For the past 25 years or so I have had a running debate with Jewish friends, Is anti-Semitism over? I’ve argued that it is. That the incredible material/social gains by Jews in the U.S. that I have observed over my lifetime, reflecting an unprecedented degree of inclusion, mean that the era of the Jew as ridiculed/hated outsider is over. We will never be persecuted again as we were in Europe. And if there are occasional outbursts of bigotry, even violence, well, they are aberrations, they don’t affect our status, all groups are subject to malign acts…
My friends would respond, you are being roseate, your frame is limited, you can’t know what will happen. This is exactly how Jews felt in Berlin and Prague in the early 1900s, when we were at the top of so many modern professions. And I would say back, You are answering America’s open arms with paranoia. The last time was tragedy, yes; but history doesn’t repeat itself. The second time is a farce. Look at all the people who want to marry us.
Today I have to concede that I was wrong. Not in total, no; and I will never slip over to the paranoid way here, I am too grateful and lucky to do that. But as to the claim that anti-Semitism is over, I was wrong. The Poway California synagogue attack on the heels of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of last October shows us that if anti-Semitism wasn’t very visible, it didn’t go away. There are reservoirs of anti-Semitism in American society, one attack is not a one-off; and anyone entering a Jewish space in America today has got to be a little bit nervous. That’s vicious abiding anti-Semitism.
I can offer more disclaimers. These are marginal figures. Donald Trump is a fool who has let the demons out of the basement. Global warming and income inequality have made everyone haywire. But even these factors serve my opponents’ argument. They always said, Given social instability, you don’t know what will happen. “Civilization is just a thin tissue,” the late Peter Kaplan used to say to me. “When it tears, people go back to sect and tribe in a hurry.”
I still won’t go the whole nine yards. I don’t think there’s going to be another Holocaust. I think these forces are largely sequestered. If there’s massive social breakdown, other people are just as or more vulnerable than Jews. Like, Muslims. Refugees. We bestride the American power structure, the most obvious sign being our high incomes; and that won’t change. And yes, elite status is a source of resentment.
As to being wrong, what does it say about my worldview? How much else am I wrong about? I’m sure I’m not the only person who is shocked by the events of the last three years, and who has winced to think how many times I told others, You’re on the wrong side of history. Today I cannot say where history is going, I no longer hold a brief for the human race. Which doesn’t mean I won’t fight for the good and the right, but it’s not with my old confidence that they will prevail. I’m more conservative in my regard for social stability, closer to Kaplan’s “civilization is a thin tissue.” P.S. I had a beautiful vacation in Syria in 2006.
Revising my understanding of anti-Semitism does not make me a Zionist. If Jews are less safe in America or Europe today than we were ten or fifteen years ago, that doesn’t mean that we are safe in Israel/Palestine. We’re not. Jews are persecuting another people there and I believe the Arendt/Klug/Glazer/Shipman argument: that Israel’s actions are endangering the status of Jews elsewhere in the world. If there is a Jewish interest today, it is in taking Zionism apart, brick by brick down to the foundation, then making a new society.
And because it bears repeating: the threat to Jews here is from the rightwing. As we have said here many times, it’s not leftwing anti-Zionists who are endangering Jews. Despite what Jonathan Greenblatt and Bari Weiss and Benjamin Netanyahu want you to believe. (IfNotNow is most eloquent on this score.)
On the most personal front, I also wonder how much of what others said about people like me in years gone by– that he is coping with anti-Semitism by assimilating, that he has internalized anti-Semitism in befriending non-Jews and marrying one– I wonder if there is some truth to that. I wouldn’t change anything; I love my choices. Still I wonder if I missed some of the story.
Because that’s what I did. I missed some of the story.
H/t James North and Adam Horowitz.