I went to see one of my oldest friends yesterday. We had a drink in the city. We avoid the issue because he and I completely disagree. He’s a liberal successful Jew who listens to neoconservatives and worries about another Holocaust. Still, the issue comes up.
He wanted to talk about it. He said, "Where are you going from here?" I said a meeting, and when he persisted, I said, It’s about Gaza.
He said, "Do you ever think you’re being used by those people?"
"I’ve thought about it," I said.
"The way that some Jews were used by the Nazis," he said.
I shrugged it off. "Jim [fake name], I’ve come to a new understanding. I realize I’m incurably Jewish, I was raised in this very ethnocentric household, and formed by my early friendships, girlfriends, you name it, and I’m just Jewish through and through–"
"Yes you are." He nodded seriously.
"And I see my writing in an ethnocentric way. I think, I love Jews, they’re my people, and I want to help save them from what they’re bringing down on themselves. Because they’ve made a terrible tragic mistake. And I really think I’m doing this out of some love of my people."
Jim is very thoughtful. He tilted back in his seat and stared at the ceiling with a painful, open mouth. I imagined his face would look like that on his deathbed. He shook his head.
"No. You’re not. The reasons you’re doing this–" He paused, he’s always been very psychological, and smart that way– "On the one hand you’re looking into things out of a sincere and noble concern for injustice, which you’ve always had. And that’s inspiring. Things I couldn’t bear to look at you’re looking at. But the other part of it is that you’re scratching an itch. It’s your issues, and you have to keep scratching it."
"You mean about my parents, my mother."
He nodded. He had a tragic look now, as if what I am doing is a terrible thing. "You’re scratching it. Your mother, whatever she did to you. And it will never go away. But it’s still satisfying to you to scratch it. It’s like poison ivy. It actually spreads from your scratching it."
I just listened. I don’t like getting in arguments, especially with people I love. We moved on. But the subject came up later when we said goodbye to one another, walking out together. We gossiped about an old friend who has sex/gender issues and I declined to judge her. I said, "She’s got mishigoss. I’ve got mishigos." "And me, too!" he chirped.
That was a nice note to leave on, a kind of absolution. Mishigos means nuttiness in Yiddish.
I thought about the conversation for the rest of the evening. It didn’t make me feel bad, as these conversations used to. I thought: he is deeply engaged in a generational way with an old narrative of Israel as just compensation for us as victims of the Nazis. Nothing will make him let go. He admits he can’t look at the actual conditions now. It’s too much a part of his ethnocentric inner identity; and the alternative would involve looking honestly at Jewish power and philosemitism and having to adjust his worldview to accommodate those conditions, and even give up some of his power. No: he loves the lobby because it assures Israel’s immunity from its crimes, which he rationalizes by saying Palestinians are the new Nazis.
I thought about my mishigos. I thought, Yes I have had a difficult relationship with my parents at times, which has caused me to act out against powerful people in an assholic way. But I’m over that with my parents and have a loving relationship with them, and I hope that’s affected my power relationships in the world. I’m a reflective person, and a body can think about this psychological stuff too much. A lot of smart people have mishigos. I bet Robert Caro, whose daddy issues have worked their way out now through an unending number of volumes of a biography of a monster, doesn’t think about this very much, he just acts. How much of Noam Chomsky’s inability to look at religion as an important social factor stems from his father being a Hebrew school principal? Well that hasn’t stopped him from expressing himself. Etc.
I thought, well this is who I am, I like to scratch this itch now, I think it’s important. I’m too old and at last mature to change my being, whatever its source, and I’ll just have to go down with that ship, or on with it.