Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
from “The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw”

Today is Shab­bat Nachamu, the Sab­bath of Con­so­la­tion. Last year at this time, I was on a fam­i­ly vaca­tion in Europe, sit­ting in our host’s din­ing room in Swe­den, ear­ly in the morn­ing while every­one else was still asleep, and writ­ing the fourth in a series of let­ters to Jonathan Pen­ton about racism and anti­semitism. That let­ter took Shab­bat Nachamu as its start­ing point. The let­ters as a whole, as a sin­gle med­i­ta­tion I called “The Lines That Anti­semitism and Racism Draw,” were inspired by the racism and anti­semitism of Don­ald Tump’s cam­paign, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, and Jonathan’s request that I write some­thing that would bal­ance out an egre­gious­ly priv­i­leged and racist state­ment made by a Jew­ish aca­d­e­m­ic who’d sub­mit­ted a piece to Jonathan’s pub­li­ca­tion, Unlike­ly Sto­ries, which was doing a spe­cial issue called Black Art Mat­ters. Even though I wrote the let­ter a year ago—by the Jew­ish cal­en­dar, exact­ly a year ago today—the issues it rais­es are still rel­e­vant, so I am repub­lish­ing it below. I hope, after read­ing it, you will con­sid­er read­ing the rest of the let­ters as well, which you can find in their orig­i­nal for­mat on Unlike­ly Sto­ries. Or, if that journal’s white text on black back­ground is hard for you to read, you can find the let­ters here, in a more tra­di­tion­al format.


 

Mon­day, August 15

Dear Jonathan,

We arrived in Stock­holm four days ago. This is the first chance I’ve had to write. We’re here to cel­e­brate my wife’s cousin’s 40th birth­day, and, in addi­tion to us and the oth­er rel­a­tives who’ve come from New York, fam­i­ly and friends have gath­ered from Tehran, Toron­to, and Milan. Our days, as I’m sure you can imag­ine, have been busy, filled with reunions and first meet­ings, the reliv­ing of old mem­o­ries, the mak­ing of new ones, oblig­a­tory sight­see­ing, and lots and lots of eat­ing and drink­ing. The birth­day par­ty itself was the night before last, a Madon­na-themed affair that kept us dancing—sometimes to music I hadn’t danced to since the 1980s—until the very, very ear­ly hours of the morning.

I’m sit­ting now in the emp­ty din­ing room of the house where we’re stay­ing. Our hosts—the birth­day girl and her husband—and their three young chil­dren are still sleep­ing, as are the more than two bas­ket­ball team’s worth of sib­lings, cousins, and in-laws who’ve also been stay­ing here. I wish I were still sleep­ing as well, but, as I told you in an ear­li­er let­ter, once I’m up, I’m up, and so part of me is actu­al­ly glad to have this time alone. I’ve been think­ing a lot about what I wrote to you before we left Scot­land, and there is more I’d like to say.

A quick glance at my cal­en­dar while my lap­top was boot­ing up remind­ed me that this week­end was Shab­bat Nachamu, the Sab­bath of Con­so­la­tion. Shab­bat Nachamu always falls on the sab­bath imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the fast day on which Jews mourn the destruc­tion of the first and sec­ond tem­ples in Jerusalem, by the Baby­lo­ni­ans and Romans respec­tive­ly. Each of those con­quer­ing nations sent the Jews into exile, and so Tisha B’Av also memo­ri­al­izes the dis­so­lu­tion of the Jew­ish nation, which makes it easy to under­stand why the rab­bis sched­uled Shab­bat Nachamu when they did. The day takes its name from the first words of the week’s haftorah, Nachamu, nachamu, ami:

Com­fort, com­fort, my peo­ple, says your God. Speak ten­der­ly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of ser­vice is over, that her iniq­ui­ty is expi­at­ed; for she has received at the hand of the Lord dou­ble for all her sins. (Isa­iah 40: 1–2)

Jerusalem, God seems to be say­ing here, the Jew­ish nation, has suf­fered enough, the impli­ca­tion being that God is final­ly ready to bring the pain and loss of exile to an end. As the facts of Jew­ish his­to­ry demon­strate, how­ev­er, God did not keep this promise. Indeed, over the cen­turies, Tisha B’av’s sig­nif­i­cance has been expand­ed to include dis­as­ters that befell the Jew­ish peo­ple exile long after the Roman con­quest in 70 CE. None of these occurred pre­cise­ly on the ninth of Av, but they all occurred dur­ing that month:

  • The begin­ning of the First Cru­sade, which result­ed in the deaths of 10,000 Jews and the destruc­tion of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in France and the Rhineland.
  • The expul­sion of the Jews from England
  • The expul­sion of the Jews from France
  • The expul­sion of the Jews from Spain
  • The Nazi Party’s for­mal approval of “The Final Solution”
  • The begin­ning of the mass depor­ta­tion of Jews from the War­saw Ghet­to to the Tre­blin­ka death camp

The full list con­tains about a dozen such calami­ties, but I have focused on these six since they are all unam­bigu­ous­ly root­ed in the idea that Jew­ish exis­tence is some­how exis­ten­tial­ly threat­en­ing to the non-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in which we live. For the medieval church, this threat was reli­gious in nature. The Jews refused to accept Jesus as the mes­si­ah and son of God, putting us in league with Satan by def­i­n­i­tion. For the Nazis, the threat was racial, embed­ded in their belief that the dif­fer­ent “races” of human beings were pit­ted against each oth­er in a Dar­win­ian strug­gle for sur­vival and ulti­mate domination.

The “racial” char­ac­ter­is­tics that made the Jews so dan­ger­ous to the Nazis, how­ev­er, were essen­tial­ly the same as the spir­i­tu­al and oth­er defi­cien­cies that, accord­ing to the Church, marked us as per­haps the most loy­al of Satan’s fol­low­ers. Indeed, while the specifics of anti­se­mit­ic expres­sion have been dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent times and places, Jew-hatred retains a remark­ably con­sis­tent inter­nal log­ic wher­ev­er you find it. Whether you’re in Poland or Venezuela, Sin­ga­pore or Egypt, Indone­sia or the Unit­ed States, anti­semites will tell you that to be Jew­ish is to be some com­bi­na­tion of greedy, con­niv­ing, sex­u­al­ly rapa­cious, finan­cial­ly cor­rupt, con­gen­i­tal­ly dis­hon­est and/or bio­log­i­cal­ly defi­cient. What’s more, they will say, we are always, always, hell-bent on destroy­ing every­thing that’s pure and good in the world, whether pure and good is defined as the Church, the ide­al of the Aryan nation, or the pros­per­i­ty every­one would be enjoy­ing if only the Jews did not con­trol the world’s finan­cial networks.

I have writ­ten else­where [the links to which are now dead] about the all-too-often vio­lent anti­semitism that has been a reg­u­lar fea­ture of my life since I was in third grade. In recent years, this anti­semitism has most often been expressed in the con­text of Israel’s ongo­ing occu­pa­tion of the Pales­tini­ans. I’m not talk­ing about crit­i­cisms of Israel or of Zion­ism that cross the line into anti­semitism, which I think hap­pens both more and less fre­quent­ly than the peo­ple on each side of that issue are will­ing to admit. Rather, I am talk­ing about peo­ple who have used the suf­fer­ing of the Pales­tini­ans to dis­miss con­cerns about anti­semitism in gen­er­al, or who have insist­ed that, because I am Jew­ish, my pri­ma­ry, unques­tion­ing, uncon­di­tion­al loy­al­ty must be to the State of Israel—that, to use the fram­ing I talked about in my last let­ter, I see myself as a “Jew­ish Amer­i­can,” not an “Amer­i­can Jew.”

Like the per­son who said to me, when I crit­i­cized Israel’s use of tor­ture in inter­ro­gat­ing Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers, “I know you don’t real­ly mean that. You might say it in pub­lic because it’s the right thing to say, but you Jews always stick togeth­er, right? Espe­cial­ly when it comes to your ‘home­land,’” and he raised his fin­gers to put scare quotes around the word. When I point­ed out that I was Amer­i­can, not Israeli, he looked at me incred­u­lous­ly. “But you are Jew­ish, aren’t you? I don’t understand.”

Or the acquain­tance who agreed that “of course anti­semitism is a prob­lem” when I expressed con­cern about an anti­se­mit­ic inci­dent in upstate New York, but who went on to say, “But Jews aren’t real­ly in dan­ger here, are they? What’s real­ly a shame is how the Jew­ish peo­ple, who have suf­fered so much, are caus­ing the Pales­tini­ans that same kind of suffering.”

Or the impec­ca­bly pro­gres­sive rel­a­tive who, one year at Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, was incred­u­lous that I would ask her to con­demn for­mer Iran­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadinejad’s Holo­caust denial. “You do know,” she said, “that there are Pales­tini­ans dying right now at the hands of the Israelis.” Then she went on, “The Holo­caust hap­pened more than fifty years ago. Shouldn’t we be wor­ry­ing about things that are hap­pen­ing right now?”

Then there are the peo­ple who say out­right that the Israeli occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine is the root cause of con­tem­po­rary anti­semitism, like the friend who insist­ed that you real­ly couldn’t blame the Euro­pean pro­test­ers who chant­ed Jews to the gas cham­bers! dur­ing a march against the most recent Israeli inva­sion of Gaza in 2014. “The Pales­tini­ans,” she said, “are suf­fer­ing more than you can imagine.”

As if all Jews every­where, by def­i­n­i­tion, endorse and/or mate­ri­al­ly sup­port, and are there­fore moral­ly and mate­ri­al­ly account­able for, Israel’s oppres­sion of the Pales­tini­ans, and as if, even if that were true, the Final Solu­tion is the appro­pri­ate form for that account­abil­i­ty to take.

Or as if anti­semitism did not have the his­to­ry I allud­ed to above, long pre­dat­ing not just the Israeli occu­pa­tion, but also the Zion­ist move­ment of the 19th century.

Or as if, were the mirac­u­lous to hap­pen, were there to be tomor­row a real and true and mutu­al­ly ful­fill­ing peace between the Israelis and the Pales­tini­ans, all the peo­ple in the world who hate Jews would sud­den­ly wake up and say, “Well, that’s a relief! Hat­ing them was such a bur­den. I’m glad we can final­ly stop.”

I don’t want to pre­tend that writ­ing about anti­semitism like this is less com­plex than it actu­al­ly is. It feels inhu­man­ly cal­lous to set aside in what I wrote above the moral imper­a­tive to at least bear wit­ness to what the Pales­tini­ans are suf­fer­ing; and even as I fin­ish the sen­tence I’ve just writ­ten, it seems an unfor­giv­able omis­sion not to remind peo­ple that the very begin­ning of Hamas’ char­ter frames its resis­tance, its call for Israel’s destruc­tion, not as a strug­gle against Israel and Israelis, or even Zion­ists, but against the Jews, and to ask how Israel is, how Jews in gen­er­al are, sup­posed to respond to that. I’m not try­ing to cre­ate a false equiv­a­lence here, as if Israel is not an occu­pi­er and the Pales­tini­ans are not the ones being occu­pied, or as if the sup­port with which many Jews around the world respond to Israel’s occu­pa­tion is not deeply prob­lem­at­ic. I just want to acknowl­edge what focus­ing on my own expe­ri­ence of anti­semitism in the Unit­ed States inevitably leaves out of the conversation.

Thir­ty years ago, just after I start­ed a new job as the Hil­lel direc­tor at a pri­vate col­lege on Long Island, I took part in a racial aware­ness work­shop, the pur­pose of which was to bring all cam­pus con­stituen­cies togeth­er to con­front racism on cam­pus. As par­tic­i­pants, our goal was to iden­ti­fy areas of cam­pus life where issues of race need­ed to be addressed, and, in com­mit­tees we would form when the work­shop was over, to devise a plan of action to address with them.

On the third day of the work­shop, in response to some­thing some­one said that I don’t remem­ber, in an exer­cise where white peo­ple were just sup­posed to lis­ten to what the peo­ple of col­or in the room had to say, one of the African Amer­i­can men in the group raised his voice in anger. “We need to orga­nize just like Min­is­ter Far­rakhan says, and don’t talk to me about his anti­semitism! Not when he is work­ing so damned hard to improve the lives of Black peo­ple.” I looked around the room in the few sec­onds of silence that fol­lowed, waiting—especially since we’d spent so much time talk­ing about white people’s respon­si­bil­i­ty for speak­ing out against oth­er white people’s racism—waiting for some­one who wasn’t Jew­ish to call out that more than obvi­ous swipe at the Jews in the room. Not one per­son spoke up, not even from among the work­shop facil­i­ta­tors, whom I would have expect­ed to know bet­ter. The moment passed and we moved on, and not only was it as if noth­ing prob­lem­at­ic had been said, but also as if the Jews who were present had not actu­al­ly been there at all.

Sad­ly, this expe­ri­ence of watch­ing the non-Jews around me back away, or pre­var­i­cate, or stand in silence when anti­semitism rears its head is an all too famil­iar one. Here are a few from much ear­li­er in my life: the teach­ers who stood by while my ele­men­tary school class­mates threw pen­nies at me for being “a cheap Jew;” the neigh­bor­hood adults who could have inter­vened but didn’t with the kids who almost dai­ly threw rocks at me while call­ing me “heeb” and “kike;” and the lead­er­ship of the town where I grew up, which failed for more than a decade to suf­fi­cient­ly erase from the wall of the pub­lic library anti­se­mit­ic graf­fi­ti writ­ten about me when I was fif­teen. The words—New­man is a pen­ny Jew—were still leg­i­ble when I was in my ear­ly thir­ties and I brought my wife, then my fiancée, to meet my moth­er, who was still liv­ing in the neigh­bor­hood at the time.

To say I felt at best unwel­come in the place where I lived would be an under­state­ment, as it would be hard to under­state just how thor­ough­ly that feel­ing dove­tailed with what I’d been learn­ing about Jew­ish his­to­ry and how unwel­come the Jews have been in almost every place we have lived, except for the Land of Israel. Notice that I wrote the Land of Israel, not the State. I want in what I say next to dis­tin­guish between the idea of a Jew­ish home­land and the polit­i­cal real­i­ty that Israel cur­rent­ly is. The dis­tinc­tion is impor­tant, because while it’s been a long time since I thought of the State of Israel as a home­land I would want to claim, I’d be lying if I said the idea of such a place, where I would be uncon­di­tion­al­ly wel­comed, val­ued, and safe as a Jew, does not still res­onate with me. Not to feel this way, it seems to me, even just a lit­tle bit, is to deny a real­i­ty of Jew­ish his­to­ry, which is that wher­ev­er anti­semitism has been allowed to run its intel­lec­tu­al, cul­tur­al, socioe­co­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal course, the end result has been an attempt to eliminate—either by killing them or kick­ing them out—the Jews who call that place home.

The first per­son in my life who wasn’t Jew­ish to acknowl­edge this feel­ing as an irre­ducible part of what it means to be Jew­ish in an anti­se­mit­ic world was June Jor­dan, the African Amer­i­can writer I told you about in my first let­ter. She did this in an essay she wrote some time in the 1980s. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I don’t have any of her books with me here in Sweden—and a quick inter­net search hasn’t helped—so I can’t pro­vide you with a direct quote or accu­rate cita­tion. Still, I believe that this is an accu­rate para­phrase of what she wrote: I accept that, on an emo­tion­al lev­el, the safe­ty Israel rep­re­sents for Jews is a non-nego­tiable necessity.

No one who wasn’t Jew­ish had ever said that to me before.

I need to write those words again: No one who wasn’t Jew­ish had ever said that to me before.

And again, No one who wasn’t Jew­ish had ever said that to me before.

Per­haps more to the point, though, all too few peo­ple who aren’t Jew­ish have said that to me, or any­thing even resem­bling that, since.

Well, my hosts’ youngest child has made his way here into the din­ing room, and he wants to play. The oth­er kids won’t be far behind. There’s more to say. I will write again.

Till then,

Richard


As I said, I hope you will con­sid­er read­ing the rest of the let­ters as well, which you can find in their orig­i­nal for­mat on Unlike­ly Sto­ries. Or, if that journal’s white text on black back­ground is hard for you to read, you can find the let­ters here, in a more tra­di­tion­al format.

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