When I was little during the Civil Rights movement my father said that he had grown up with racist beliefs, and that he did not think that he would ever eliminate those feelings entirely. I remember thinking, well I would never be racist, but now that I am older than he is I realize that I too was formed by racist beliefs and I don’t know if I will ever fully eliminate them.
I make the confession because it seems important to an understanding of the Israel/Palestine issue; there will not be peace in the region till we deal, on my side anyway, with the racism that exists in the Jewish community toward Arabs.
Of course we did not think of that as racism when I was growing up. The racism we were confronting righteously was white on black racism, and Jews were in the clear on that issue, largely, because we were on the blacks’ side (opportunistically or not, we were on their side, my father was on their side).
But even as we fought that racism, we had our own racism, which was the belief that Jews were smarter than other people and more evolved. As I have said often here, that belief was a great advantage to Jews. It gave us a lot of confidence, but the fact is that it was a racist understanding: it was a belief that through the accident of birth into my tribe, we were better than other people, and they were worse. My father is a scientist and at times in his view these differences were biological, in the genes. He and I used to argue about this. He would joke, Philip believes that a poodle looks like a poodle because of its environment; if you raised it differently it could be a dachshund.
This sense of essential tribal difference may have been the strongest understanding socially as I grew up. We were Jews, we were different and smarter and more advanced. Other people hated us. But we had given more to civilization than any other people, and we were more morally attuned than other people, whether it was our support for the Rosenbergs, or the civil rights movement, or the Democratic Party, or in opposing the Vietnam war—we were better morally.
Looking around today, I recognize that these ideas have softened over the years, because Jews are so mingled with other people in the United States. We’re not ghettoized nearly so much as say my grandmother’s generation. I’m intermarried and so are most young Jews.
But when I pick up Commentary Magazine or even the New York Times, or when I am in Israel, I am returned to that Jewish ethnic atmosphere of my childhood; and so I hear echoes of my racism all the time. There was the woman I saw in Gaza in Abed Rabbo who said that the Jews treat us like animals. There was Jimmy Carter’s statement on visiting Gaza that the Israelis had treated the Palestinians worse than people treat animals. There is Morgan Elzey’s statement from his birthright trip to Israel that the leader of his trip, who was a liberal, gazed out at Lebanon and said, It is felt that they are more "primitive" than we are. And of course it is evident in the frequent argument by Israel lobbyists that we (the Jews/Israel) have produced x number of Nobel Prizes while they, the Arabs, have produced y, a fraction of the number.
I hear the echoes of my racism when I am in Israel itself, and am called back to my childhood world of a world of Jews, and wouldn’t we prefer the company of Jews, Jews have higher values, Jews have better families, Jews are smarter and Jews know how to argue and talk with one another in a more intelligent manner. So who would want to hang out with anybody else. This was truly the basis of my social identity construction. You are a Jew, and you are smarter, more sensitive, more moral, you are from a matriarchy that worships knowledge, and these are the highest values. You do not work with your hands, you are not agricultural, which is a kind of beastliness.
Even today I can have conversations with Jewish scientists or scholars where we rapidly rate people’s intelligence, on whether they are first-rate or not. He is first rate, he is an impostor, he is insecure, that kind of thing. I do it still. My father is first-rate; and he had first-rate professional friends, there was an elitism about it. One of them, Bill (pseudonymous), was about 5-9 and as wide as he was tall and wore short-sleeved white shirts like a Yeshiva kid, and would sit for hours at my parents’ table telling jokes and gossiping. He had a wicked sense of humor. I left that out of the list of Jewish accomplishments. We were funnier than other people, more emotive, and so on. Bill ate sloppily because he didn’t really care about that kind of thing, he lived in his big head the way Jews do, and there would be chicken grease up past his wrists as he jabbered away with my parents.
Bill introduced me to the concept of anti-Semitism, in the beach community of scientists my parents went to every summer. One day in order to study the physiology of the flounder with his class, he had taken a dissected but living flounder and put it up on a board in the sunlight, and he had to hammer it in, and a young woman student said, oh how can he do that, and a tall Christian student turned to her—that is the word we used for the goyim, "Christian"—and said, he comes from a long line of nailers. I didn’t know why that was anti-Semitic, it had to be explained to me, but I knew that anti-Semitism set us apart; and in truth Bill found the comment devilishly amusing. It fulfilled his sense of the relationship of Jews and goyim. Bill later moved to Israel and nearly won the Nobel Prize, by the way.
Today I think of these as cultural attributes, and don’t see them as essential to being Jewish. Cultures can be changed, cultures shift, as the environment shifts. But that was the culture I came out of and am still formed by. We were smarter than other people, better. It is all over the Jewish response to the Middle East, and we will get nowhere until Jews begin to challenge the nature of their identity formation. Everything about Arab culture is cast today as alien to Jewish values, from the roles of women to the connection to the land to the physical occupations. It is lesser in my understanding.
I remember when I was a child and we had a barn behind the house and one day my mother discovered that the workmen who were working on our house had relieved themselves in an old stall of the barn. That seems to be my primal memory of Christians. It was gross and uncivilized and it was connected to menial labor; and they did not want to be in our house. I feel a need to examine and try and undo all this conditioning even in late middle age.