur, for instance. Or check out the disproportionate numbers of Jewish organizations that are members of the Save Darfur Coalition.
“I’m sure it is unsettling that Jewish involvement in your local antiwar movement is as sparse as you describe. That is disappointing, but I suppose the answer is to reach out as these groups would perhaps do to African American or Latino communities if they were underrepresented. Having been in that type of conversation many times in the past, I know that a diagnosis of hypocrisy is not usually the first thing on everyone’s lips when those groups fail to show in numbers proportionate to their representation in the population. (Your hometown’s Jewish population is 1.6% of the total.)
“But what concerns me more is your readiness to make big generalizations on that basis. I don’t know your own religious heritage, but I assume it to be Protestant or Catholic. Like those groups, Jews occupy every position on the political spectrum. Suggesting that it is possible to generalize about Jews as a group as you have — well, you need only transpose such generalizations to any other ethnic, religious or national group to see how silly it is to do this. You could as easily say that African American Christians should be more sensitized than any to oppression, because of slavery, or that Latinos should be more sensitized to labor issues because of that history, and you would still have to explain the black voters who supported Bush on account of abortion or other issues they valued more, the growing number of Latino conservatives who supported him.
“As for why you’re seeing ‘so many’ programs on the Holocaust, I can’t say — I haven’t seen the same ones, I guess. What tends to worry me is the feeling that ‘so many’ is sometimes taken to equal ‘too many,’ as if the solution would be to limit depictions of one or another historical drama — when as in all such questions of representation, it seems to me our task is to ensure all the stories are told in all the public fora. As for their intentions, again, it seems they vary widely: the one I wrote about was made to look at questions of representation in culture, which was the topic of my blog. A film could have been made about Hollywood representations of slavery (like Marlon Rigg’s \Ethnic Notions\, on other representations of African Americans), and had a lot more material to draw on to make pretty much the same points.
“The experience you’ve had of conversations turning back to the Holocaust or criticisms of Israel turning back to the accusations of antisemitism is a complicated thing, with more than two sides, I am sure. But the two main ones that occur to me are: first, the reality that Jews are a traumatized people, which creates a lot of internalized fear, often producing distortions of perception — the fear of being under attack. So there’s bound to be a certain amount of walking on eggs. That comes out most strongly when an exchange on touchy subjects isn’t grounded in acknowledgement of those realities.
“Again, I would say that the American left has been far more understanding and patient with the traumatization of African Americans leading to similar experiences of hypersensitivity to racial slur, than it has with the similar behavior of Jews. Personally, my intention is to try to be aware of and correct for this tendency in myself, and to bring this question out into the open for discussion in groups. On the individual level, as on the social one, it hurts us to be carrying past pain into the future, where it has a distorting effect. Obviously, this comes up in other arenas too, as in women who are hypersensitive to male chauvinism. This is a conversation I’d like to see us all have a lot more. If nothing else, I think it would create greater empathy for all traumatized peoples, each to the others.
“Second, there is the fact that antisemitism is a reality, and some of its recent manifestations have been ugly and frightening. Did you know that people put stuff out on email after 9/11 saying the Jews in the WTC had been warned before the attacks? I received this stuff, so you must have too. Not only is this false on the face of it — many Jews died in the WTC — but it incorporates an incredibly vicious idea, that if true, of all who were ostensibly warned, not a single one had sufficient humanity to warn others — to call the press, the police, their friends in the office (even the Jews who died), anyone. So a message that is just egregiously stupid on the face of it actually carries the most terrible and damaging sort of propaganda, the assertion that a particular people is so consumed with narrow self-interest that its members lack even the basic compassion that defines us as human.
“Put yourself in my place. How would it feel to be told by someone you knew that this was a reasonable charge? When we are in a world where this happens — when your colleagues are hearing this stuff all the time, as I am — then I would not be quick to dismiss their reactions as entirely paranoia.
“Well, I hope this helps to illuminate the true complexity of what is unfortunately drawn too often with an over-broad brush. I know it is important to you to be aware of and root out internalized oppression in all forms, and hope what I have written helps you extend that effort to your ideas about Jews and Israel.”
This exchange was much milder in tone than many I’ve had on similar subjects. Once my husband and I had an extended consulting relationship with an African American cultural group in the deep south, one whose members had been subjected to both general and specific racist acts all their lives. One night after work, when we were all hanging out over glasses of wine, a leader of the group asked me why people hated the Jews, what was wrong with us that we should attract all this enmity? That was a mind-bender, but only one of dozens like it I’ve experienced.
My correspondent replied to my letter that I had given him a lot to think about. Me too: I’ve been thinking about it ever since, unsure precisely why it stuck in my mind like baked-on chametz. I’ve gotten into the habit of posting an essay on topics that engage me, because I’ve found they’re usually resonant for others too. But I resisted writing about this, because — as a traumatized person — I’m hypersensitive to the charge of making too much of issues having to do with Jews. Biting one’s tongue is a familiar symptom of this trauma, and I’ve done my share of it.
Then I found myself at dinner with friends, recounting these complicated feelings. When I got to the part about only 1.6 percent of my correspondent’s hometown being Jews (this was in the course of pointing out that if two Jews showed up at an antiwar meeting in his community, Jews would be over-represented), my friends exclaimed: this was difficult to believe! Oh yes, I said, Jews are only 2 percent of the U.S. population, less than 3 percent of California’s. More astounded exclamations.
Here’s what I think my issue is: I’m ready for a break. I would like to see the number of opinions and ideas about Jews downsized to be proportionate to our actual occurrence in the population. I just learned from the National Italian American Foundation that Italian Americans make up over 3 percent of U.S. population, half again as many as Jews. They too have a country that is identified with their heritage, Italy, one which happens to be governed by a corrupt and egregious reactionary, Silvio Berlusconi.
Now, I’m not suggesting anyone pick on the Italians, who have given the world so much in terms of art, cuisine and style (to mention just a few of that ethnic group’s contributions to world culture). But I would like to offer a modest proposal which, in keeping with the season, might help to release the excess air from some of our puffed-up ideas about each other: the next time you are tempted to count Jews in order to find us wanting, count Italians too. If you don’t find at least one and one-half times as many Italians as Jews on the side you consider righteous, let the counting stop there. I’d like to believe that it’s time to give up such counting altogether, but for now, let’s sweep it out with the chametz and give us all a short break.