Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 1
In the con­text of a dis­cus­sion we were hav­ing about an essay I pub­lished last year on Unlike­ly Sto­ries called The Lines That Anti­semitism and Racism Draw, my friend Nan­cy remind­ed me of a con­ver­sa­tion a group of us had about anti­se­mit­ic graf­fi­ti that was show­ing up on the cam­pus where I teach. It gave me, I said, a real feel­ing of déjà vu, and I start­ed telling the group stories—some of which are in the essay—about the anti­semitism, vio­lent and oth­er­wise, that I expe­ri­enced grow­ing up on Long Island in the 1970s and ear­ly 80s. She’d nev­er heard me tell those sto­ries before, she said, and asked if writ­ing about them had helped me speak about them. Her com­ments struck me because I have nev­er thought of myself as not speak­ing about my expe­ri­ence with anti­semitism. When the sub­ject comes up, I share the sto­ries quite read­i­ly, but I guess that’s the point: the sub­ject very rarely comes up. Indeed, it seems to me that anti­semitism often gets treat­ed as an “oppres­sion apart.” It is sometimes—but not always and, in my opin­ion, not often enough—paid lip ser­vice in the list of oppres­sions peo­ple of good will are sup­posed to reject. Rarely, how­ev­er, except by Jews, is it tak­en seri­ous­ly as a social, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and insti­tu­tion­al man­i­fes­ta­tion of priv­i­lege that peo­ple who are not Jew­ish need to account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for in their lives. (This is not true of Nan­cy, whose essay about her own negotiation/navigation of white priv­i­lege, Meet­ing the Man on the Street, you ought to read.)

 

There are rea­sons for this, some of which are under­stand­able, giv­en the deeply prob­lem­at­ic assim­i­la­tion of Jew­ish­ness into white­ness in Unit­ed States cul­ture. Oth­ers, though, result pret­ty unam­bigu­ous­ly from straight up, old fash­ioned anti­semitism. Regard­less of the rea­sons, how­ev­er, what Nancy’s com­ments made me think about is how impor­tant it is for Jew­ish peo­ple to tell the sto­ries of our encoun­ters with anti­semitism. Because I don’t know about you—and here I’m address­ing myself to my Jew­ish readers—antisemitism has always been a part of my life. We need to tell these sto­ries from our lives, and tell them and insist that they be tak­en seri­ous­ly, not sim­ply as expres­sions of an unfor­tu­nate and per­haps resid­ual hatred, left over from “a time before” when peo­ple were not as enlight­ened about Jews as they are now—a not uncom­mon atti­tude I have encountered—and not as what we ought (sad­ly and resigned­ly) to expect giv­en how Israel behaves in the world, espe­cial­ly towards the Pales­tini­ans; but as the sys­temic form of hatred and oppres­sion that it is, woven no less ineluctably into the sec­u­lar Chris­t­ian cul­ture of the Unit­ed States than racism and Islam­o­pho­bia. (I real­ize, of course, that anti­semitism is also a world­wide phe­nom­e­non, but I live in the Unit­ed States, and my expe­ri­ence is in the Unit­ed States, and so it’s about the Unit­ed States in par­tic­u­lar that I am think­ing right now.)

In blog posts that I’m not going to link to because the con­text in which I wrote them would dis­tract from the point I am try­ing to make here, I told some of my own anti­semitism sto­ries, and in a good deal more detail than in the Unlike­ly Sto­ries essay. I’ve decid­ed it’s time to tell them again. For the rea­sons I gave above, I think they are a nec­es­sary response to things like the call for an armed, neo-Naz­i/white suprema­cist march tar­get­ing the Jews of White­fish, Mon­tana; to the appear­ance of swastikas on my cam­pus and so many oth­er places through­out the Unit­ed States; because of inci­dents like this one illus­trat­ed by the pho­to at the top of this post, in which van­dals turned a family’s home­made meno­rah into a swasti­ka; and because of the wave of bomb threats that have been called in to Jew­ish Cen­ters since the begin­ning of 2017. My own sto­ries cov­er a lot of ground, and so I am going to break them up into short­er posts, start­ing with what I expe­ri­enced in ele­men­tary school, which would cov­er the mid-1960s to the ear­ly 1970s.

Third Through Fifth Grades

Anti­semitism has been a tan­gi­ble and to vary­ing degrees vio­lent pres­ence in my life since at least third grade, which would have been in 1970 or so, when John W—it’s amaz­ing that I remem­ber his name—having asked me the pre­vi­ous day what reli­gion I was, came up to me in the play­ground while we were choos­ing sides for dodge­ball and said, “My father told me I’m not allowed to play with Jews.” I can’t recall whether or not I was per­mit­ted to be part of the game that day, but I can see very clear­ly the one and only fist­fight I have ever had, which that same year. I don’t know why John B and I end­ed up in the mid­dle of the school­yard cir­cle of boys try­ing very hard to get one of us to throw the first punch, but I do know that John W was not the only voice I heard reas­sur­ing my oppo­nent that I was “only a Jew” and there­fore “weak and easy to take.” In the end, the first and only punch was mine. I land­ed one right on John’s chin. He start­ed bleed­ing and the sight of his blood fright­ened us all into run­ning wher­ev­er it was that we ran to. I was scared because I thought I’d real­ly hurt him, but I found out lat­er I’d only bro­ken a scab on his face.

That show of strength, how­ev­er, did noth­ing to damp­en my class­mates’ enthu­si­asm for shows of anti­semitism. Next came the pen­nies they start­ed throw­ing at me in the school­yard. At the time, I did not know the anti­se­mit­ic canard of the cheap Jew, and they said noth­ing that con­nect­ed what they were doing to my being Jew­ish. I’m guess­ing they want­ed to see if I would prove what they already “knew” to be true by doing “what came nat­u­ral­ly” and pick­ing them up. Since I often end­ed up with as much as twen­ty cents—an amount that meant some­thing to a third grad­er back then—I laughed at them for being so stu­pid that they were giv­ing me free mon­ey. I could not for the life of me under­stand why they thought it was so fun­ny that I took it. Even­tu­al­ly, some­one explained to me just what the pen­nies were sup­posed to sig­ni­fy. I wish I could say I stopped pick­ing them up, but I didn’t. I’m not entire­ly sure why, except that the free­ness of the mon­ey seemed to out­weigh the insult it was sup­posed to convey.

The last pen­ny-throw­ing inci­dent I remem­ber was in fifth grade, which means peo­ple had been throw­ing them at me for two years. Usu­al­ly, this hap­pened in the school­yard, dur­ing recess, but this time some­one tossed a few pen­nies in my direc­tion dur­ing class, when our teacher had stepped out of the room for a minute. Clear­ly, this had been planned, since one class­mate actu­al­ly hand­ed me an entire roll of pen­nies. Then, a group of boys start­ed chant­i­ng “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!” (I don’t remem­ber if the girls par­tic­i­pat­ed or had any­thing to say at all.) I don’t remem­ber what pre­cise­ly hap­pened when my teacher came back into the room, but I do know that, even after he’d calmed the class down and got us all back in our seats, he did noth­ing to acknowl­edge the anti­se­mit­ic nature of what had just happened.

Sixth Grade

My sixth grade music teacher made a point of embar­rass­ing me in front of the entire class for not know­ing what hol­ly was in “Deck the Boughs…” “Don’t you Jews know any­thing?” she asked. When I asked if we could learn a Chanukah song, she said it was more impor­tant for me to know the Christ­mas songs; and when I got per­mis­sion to leave school fif­teen min­utes ear­ly so I could get to my Hebrew school class­es on time, she mut­tered some­thing about how “Jews were always ask­ing for spe­cial favors” and almost didn’t let me go.

There was no sixth grade grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mo­ny, but we did get a sig­na­ture book. On the very first page, Jim wrote, “Rose are red, vio­lets are blue/I nev­er met a nicer Jew.” Evan: “To the Jew, Have a pen­ny good time in 7th grade.” Andy: “Of all the pushy Jews, you top them all.” I don’t remem­ber what I felt read­ing them then; but it aston­ish­es me now—though it prob­a­bly shouldn’t—how nor­mal­ized that kind of casu­al anti­semitism was.

Next time, I’ll cov­er grades sev­en through eleven.

8 Comments

  • Trackback: Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 2 - Richard Jeffrey Newman’s Website
  • Trackback: Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 3 - Richard Jeffrey Newman’s Website
  • Trackback: The Pleasure and Pain of Starting Over - Richard Jeffrey Newman’s Website
  • Trackback: The Pleasure and Pain of Starting Over | Alas, a Blog
  • Daran Posted April 5, 2017 1:54 am

    Rarely, how­ev­er, except by Jews, is [anti-semi­tism] tak­en seri­ous­ly as a social, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and insti­tu­tion­al man­i­fes­ta­tion of priv­i­lege that peo­ple who are not Jew­ish need to account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for in their lives.

    I’ve seen you write sim­i­lar things before. What do you mean by “need to” in this con­text? I would have thought it the epit­o­me of non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege that I don’t need — in the ordi­nary sense of the word — to do, say, or think any­thing about anti­semitism at all. I could get along fine with­out ever think­ing about it. Do you mean “should”?

    Also what do you mean by “account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for in their lives”?. The only priv­i­lege I can dis­cern is that I haven’t suf­fered the per­se­cu­tion that you and oth­er Jews have as a result of big­otry against my religion/ethnicity. How am I sup­posed to account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for this? Doesn’t respon­si­bil­i­ty for this lie real­ly with those who would have per­se­cut­ed me had I been Jew­ish, but didn’t because I’m not?

    In fact, I have suf­fered per­se­cu­tion sim­i­lar to yours, although for a dif­fer­ent rea­son: unrecog­nised (at the time) Asperger’s. I wrote about it here. It’s the sim­i­lar­i­ty between our child­hood expe­ri­ences that draws me to these three posts of yours. The attack you describe in your tenth grade is par­tic­u­lar­i­ty res­o­nant. It reminds me of the one I described at the start of my post.

    I assume you are neu­rotyp­i­cal. Do you “need to account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for” the per­se­cu­tion of AS peo­ple in your life? Have you done this, and if so, how?

  • rich­new­man Posted April 5, 2017 9:37 am

    Daran,

    I sup­pose I wrote “need to” because I was think­ing about peo­ple who would say that, when some­one has priv­i­lege, he or she need, in the sense of being oblig­at­ed, to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for it. It might be that “should” would have been a more clear what of say­ing what I meant.

    And regard­ing what I will call, for want of a bet­ter term, non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege: In my expe­ri­ence, liv­ing in what is essen­tial­ly the sec­u­lar Chris­t­ian cul­ture of the US, that priv­i­lege extends to hav­ing one’s world view tak­en for grant­ed. Broad­ly speak­ing, the Jew­ish world view is, at its core, dif­fer­ent in many cru­cial respects from the Chris­t­ian one, and it is inevitably the Chris­t­ian one that dom­i­nates dis­course, not to men­tion the large and small acts of big­otry that are often not rec­og­nized as such because anti­semitism is such a nor­mal­ized thing.

    I sus­pect, based on past con­ver­sa­tions, that you and I dif­fer in how we under­stand what it means for some­one to have priv­i­lege, so I am not try­ing to per­suade you of any­thing here. I do, how­ev­er, think, in response to your last ques­tions, that I should indeed hold myself account­able for how AS peo­ple are treat­ed not just in my life, but in soci­ety at large. The pri­ma­ry (prac­ti­cal, non-the­o­ret­i­cal) expe­ri­ence I’ve had with this is in my class­room, where I have worked very hard to make sure that stu­dents who are not neu­rotyp­i­cal not only do not become the object of ridicule of oth­er stu­dents in the class (which I have seen hap­pen), but also that my class­room is a place where they feel wel­comed, by which I mean com­fort­able enough to par­tic­i­pate, con­tribute, or not, based on how they feel—just like any oth­er stu­dent in the class.

    I have only had a chance to skim the post you linked to, but I will go back and read it more care­ful­ly. It is mis­er­able to have to go through expe­ri­ences like that as a child, and I am sor­ry you had to suf­fer through it.

  • Daran Posted April 5, 2017 5:28 pm

    I sup­pose I wrote “need to” because I was think­ing about peo­ple who would say that, when some­one has priv­i­lege, he or she need, in the sense of being oblig­at­ed, to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for it. It might be that “should” would have been a more clear what of say­ing what I meant.

    Moral­ly or eth­i­cal­ly oblig­at­ed then. That clears up the phrase “need to”. Sev­er­al things are not clear to me.

    What do you mean by “account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for” in this context?

    Why do non-Jew­ish peo­ple “need to” do this in the moral­ly oblig­at­ed sense that you have clarified.

    How does a non-Jew­ish do this? Specif­i­cal­ly what do I, as a non-Jew­ish per­son have to do to dis­charge this moral obligation?

    Per­haps I should explain my per­son­al sit­u­a­tion. The last time I can remem­ber hav­ing real-life social con­tact with a per­son I knew or sus­pect­ed to be Jew­ish was twen­ty-sev­en years ago when I worked for an Israeli-based com­pa­ny for a few months. Pri­or to that employ­ment, I can remem­ber one per­son I knew who self-iden­ti­fied as a Jew. I can­not recall ever see­ing an in-real-life expres­sion of anti­semitism. (Of course I’ve seen many in social media, news reports and his­tor­i­cal reconstructions.)

    It’s pos­si­ble that I may have observed inci­dents which at the time I failed to recog­nise as anti­se­mit­ic, direct­ed at peo­ple I failed to recog­nise as Jews. The only way to rem­e­dy that, as far as I can see would be for me to steep myself in Jew­ish cul­ture, learn about anti­semitism in all its forms, and so on. And I would have to do the same for every oth­er cul­tur­al and sub­cul­tur­al group. That’s not a rea­son­able demand.

    And regard­ing what I will call, for want of a bet­ter term, non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege: In my expe­ri­ence, liv­ing in what is essen­tial­ly the sec­u­lar Chris­t­ian cul­ture of the US, that priv­i­lege extends to hav­ing one’s world view tak­en for grant­ed. Broad­ly speak­ing, the Jew­ish world view is, at its core, dif­fer­ent in many cru­cial respects from the Chris­t­ian one, and it is inevitably the Chris­t­ian one that dom­i­nates discourse.

    This would be Chris­t­ian priv­i­lege rather than non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege. It’s not a priv­i­lege enjoyed by Muslims.

    not to men­tion the large and small acts of big­otry that are often not rec­og­nized as such because anti­semitism is such a nor­mal­ized thing.

    You do realise, or per­haps you don’t, that this — sub­sti­tut­ing “misandry” for “anti­semitism” — is a large part of what I find so objec­tion­able about main­stream feminism.

    I sus­pect, based on past con­ver­sa­tions, that you and I dif­fer in how we under­stand what it means for some­one to have priv­i­lege, so I am not try­ing to per­suade you of any­thing here. I do, how­ev­er, think, in response to your last ques­tions, that I should indeed hold myself account­able for how AS peo­ple are treat­ed not just in my life, but in soci­ety at large. The pri­ma­ry (prac­ti­cal, non-the­o­ret­i­cal) expe­ri­ence I’ve had with this is in my class­room, where I have worked very hard to make sure that stu­dents who are not neu­rotyp­i­cal not only do not become the object of ridicule of oth­er stu­dents in the class (which I have seen hap­pen), but also that my class­room is a place where they feel wel­comed, by which I mean com­fort­able enough to par­tic­i­pate, con­tribute, or not, based on how they feel—just like any oth­er stu­dent in the class.

    That looks like the ordi­nary respon­si­bil­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty that attach­es to you by rea­son of your sta­tus as a col­lege pro­fes­sor, rather than to your neu­rotyp­i­cal priv­i­lege. If you were AS, then your respon­si­bil­i­ty to wel­come and pro­tect AS stu­dents would be no less, just as your respon­si­bil­i­ty to wel­come and pro­tect Jew­ish stu­dents is no less than if you weren’t Jew­ish your­self. Do you not agree?

    I would add that, at the time I was a stu­dent, there is noth­ing that you could have done that would have made me feel wel­come. At that time I believed every­one hat­ed me absolute­ly and that any act or word express­ing a dif­fer­ent view of me was a lie.

    I have only had a chance to skim the post you linked to, but I will go back and read it more care­ful­ly. It is mis­er­able to have to go through expe­ri­ences like that as a child, and I am sor­ry you had to suf­fer through it.

    Like­wise in respect of yours. But I didn’t link to it so solic­it expres­sions of regret, but to show you the sim­i­lar­i­ties. Of course there are also differences.

    • rich­new­man Posted April 6, 2017 8:44 am

      I take your point about Chris­t­ian ver­sus non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege. I’m not even sure what I was think­ing when I wrote non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege, since I have always used Chris­t­ian priv­i­lege in the past. I sup­pose what I mean when I say “need to account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for” is no dif­fer­ent than the ways I think about any oth­er group account­ing and tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own par­tic­i­pa­tion in/existence with­in a sys­tem that sys­tem­i­cal­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly den­i­grates/­mar­gin­al­izes/op­press­es/pick-your-verb oth­ers. (And while you and I dis­agree a lot about fem­i­nism, I do think that prin­ci­ple applies to how we all, women and men, talk about men, mas­culin­i­ty, and man­hood. We’ve talked about this before online, and we are not going to agree, so I am not real­ly inter­est­ed in reopen­ing that con­ver­sa­tion here.)

      What specif­i­cal­ly do I mean by account­ing and tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for? To start with, I don’t think it means that you have to proac­tive­ly, pre­emp­tive­ly, become an expert in Jew­ish cul­ture, but I do think that just acknowl­edg­ing you might have wit­nessed anti­se­mit­ic events with­out real­iz­ing it at the time (which implies a will­ing­ness to learn why they were anti­se­mit­ic and to be on the look­out for sim­i­lar things in the future) is, giv­en the sit­u­a­tion you describe for your­self, pre­cise­ly the kind of thing I have in mind. You would be sur­prised how many peo­ple I have met who do know an awful lot of Jews aren’t even will­ing to go that far. And I think the corol­lary to this is that one ought to be will­ing to accept and learn from the fact that Jew­ish peo­ple know an awful lot more about what is and is not anti­se­mit­ic than peo­ple who aren’t Jewish.

      And about your response to my com­ments about the class­room: I am not so sure I agree, or at least not entire­ly. It is true that, as a teacher, I have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to make every stu­dent feel wel­come, etc., but to the degree that the col­lege class­room tends to assume a neu­rotyp­i­cal stu­dent, and giv­en that I am neu­rotyp­i­cal, the blind spots I have—and I am sure I still have them—are the same blind spots I car­ry with me in my dai­ly life as well. My respon­si­bil­i­ty as a teacher might pro­vide moti­va­tion or cat­a­lyst to deal with them, but deal­ing with them is still part of tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the fact that I, as some­one who is neu­rotyp­i­cal, had those blind spots in the first place.

      Also, Daran, I am off to a con­fer­ence, so if you respond and I don’t reply, please know that I am not ignor­ing you.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *