2.5.2017 Leave a comment
A few decades ago an elderly Jewish friend and I walked down a spacious avenue located in a multi-ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood. We passed a Hasidic Synagogue as we neared out destination. I never learned the name of the sect that used an inconspicuous Brooklyn home for their house of devotion, but I knew I did not care much for them because they prominently placed a sign in the yard that commanded: “Women must enter in the rear.” I often wondered for whom the sign was meant. After all, sect members would know which door they were to use to enter the building. But why would Sheila, a hypothetical mail lady, or Joyce, a hypothetical EMT, care a damn for their belligerent demands? I remembered the paradoxes of tolerance the sign always brought to my attention.
It was around the moment we passed the Synagogue that my friend said something to this effect:
Friend: “You just do not understand. Because you are not Jewish. They [the Goyim] will always hate us. It can happen here.”
“It,” of course, was a Holocaust. My friend’s fear of another catastrophe originated in his having been a young Jewish refugee who fled pre-war Poland and his knowing that his extended family had perished during the Holocaust. Encountering anti-Semites over his long life not only magnified his fears, these experiences turned them into something that could be called an unshakable belief in the fearful risks that went along with being a Jew. These risks reflected his belief in a recurring anti-Semitism. It may be surprising that these elements combined to redoubled his commitment to revolutionary socialism, a family preoccupation that lasted generations. But Zionism was not his thing. Besting anti-Semitism, on the other hand, was part of his being.
Friend: “Only a classless society will save the Jews from mass murder.”
My reply was measured and calmly stated:
Me: “While it is true that Anti-Semites can be found across the world, that some live in the United States and that a Holocaust occurred in and around Germany, I am nearly certain that ‘The Jewish Question’ is not an issue here. The ‘Black Question,’ on the other hand, drives and has long driven American reactionary politics. If we were to see anything like the Holocaust in the United States, it would likely feature a Black final solution as an animating goal.”
My friend replied: “You just do not understand.”
As we neared the falafel shop that was our destination, a mentally deranged black man carrying a large portable toy phone approached us and began spewing anti-Semitic rants about the shop (it was owned and operated by Sephardic Jews) and its mostly Jewish patrons. My friend, who considered himself a tough guy even though he was then old and partly disabled, looked a bit stunned by and scared of the crazy man with his phone and sadistic tirade. I, on the other hand, found the him annoying if only because he had undermined the point I had made a few moments before.
So, when his phone rang, I blurted out: “That’s for you. It’s Hell calling.” My friend looked relieved by my response or, perhaps, because a Goy had defended him against this kind of nonsense. We then walked towards the shop, a place where, as a Goy, I sometimes had personally experienced bias. Our lunch was uneventful.
If we can thank Donald Trump for anything, it might be this: The Trump campaign and election spurred the bigoted elements in the United States to emerge en masse and to assert themselves boldly with pride. Shameless anti-Semites, Islamophobes, Homophobes, White Nationalists, religious fundamentalists, etc. appear to believe it is their time to be seen and heard. Trump, briefly put, cleared a public space in which they can be who they are, where their aspirations appear legitimate, in which their presence can be known. Trump’s victory even inspired some to act without restraint. Crime and murder, hatred and war circulate in the air we breathe. Self and other, us and them, friend and foe, purity and filth — these are terms in which the bigots express themselves. Within such an environment the violence of the few clarify and expose the aspirations of the many. (What might be the goal of exclusionary violence but genocidal cleansing or purification of the land?) Although America’s hate-addled monsters are a minority and the energetic popular response to Trump’s prejudices should encourage everyone with more than a bit of good will in their souls, the United States still contains the social resources needed to mount collective expressions of hate. We need only to recall the potential violence on display during the Tea Party’s moment to glean the truth of this claim. Likewise, the many death threats directed towards Barack Obama and the First Family. So too the use Trump made of his followers to harass and intimidate his opponents. These individuals and groups intended to draw boundaries, and would use the blood of their opponents to do so. They wished to exclude others from White America. Moreover, we have also seen that American’s institutions can use these popular mentalities as a basis for attacks on the presence of human diversity within the country, to justify its imperial politics abroad and to suppress dissent at home. This situation is both disturbing and unsurprising. For what is Trump’s America but an enraged Uncle Sam with a loaded pistol and a nearly empty bottle. We Americans have been in this situation before. We know Uncle Sam has never been mentally fit or morally respectable. He has long had innocent blood on his hands.
My friend firmly believed that a (Marxian) revolution was the only feasible solution to the anti-Semite problem that once vexed Europe, that a classless society provided the only durable haven for the Jews. He believed no one would molest the Jews once the world had neither Yids nor Goyim, that is, once it had only human beings, liberated, free and happy. An inclusive solidarity would make these hatreds all but impossible, their condition of possibility being the assertion of those differences which efface our common humanity, differences that, in his mind, reflected the conflict of the contending classes.
He might have been right about this. (I, on the other hand, do not believe antagonistic class relations are the first cause of every form of oppression and misery.) Of course, our world remains polluted by hate and fury as well as class cleavages. It does not feature an inclusive solidarity. Nor institutions that promote such. Oppression and exploitation, conflict and war are our overbearing realities. A common humanity that affirms difference is thus a socio-political project, not an undeniable presence in the world. My friend’s implicit belief in an inevitable and pervasive anti-Semitism, one so stubborn that it survives every attempt to shame it into oblivion, may be more ‘realistic’ than not. Who is to say otherwise when we know Trump’s ascent includes many anti-Semitic episodes as obvious by-products? Nevertheless, even if we are fated to confront anti-Semites along with the race-haters, Islamophobes, etc., we know that many will oppose bigotry because bigots of every stripe are barely tolerable impediments to realizing the good life. The project, to be sure, makes our common humanity a living presence in an inhospitable world. Solidarity is always an antidote to hate.