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A human balance


A typical moment in the course of a child’s life. Somehow playful banter in the schoolyard suddenly descends into a tense showdown of wills. Young boys clash over the most mundane reasons, and someone inevitably ends up getting hurt. In this case it was me. I’m not talking about getting punched in the face. Sure that hurt – few children go through life without at some point having to endure the awful humiliation of bullying. No, I mean the part where I was called ‘Jew!’ That hurt more deeply.

I hadn’t been conscious of being any different to the other children I played with at school. The way I saw it, we all liked to play dodgeball in gym class, eat greasy New York pizzas with gobs of pepperoni and play video games at the arcade.

There is some confusion over the word ‘Semitic’ which refers to a family of languages including Arabic and Hebrew. Many antisemites often use this meaning to claim that they can’t be antisemitic if they have ‘nothing against Arabs’ but only Jews. As a result, some people prefer to write it as one word without the hyphen so as to avoid this association. Hence ‘antisemitism’ is preferred rather than ‘anti-Semitism’. ‘Judeophobia’ and ‘anti-Jewish’ racism are also acceptable alternatives.

But now that the ‘J’ word was invoked, I felt vulnerable and afraid – afraid of no longer being seen as just a normal kid. To the gang I aspired to be a part of, I was now ‘the Jew’. This marked the beginning of a series of incidents in which my attackers would embellish on the theme. They would raucously laugh at insulting jokes intended for my hearing in the school cafeteria. Eventually they would throw pennies at me in the hallways, and carve swastikas on my desk. Gripped by a need to belong, I even for a short while flirted with their antisemitism. I told jokes more vile and laughed harder at their insults. I was rewarded with occasional acceptance. But it was never stable and hardly ever satisfying. I ended up befriending the only other Jews in the class and trying to avoid my nemeses for years.

It was some time later that I had an ‘Ah hah!’ moment upon learning that one of the boys’ older brothers was a racist skinhead. Pieces fell into place.

I reasoned that my pre-pubescent attacker’s idolization of his brother combined with a pack mentality were the source of my schoolyard oppression. In some ways I always felt that antisemitism was as alien to them as it was to me, but we each had our roles to play and they were still rehearsing their lines.

One day I found my locker adorned with swastikas and slogans. One read: ‘Go back to Isreal’. The incorrect spelling struck a chord. How I wished I could go back to what ‘is real’ – a feeling of being a human being again rather than a demonic stereotype conjured in someone’s mind.

Ironically, a few years later I did go back to the place of my birth, Israel, for secondary school. It felt liberating to have so many Jewish friends and know that my Jewishness would not be despised but celebrated. So many of my diaspora friends felt the same way. It was the safety of community. During those passion-filled formative teenage years, I sought to understand my Jewish identity and embrace it almost as a last act of defiance against the bullies who had used ‘Jew’ as invective against me. As my hip-hop idols – Brooklyn-based outfit, The Beastie Boys – recently sang: ‘I’m a funky ass Jew and I’m on my way!’

I absorbed my mother’s stories of her and her parents’ escape from the Nazi-installed Ustaše fascists in Croatia and my paternal grandmother’s tales of how she left Magdeburg, Germany in the 1930s and sought refuge in Palestine. My uncle Robbie escaped from a concentration camp at the age of 12. Most Jews I know can talk to members of their own family and readily tap into such living memory of one of the most horrific episodes of recent history. For many, the pain of the Holocaust is all too real. I began to see why my maternal grandparents, deeply traumatized by what they had endured, were so distant and cut off. Life was a grim struggle for survival. Laughter was rare and guarded. They were only shells of the vibrant people they once were.

Of place and time

Despite a childhood pockmarked with antisemitic bullying, most of the later periods of my life spent living in New York City and Long Island were not consumed by rabid Judeophobia. Few Jews today in the United States are victims of overt antisemitism. There is no longer official discrimination and by all accounts, post-World War Two Jews have enjoyed some of the lowest levels of antisemitism in history. For so long, Jews have been a people mainly of time, but with the creation of the state of Israel, they are now also a people of place. If it ever became necessary, there is now at least one country in the world which would welcome Jewish immigration, unlike during the run-up to the War when millions of Jews were denied asylum in the Allied and ‘neutral’ countries.

But while public sympathy and widespread awareness of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people in the Second World War is high, it would be wrong to assume that the scourge of antisemitism has been eradicated. If I can draw one lesson from my childhood nemeses, it is that anti-Jewish racism, like all forms of racism and bigotry, is a hardy weed. Transmitted across generations, children embrace the prejudices of their elders, swallowing them whole. Some eventually learn to shed such prejudices, but many clutch them firmly as though safeguarding the treasured wisdom of their ancestors for future generations. How else can one explain actor Mel Gibson’s defence of his holocaust-denying and virulently antisemitic father whom he claims ‘never lied’ to him?

The other lesson can be found in the herd mentality of the boys who followed the leader in ‘kicking the kike’. It is unlikely that they were truly antisemitic, but they had within them the programming necessary to drive them to such actions with only mild encouragement and peer pressure. The latent racism and bigotry stored in people can easily be activated by what Italian writer and Holocaust-survivor Primo Levi described as ‘charismatic leaders’. Levi warned how the likes of Hitler and Mussolini were ‘believed, admired, adored like gods’ by the sycophantic masses. But when antisemitic prejudices are strongly rooted within the psyche, they don’t even need a very charismatic person to trigger them. Take British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s (best known as ‘Ali G’) programme in which he poses as the character of Borat, a Kazakh journalist, in an Arizona country-and-western bar. Without much effort he manages to rouse the audience to a rendition of ‘Throw the Jew down the well’. In a later programme, Borat meets a Texan hunting aficionado who laments not being able to shoot Jews. ‘They were so bad in Germany, controlling the money and everything that the Germans said we are going to have a final solution and kill them all.’

After such knowledge

While latent antisemitism persists in the minds of many, the psychology of antisemitism has its most dramatic impact on the Jewish psyche itself. For some, history begins and ends with the Holocaust. Jewish-Polish writer Eva Hoffman describes this as a new Genesis: ‘In the beginning there was war.’ Hoffman details the lasting impact the Shoah has on Jewish perceptions of events – a lingering residue which is deeply internalized. Though the memory of the Shoah is often loudly invoked, it is rarely discussed, unpacked and processed. This inability to come to terms with its impacts and legacy, means that many Jews carry the searing pain of tragic memory with them. An attack on a synagogue becomes the new kristallnacht. Critics of Israel are prepping canisters of Zyklon-B. Arafat is the new Hitler. This overreaction leads to what journalist Leon Wieseltier describes as ‘ethnic panic’. Rather than celebrating our survival against all odds, we replay in our minds a tragic narrative which neither empowers nor enlightens. ‘Pessimism is an injustice that we do to ourselves. Nobody ever rescued themselves with despair,’ Wieseltier reminds us. This internal struggle between Jewish hope and despair is perhaps best reflected in Jewish-Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel’s words:

I’ve never been a refugee except of the spirit, a loved and troubled country which is my home and enemy.

But with antisemitism once again in the ascendant, some Jews’ reluctant embrace of tragic narratives is understandable.

At the other extreme are those who react vigorously to charges of antisemitism. For these people, the existence of antisemitism is only undisputed when Jews are being rounded up and frog-marched to the nearest death camp. Anything less than that is a ‘matter of interpretation’. In some ways, such antisemitism-denial is a reaction to Jewish ethnic panic, particularly in the US where conservative Jewish groups often brand all critics of Israel as antisemites. For some, whether on the Left or Right, being tagged an antisemite becomes a badge of honour.

This ridiculous state of affairs, however, is hardly only the fault of Jewish groups hell-bent on defending Israel. Many so-called ‘anti-Zionists’ actively encourage such distortions, offending Jewish sensibilities by likening Sharon to Hitler and condemning the ‘Zionazis’. Knowing full well the offensive impact of such comparisons, they only serve to isolate Jews who may share their criticism of Israel’s policies. By ascribing to Jews and Israel the moral equivalence of modern history’s most evil and demonic icon – Hitler – they appeal to those who would rather not engage with Jews and Israel but eliminate them, whether physically or ideologically. After all, who dialogues with Hitler?

War and peace

When 24-year-old Noam Levy attended an anti-war rally in Paris last year at the outbreak of the US-led invasion of Iraq, he was probably expecting to be in good company. As a member of the Paris branch of Hashomer Hatzair – the radical international Jewish youth movement which has a long and noble history of anti-fascist action and advocates an end to the Israeli Occupation – his commitment to peace was in sync with the majority of the protestors and the French public opposed to the war. But when he arrived at the demo, he saw a fellow member being beaten for wearing a kippah (skullcap), and intervened to try to help. In the process he got mired in the fray and ultimately had his head bashed in by a group of men wielding metal pipes and shouting ‘Death to the Jews!’ and ‘You and your kippah have no place here!’. The episode left Levy needing 10 stitches (4 others were also injured), but more tragically, left him feeling, ‘as a Jew, I now know that I do not have a place in the antiwar protests.’

The attack came a month after remarks by France’s foreign minister Dominique de Villepin declaring that ‘the hawks in the US administration are in the hands of [Ariel] Sharon’. The charge that the Jews or Israel/Sharon are in control of the US and are behind the war is one that has currency across the political spectrum from the Far Right to parts of the political Left and is not new. Many of us are accustomed to hearing such things (albeit far less nuanced) from populist politicians and media in the Arab World who refer to the ‘Zionist aggressors’ as the source of all evil, while the Far Right call it ZOG – the Zionist Occupation Government. But such loaded rhetoric coming from government leaders and respected individuals can exacerbate anti-Jewish sentiment as passions about the war and justice for the Palestinians are inflamed. In times of political and economic stress, antisemitism flourishes. After 9/11, seemingly perpetual war and global economic recession, these are stressful times indeed.

Awe-inspiring mythologies about ‘the Jooos’ can seem both comical and harmless. When such views are expressed by the Far Right, such as failed US presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s description of Capitol Hill as ‘Israeli occupied territory’, most people dismiss them as the rantings of a lunatic fringe. But when expressed by government officials such as Villepin or well-respected individuals they also have the power to mobilize and legitimize strong antisemitic fervour.

Take Adbusters magazine’s founder Kalle Lasn’s recent editorial rant against Jewish neoconservatives. ‘Why doesn’t anyone say that they are Jewish?’ he fumes. ‘What they all share is the view that the US is a benevolent hyperpower that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of them are Jewish.’ The article includes a self-selected ‘well-researched list’ of 50 of the supposedly most influential ‘neocons’ with little black dots next to all those who are Jewish. This prompted critics to suggest that he should have used yellow stars instead. Feedback on the Left-oriented Canadian magazine’s site suggests that while some dismissed the article as derisory, still many praised Lasn for ‘tackling the issue head on’ and for ‘standing up to the Zionists and the Zionist-controlled media’, while neo-Nazi sites congratulated him for ‘exposing ZOG’.

If it’s not the neocons then it’s the all-powerful ‘Jewish lobby’ which holds governments to ransom all over the world (because Jews control the global economy of course) to do their bidding. Meanwhile rightwing Judeophobes often talk of a leftist Jewish conspiracy to promote equality and human rights through a new internationalism embodied in the UN in order to control governments and suppress national sovereignty. They call it the ‘New World Order’ or the ‘Jew World Order’. They make similar lists to Lasn’s of prominent Jews in the global justice movement (Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, etc) to argue their case.

Take former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s recent assertion at the Tenth Islamic Summit in 2003 that: ‘They [the Jews] survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking. They invented and successfully promoted Socialism, Communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so they may enjoy equal rights with others. With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power.’

Conservative American commentator Jonah Goldberg examined the various lists people on all sides of the political spectrum were producing of Jewish influence and drew the obvious conclusions: ‘You might notice from that small list that most of the Jews against war with Iraq are – surprise! – liberals. Funny thing, that. Liberals tend to be against the war and Jewish liberals tend to be against the war too. Weird. Weirder still: Jewish conservatives tend to be in favour of the war. Now that is bizarre. And, as I look around, it dawns on me that gay conservatives tend to be in favour of forcibly disarming Saddam if necessary, while gay liberals generally insist that inspection will do the trick. And, you know, tall conservatives also favour war but tall liberals tend to be against it. My God, it’s true everywhere I look: left-handed conservatives, pro-war. Left-handed liberals, antiwar. Bald conservatives: pro, bald liberals, anti. It’s almost like there’s a pattern here.’

Pride and prejudice

All this obsession about the supposed power of ‘the Jooos’ reminds me of a joke. Two rabbis are drinking tea in 1930s Berlin. ‘Moishe,’ says one to the other, ‘I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer – a Nazi propaganda paper with the most utter contempt for Jews! How can you possibly read such a despicable thing?’

‘Oy, Avraham! When I read the Jewish papers, all I read about is life in the ghetto, expulsions of Jews and the horrible conditions that we must endure. When I read Der Stürmer, news about the Jews is so much better! Jews control all the banks, we excel in culture and the arts, we’re all stinking rich and incredibly clever with an extraordinary number of scientists, doctors, professionals, and we control the whole world!’

‘Pessimism is an injustice that we do to ourselves. Nobody ever rescued themselves with despair’

When one is seduced by conspiratorial imaginings of Jewish power and influence it leaves a residue of resentment which can easily build up to anger and hatred. Add to that a strong sense of righteousness inculcated by ‘charismatic leaders’ and attacking Jews in the streets begins to seem like a sensible strategy.

‘In the Christian world it goes far deeper,’ says Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz. ‘There is a deep, dark element in the Christian narrative. In Christianity, people are raised on a story that there is someone who can kill God. And whoever can kill God is terribly strong and smart, more than human, but also evil. Because who would want to kill God? Only someone who is evil and smart.’

And so it goes on. Each time conspiracists allege ‘Jewocracies’ of power, whether in the crude discourse of the Far Right and Islamic militants, or the more candied varieties which prefer to talk about Israeli or ‘Zionist’ control of the world’s most powerful nations, bottled-up Judeophobia is uncorked. This is not to say that there are no Jewish individuals with power and influence, or that the US-Israel alliance, which comes at the expense of the Palestinians, is not deeply contentious. But the actions of individuals should never be levied against an entire group.

Anne Frank, who would have been 75 this year, described this seduction of ethnocentrism eloquently. ‘To our great horror and regret we hear that the attitude of a great many people towards us Jews has changed. We hear that there is antisemitism now in circles that never thought of it before… Oh, it is sad, very sad, that once more, for the umpteenth time, the old truth is confirmed: “What one Christian does is his own responsibility; what one Jew does is thrown back at all Jews.”’ The mere recognition of Judeophobia by non-Jews, such as many of the contributors in this issue who argues that antisemitism should indeed be taken seriously, is a step forward in the right direction. It enables Jews to feel supported and respected rather than attacked and victimized. In the words of Nissim Ezekiel, it paves the way for individual Jews and non-Jews alike to strive:

‘Not to seek release but resolution, Not to hanker for a wide, god-like range Of thought, nor the matador’s dexterity. I do not want the yogi’s concentration. I do not want the perfect charity Of saints nor the tyrant’s endless power. I want a human balance humanly Acquired, fruitful in the common hour.’

Origin of ‘Antisemitism'
The word ‘antisemitism’ refers only to racism against Jews. Originally coined in the late 19th century and popularised by German leftist journalist and agitator Wilhelm Marr, Antisemitismus was used as a euphemism for Judenhass – ‘Jew-hate’. Marr’s definition was very clear. It was only used to mean Jews and as such has come to be the common expression of anti-Jewish racism.

New Internationalist issue 372 magazine cover This article is from the October 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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