Alexandra Schwartz’s short, informative essay in the New Yorker—well, the title almost says it all: “The Tree of Life Shooting and the Return of Anti-Semitism to American Life.” Almost, but not quite. Please read it.
Why? To glimpse the seemingly evergreen historical uses of antisemitism if you didn’t grow up like me, constantly reminded by the absence of ancestors and the words of those around you that we are always in jeopardy, that we live here on sufferance, on a provisional tolerance that can always be withdrawn. Read it to glimpse the experience of so many in my generation: the perpetual anticipation of the other boot dropping—on our necks, this time.
Reading this short, informative essay could help some people begin to understand that genocide happened to us in living memory, but not for the first time, not by a longshot. Even now, nearly 75 years after the end of World War II, there are fewer than half the Jews on the planet than had the Holocaust not happened. There are approximately 14 million Jews today; in 1939 there were about 16 million—so we haven’t even recouped the loss. Authoritative estimates say that with normal birth rates and no Holocaust, there would be upwards of 32 million today. Glimpsing history might help readers understand that for those in my generation, when Nazis march in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” when an assassin opens fire in a synagogue yelling “All Jews must die,” we are reminded that exterminating more than one out of every three of us isn’t enough, not by a longshot. And in a nation that has more guns than people, our fear grows realer every day.
The ordinary antisemitism I grew up with: being chased every year when the Catholic kids got around to the chapter in catechism class that inspired them to punish us for killing Jesus; going to the principal’s office while the entire public school population sang Christmas carols in the auditorium; knowing all the words to all the carols and all the Christian holidays anyway, and never once being asked to show-and-tell something about our own heritage. Learning all the names for Jews my classmates imbibed with their mothers’ milk. Hearing that my father had been beaten for the crime of being Jewish by a man who worked down the street where he and his fellow housepainters kept their brushes and cans and ladders; and that someone had summoned the police, and the policeman made my father shake hands with his assailant. Microaggressions is the wrong word. Try macro.
No one burned a cross in front of our house. We were never carted away on trains. But the message of disbelonging came through clearly, and it could jump out to surprise me in any dark corner of conversation or any headline or any overheard slur. And even though it was more subtle, it rhymed so closely with the stories of our collective past and the element of surprise they all contained, we knew we had to stay awake.
I’m first generation in this country. I was taught by my immigrant forebears—who had trouble distinguishing homegrown uniformed men with guns from the ones who killed my great-grandfather in Vitebsk—to fear the police. I have never called the police in my life, and I doubt I ever will.
I have been a person of the left all my life, believing that neither justice nor mercy can come from special pleading for one’s own. They must be fundamental, universal human rights. Yet my commitment has been tried by the times my experience and history are trivialized by fellow progressives who decide on the basis of the white skin privilege many (but by no means all) of us have—the fact that I will not be stopped for driving or walking while Jewish—that to be a Jew in the USA is more or less the same as being a white Protestant and I ought to get over it, drop my paranoia, focus on real oppression. By the times that stereotypical views of Jews are casually accepted while speaking in similar ways about other identities gets called out, and not necessarily by those whose identities are being disparaged. By the times calling attention to what is actually happening in this country (as I did in this essay in June) has brought charges of exaggeration, of alarmism. By the expectation that I will accept the assurances of those who bloodlines don’t carry the same sensors for impending fascism, that I should relax and trust them to care about what happens to me and my ilk.
Jewish history confers no special virtue or status. Neither does any other. In every group, certain people have amassed the economic power or kissed up to the king hard enough to be crowned exceptions and do the oppressors’ work: for every Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson there is a Sheldon Adelson or Jared Kushner. Persecution is just as equal-opportunity: the appalling frequency with which Christians and Muslims have been threatened or attacked in their houses of worship tells the same story of leaders who peddle death, who use terrible words and actions to draft broken men into their scapegoating strike force, then disclaim the blood that is spilled in their names.
No livable future can emerge from a hierarchy of oppressions. Having compassion for my fear and understanding the very real danger that triggers it in no way limits the compassion I or anyone else can have for your very real history and present-day jeopardy. There is enough empathy to go around. If we make it a competition, we serve those who feast on our division.
May the memories of all those who have died of hatred stoked in high places be a blessing to all who love freedom. And may the fear felt by survivors carrying history in our bones be answered with compassion.
And that is the silver lining. Compassion is one good thing to come out of this: that so many non-Jews are finally speaking up when we are targeted. I don’t have words to say how different this feels from the ordinary run of my experience, and how much I welcome and appreciate it. Let me close with another short piece, this one written by Phyllis Bennis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for the Nation. The title almost says it all: “In Response to Pittsburgh, We Must Come Together as One.” Almost, but not quite. Please read it too.
The title of this essay comes from “The Devil Finds Work,” a song by Rev. Sekou, who I just discovered—why did it take me so long? Be sure to listen to “Resist” too, a song for now.
I deeply appreciate and thank you for this explicit explanation of the lingering experience. Having grown up in NYC in the 60s and 70s, most of my teachers were Jewish as were almost half of my classmates. I recall an argument about who suffered more between 8 y.o. girls Black and Jewish. I appreciate how you address that. There is enough empathy to go around. If we make it a competition, we serve those who feast on our division.
I do not doubt your memories but you may want to think a little about what “ the chapter in catechism class that inspired [Catholics] to punish us for killing Jesus” could have actually been.
Are you suggesting there was a Goebbelesque “chapter” in an official catechism published by US dioceses? Are you sure it wasn’t written by defrocked (for Anti-Semitisn) Catholic 1930s radio priest Coughlin?
Jokes aside, I don’t know when you grew up but in the late 1950s a new Pope, John 23rd, instituted “Vatican Two” which among other reforms expressly and at length sought conciliation (via seeking forgiveness) with the Jews.
Specifically though, stating infallibly—his wont on issues of Catholic doctrine—John 23 laid down that it was theretofore a grievous error, and hence (I think) a sin to blame Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews, whether it be the specific Hebrews who, according to the New Testaments, called for his death at the hands of the Romans at Golgotha or, crucially, modern Jewry.
Incidentally, I am familiar of one accurate pre V2 reflection of specifically Catholic anti-semitism that is not an exercise to expose such cruelties. In the first film treatment of Joan of Arc, the condemned military leader calls her tormentors “Jews” when she is sentenced to death at the stake. Her judges are, of course, Bishops in the Roman church but she seeks to compare her suffering to Christ’s. It is indeed a chilling example of ancient prejudice but it is a French film from the 1920s which uses the actual inquisition transcript. In other words, it is reporting attitudes from the 13th Century not channeling those of its filmmakers.
Hi, Molly. I wasn’t privy to the curriculum, only what was said and done by the kids who’d experienced it. Vatican II convened in 1962 and adjourned in 1965. I graduated from high school in 1964. So there were a dozen years or so of my experience with Catholic School kids before John the 23rd. My memory is accurate. I think you may be thinking of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer’s film starring the great Falconetti. And it goes without saying there were plenty of antisemites in the 20th century as in the 13th.
I am quite familiar with the film I mentioned which should be clear from the fact that I am quoting it. I am not denying that there were anti-semites in the 20th Century, in fact I named a quite powerful preacher/trained priest in anti Semitic tropes—again, even many years before V2 he was defrocked for anti-semitism.
In any case, the question your initial post raised was not about how many anti-semites were around in the 20th Century but the role of official Catholic doctrine in promulgating it.
Your last comment actually goes some way in proving my implied point that your personal childhood impressions are of not useful as it applies to the historical record. Even if we accept that your memory is valid it is still hearsay from other subjective childhood impressions.
I am not an active Catholic but I was raised one and know many others, mostly like me, either lapsed or diffident, and parts of mixed (Jewish and Catholic families.) I have never in my life heard that some part of the Catholic School curriculum had the effect of whipping up small-time Pogroms by minor children.
As I said, Molly, I have no knowledge of curriculum, just my experience, which was cyclical and repetitive. I am not making claims about Catholic history or parochial school curriculum, but I am certain of my own experience, and my story is not unique. Whether the objectionable ideas originated in the classroom or playground doesn’t matter to me—either way it grew from a culture. I hear that distinction is very meaningful to you, and obviously, you are entitled to your own views, just like me.