What We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) antisemitism and Israel – 1

3/6/09: Some details have been edited to protect people’s privacy.

Antisemitism has been a tangible and, to varying degrees, violent presence in my life since at least third grade, which would have been in 1970 or so, when John W–it’s amazing that I remember his name–having learned the day before that I was Jewish, came up to me in the playground while we were choosing sides for dodgeball and said, “My father told me I’m not allowed to play with Jews.” I can’t recall whether or not I was permitted to be part of the game that day, but I can see very clearly the one and only fistfight I have ever had, which happened later that year. I don’t know why John B and I ended up in the middle of the schoolyard circle of boys pushing us towards each other, trying to get one of us to throw the first punch, but I do know that John W’s was not the only voice I heard reassuring John B that I was “only a Jew” and therefore “weak and easy to take.” In the end, the first and only punch was mine. I landed one right on John’s chin and he started bleeding and the sight of his blood frightened us all into running wherever it was that we ran to. I was scared because I thought I’d really hurt him, but I found out later I’d only broken a scab on his face. For the next couple of years at least, no one called me a “weak Jew” again.

Next came the pennies. Still in third grade, my classmates started throwing pennies at me in the schoolyard. At the time, I did not know the antisemitic canard of the cheap Jew, and so I did not at first understand why they thought it was so funny when I picked the pennies up. Since I would often end up with as much as twenty cents–an amount that meant something to a third grader back then–I laughed at them for being so stupid that they were giving me free money; I wasn’t even curious about why they were also laughing at me. Eventually, someone explained to me just what the pennies were supposed to signify–I wish I could remember who it was–but I continued picking them up anyway, since it still seemed to me that my classmates were the ones making idiots of themselves. Then, in fifth grade–which means people had been throwing pennies on and off for two years–someone started one day to throw pennies at me in the classroom; someone else actually handed me an entire roll of pennies; and then a group started chanting “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!” My teacher stood by and did nothing, and even after he’d calmed the class down and got us all back in our seats, he did nothing to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of what had just happened. And I was one of his favorite students!

Then there was the music teacher, who made a point of embarrassing me in front of the entire class for not knowing a reference in a Christmas song–”Don’t you Jews know anything?”–and who was mortified when I asked if we could learn to sing a Chanuka song, and who once almost refused to let me go the fifteen minutes early I had permission for so that I could get to my Hebrew School class on time because “Jews were always asking for special favors,” and why should I get out of singing the Christmas songs that everyone ought to know? In sixth grade, in my graduation signature book, Jim wrote on the very first page, “Rose are red, violets are blue/I never met a nicer Jew.” Evan: “To the Jew, Have a penny good time in 7th grade.”

In seventh grade, I was accused of truancy because I stayed home from school for the first two days of Succot, the Festival of Booths, a holiday in the Jewish calendar that is as major as Passover–meaning that it is a holiday you are not supposed to work or go to school on–but which very few Gentiles know about because it does not coincide with any Christian holidays and is not as easily explainable as Rosh HaShana, the New Year, or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When the attendance officer called my house, she was surprised that I answered–I guess she figured I would try not to be found–and when I explained to her about Succot, she thought I was lying. “There are Jews at work here today,” she said. When I suggested to her that maybe they were not religious (I was, at the time time, thinking I might want to be a rabbi when I grew up), she told me to stop being so sneaky. “You’re all alike,” she said.

In eighth grade, I changed schools and started going to a yeshiva about twenty minutes by car away from my house. I no longer had problems with antisemitism at school, and I cannot even begin to explain how relieved I felt not to have to explain myself all the time, but the problems in my neighborhood continued. From about ninth grade on, I was more or less constantly harassed in the street, called Jew, kike, heeb.I was threatened with being cooked in an oven, crucified as revenge for the killing of Christ and being sacrificed to the devil because all Jews were going to hell anyway; I had beer bottles thrown at me, rocks the size of softballs. My home was robbed and my room was singled out for particularly vicious attack. The thieves carved the word “Kike” into the door of my closet; they threw the books of Jewish learning that I had on my shelves on the floor and walked all over them. There were entire years when I had to carry something I could use as a weapon if I was going into certain areas of my neighborhood, especially if I was walking alone, but even when I went with “friends,” because the antisemites hung out in those areas and I had learned from experience that I could only rarely count on my friends to stand with me if I was assaulted or even just threatened with physical assault.

These antisemites wrote antisemitic graffiti about me on the walls of the library. The cop who arrested the kid doing the spray painting was very smart; he made sure to wait until the kid was done so that the antisemitic nature of the graffiti was clear, and the kid could be charged with a more serious crime. It took the town where I lived, however, three years before they decided to try to clean the graffiti off the wall, and then they did such a bad job of it that, fifteen years later, when I brought the woman who is now my wife to meet my mother for the first time, you could still read the words, “Newman is a penny Jew,” and make out the drawing of a penny that the artist had drawn, just in case you didn’t get the point. Sixteen more years later, actually just one year ago, making it thirty one years after the graffiti had originally been written, when I drove by one day with my son, I stopped to show him where I lived when I was growing up, and you could still make the graffiti out, though I don’t know if you’d be able to read it if you didn’t already know what it said. The point is that the town never actually bothered to erase it; they waited for the elements to do it.

In eleventh grade, my class went on a trip to somewhere that included a tour of a ship of historical importance. (I don’t remember which one.) We were standing on the deck, when a group of much younger kids, probably in elementary school, came on board. One of the girls asked one of the adults accompanying them why the boys in my group were wearing those “funny hats.” The adult explained that they were called yarmulkes and it meant we were Jewish. “Oh,” the kid said, a tone of wonder completely bereft of irony creeping into her voice. “Then where are their horns?” I did not hear the adult’s answer.

Finally, in twelfth grade English class–I had switched from yeshiva back to public school–while discussing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Mr. Giglio asked if anyone knew the biblical reference in the poem’s closing lines: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” I raised my hand and said it referred to Joshua making the sun stand still at the battle of Gibeon. Mr. Giglio looked at the rest of the class, “You should be ashamed of yourselves! This boy who doesn’t go to church knows the bible better than you; the Battle of Gibeon was in the reading this past Sunday!”

That same year, Joan invited me to her house for dinner. It was a big deal for me. I didn’t have many friends in my class, and it helped a lot that she was cute. As we sat around the table after the meal, I don’t remember why, but the subject of the Holocaust came up. Joan’s father said something to the effect that, well, maybe a couple of thousand Jews at most had been killed in the concentration camps, but the idea that 6 million had died was just preposterous. Moreover, he said, the fact that so much of the world believed it was 6 million the result of some very good propagandizing on the part of the Jews and, particularly, Israel. He said this in the most friendly of ways, trying to educate my misguided self. To her credit, Joan argued with me against him, but I sat there feeling like I was being punched in the stomach over and over again. I wanted to throw up. I had heard about Holocaust deniers, but I had never actually met one in the flesh, and hearing what he said made me physically sick. I was not invited to Joan’s house again, and what had been the beginnings of our friendship stopped growing right there.

If I were to continue this accounting of antisemitism in my life and tell you about things that happened to me in college, in the working world, in my career as a college professor, and in my marriage to an Iranian Muslim woman, the examples would, in general, grow less and less frequent, more and more subtle and the overt violence or threat of violence would completely disappear. With the exception of having been advised when I was a teenager not to bother applying for a job at the country club near my home, since it was well-known that they did not hire Jews, I have never been denied a job because I am Jewish; I have never had a hard time getting a loan, renting or buying an apartment, or in any of the other aspects of life that are made difficult if not impossible for people who are structurally discriminated against in this country. I live a relatively comfortable life. I am not afraid when I walk down the street that someone, because of who I am, will decide to call me out in some way or attack me outright—though it’s also important to acknowledge that I live in New York City, probably one of the safest places to be Jewish in the US, and that there are places in this country where it would be foolish of me not to feel that fear at least a little bit. (I also should point out that all of the examples of antisemitism I gave above took place in a town on Long Island just over the border dividing Queens from Nassau County; for all intents and purposes, in other words, in New York City.)

So, on the one hand, antisemitism was a central experience of my growing up a Jew in the United States; on the other hand, as I have grown older, it has receded in prominence, partially because of where I live and partially because its structural manifestations have been almost, if not entirely eliminated–to the point where I can sometimes pretend it does not exist.

Except when it comes time to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Zionism.

I have never, not even among Jews, not even among Jews with whom I pretty much agree 100%, had a discussion about that conflict where the question of antisemitism has not arisen. Either someone’s critique of Israel is nakedly–or not so nakedly–antisemitic, or someone who is not Jewish feels it necessary to instruct me when I want to point out the antisemitism in a critique of Israel or Zionism that not all such critiques are by definition antisemitic, or someone who is Jewish calls antisemitism when it isn’t there, or, among Jews, we spend time analyzing the antisemitism in critiques of Israel, or complaining about the antisemitism in critiques of Israel, and so on and so on and so on.

Indeed, it often feels these days that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only context in which a discussion antisemitism is taken seriously. It gives antisemites an opportunity to cloak their antisemitism in an argument that has a considerable amount of moral high ground built into it, and to call foul when Jews and our allies say, “Wait a minute! We’re not going to let you get away with antisemitism just because the policies of the Israeli government deserve criticism.” More importantly, I think, for Jews and our allies, precisely because antisemitism is not taken seriously enough as a phenomenon in and of itself, a reality of Jewish lives independent of what goes on between Israel and the Palestinians, and precisely because secular Zionism and that State of Israel were founded largely in response to antisemitism, discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict become one of the few opportunities we have to talk about antisemitism period, all of it, how it has worked and continues to work all over the world. The result is that what should be a conversation about Israel and Palestine and the people who are living and fighting and dying there ends up bearing the burden of, for example, not only every instance of antisemitism I listed above, but the history out of which that antisemitism arises and that continues to give it context. No single conversation should have to bear that burden. Antisemitism is thousands of years old; millions upon millions of Jews have suffered and died, and there are places where they continue to suffer and die, worldwide because of it. Inevitably, then, trying to fold into a discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict all of the discussion that needs to happen around the fact that antisemitic values are still very much alive in the world, including within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is going to result in the invisibility of the extreme suffering the Palestinians endure daily at the hands of the Israelis, of which the recent assault on Gaza is only an extreme example.

This is the point, though I am late in the game in terms of the timeliness of this post, at which I want to enter the frustrating, fascinating, and, at times, infuriating discussion generated by David Schraub’s guest posts on Feministe titled, “We Cannot Live Without Our Lives” Either: Jews, Privilege, and Anti-Subordination and Anti-Semitism and Subordination Part II: The Myth of Jewish Hyper-Power. I am not going to recap all of the ways in which David was critiqued, accurately or not, nor am I–at least not at first–going to address head on the points where I disagree with him. Rather, I want to explore the ways in which I empathize with him, because even though I disagree with him now quite profoundly, there was a time when I would have agreed with him almost absolutely and the empathy that would have led to that agreement still remains.

Final note before I move on to Part 2: There have also been a number of posts at Alas in response both to David’s posts and the discussion they have generated that I think are important to read: Talking about anti-semitism now, by Maia and Posts About Anti-Semitism Often Hit Home For Me by Mandolin. Julie has written Why I’ve Stopped Talking About Gaza, as well as Dear Non-Jewish Activists: and This is not my community. (Other posts on Alas that are important include Links to Israeli and Jewish voices opposing Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Inhuman. There are others as well.)

There is also a tangentially related post up at Feministe, “Distinguishing a Political Stance from a Racist Stance”, the discussion of which deals with the issues raised by the common use of the term anti-Semitism to mean Jew-hating, especially when the term is used to describe the words or actions of Arabs, who, obviously, are Semitic (far more so than I am, for example). Indeed, the rhetorical question asked by the Arab author of the paper to which this post refers is, “How can we, as Semites, be anti-Semitic?” Julie’s comment, I think, does a fine job of critiquing that question and how it is often used, so I am not going to repeat it here. My point in raising the whole question of the term anti-Semitism is to explain why I write it the way I do: antisemitism.

I wish I could remember the book where I first encountered this tactic so I could quote for you accurately the original rationale behind it, but I can’t. I have been writing the term this way ever since I read that book, however, because it allows me to continue using the word in common usage for Jew-hating while at the same time drawing attention away–however slightly–from the fact that in its original form it referred to Semitic people, and even then, it did so inaccurately. When Wilhelm Marr popularized the term in 1879 so that Jew-hating would have a scientific and therefore objectively, legitimizing word that could be used to refer to it, he obviously did not even consider the Arabs worthy of notice. The term, in other words, has a double oppression embedded in it, and it would be much better if we could find a different word, especially since discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation of Jews in the Arab world and so on inevitably involve questions of Arab antisemitism. Antisemitism, however, is the word that we have. “Jew-hating” is difficult, I think, because the word “hating” inherently raises the stakes and implies that all expressions and manifestations of antisemitism exist at the same level of intensity and harmfulness and so it removes, for me anyway, the feeling that nuance is possible in these discussions. “Orientalism,” which is mentioned in a quote in one of Julie’s comments might be a term that encompasses as April Rosenblum–the person Julie quotes–says, “a larger oppression that both groups [Arabs and Jews] experience,” but it would take quite a bit of work, I think, to make that term really useful in describing the oppression of European Jews who are so clearly not “Oriental,” even though I would agree they were “orientalized” as part of their oppression; and since I do not want this series of posts to have to do that work, I am going to stick with the term that we have, though in a form that is, I hope, alienated enough from itself that people will be willing to accept it as the word that refers to the (usually racialized) hatred of the Jews.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

This entry posted in Anti-Semitism, International issues, Palestine & Israel, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

38 Responses to What We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) antisemitism and Israel – 1

  1. 1
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Wow. The crap I missed out on, growing up in a Jewish, liberal neighborhood. I mean, it’s kinda hard to single out the Jews when they comprise half the class. If there were any antisemites in my community, they sure weren’t public about it.

  2. 2
    shah8 says:

    I like this post.

  3. 3
    chingona says:

    I had nearly forgotten about the pennies.

    Great post.

  4. chingona: They threw pennies at you too?

  5. 5
    chingona says:

    I think I’m nearly a generation younger than you. And it was an occasional thing, not a constant drumbeat of my childhood, which is probably why I needed my memory jogged. But yeah. And I picked ‘em up, too! Who wouldn’t pick up a penny?

    I lived in Texas for about six years when I was kid, so my dominant memories of childhood antisemitism are of being told that I killed Jesus and that I was going to hell (which I suppose they would consider not really antisemitic, just The Truth). The penny-throwing happened in Pennsylvania, when I was older. Could it be a Northeastern thing?

    I don’t look especially Jewish, though I don’t look “not Jewish” either (people often guess that I’m Italian for some reason), so I also have a lot of the awkward situations where someone starts explaining to me how the Jews run everything and are responsible for this and that, not realizing that I’m Jewish and thinking that either they are educating me or that I’ll agree with them.

  6. 6
    fathima says:

    this was great, richard. thanks for posting. i’m looking forward to part 2.

  7. 7
    chingona says:

    One more thing that I cannot believe I forgot about: The part of Pennsylvania I went to high school in had a very substantial neo-Nazi presence. I’m not sure how it all got started, but the Aryan Nation had a compound just a few towns over. We got pretty nasty antisemitic postcards in the mail several times a year. I didn’t have to deal with them on a daily basis because they mostly went to a different high school, but the DIY punk and hardcore shows that I went to were overrun with neo-Nazi skinheads, and fights would break out all the time. The organizers wouldn’t kick the skinheads out because they would just wait in the parking lot and beat everyone up after the show. And they wouldn’t call the police because … I’m not sure but it probably had something to do with being punk rock, and they probably would have just arrested everybody anyway, rather than sort it out.

    /trip down memory lane

  8. 8
    Kristin says:

    This is a great post. I commented more extensively at the cross-post at your blog.

  9. 9
    Eva says:

    I got pennies thrown at me, too. This was in 7th-8th grade so I was old enough to think I should ignore them and not take the money. The result of the (only?) several times this happened was a curious self consciousness when I pick up change I see on the sidewalk.

    I appreciate how you describe your childhood experiences and your adult experiences and their differences. I wonder how many people have had your kind of experience. I ask because my experience is, generally speaking, similar. That is, I experienced a number of instances of naked antisemitism as a child but can count on one hand antisemitic behavior/language directed at me personally since I turned 25, almost 2o years ago now. I’m not including antisemitic attacks on my friends, neighbors or the larger Jewish community in which I live, though. Those, unfortunately, I need more than a few hands to count.

    Incredible the town you grew up in was so willfully negligent regarding that graffitti. Appauling.

    Thanks for this post.

  10. 10
    Torill says:

    Thank you for this, it was great. Especially sharing your childhood experiences. Reminded me of just how privileged I am. I was bullied at school by some idiots at one point – and that was no fun, of course, but it was on an individual basis, lasted only a few years – and had a lot to do with things it was actually possible for me to change, such as low self esteem and not exactly the coolest way of dressing ….

    I’m not trying to say that bullying is ok or not a problem in itself. It took me years to heal the wounds. But when that bullying is because of your identity, of who you are – and you know you can’t get away from it, you can always have it thrown at you again, even as an adult – then that’s another animal altogether. I don’t think I can ever fully understand that experience.

    And the “throwing pennies” thing is – how do kids pick up or develop that kind of idea in the first place? Are they instructed at home or what? Really chilling.

    More importantly, I think, for Jews and our allies, precisely because antisemitism is not taken seriously enough as a phenomenon in and of itself, a reality of Jewish lives independent of what goes on between Israel and the Palestinians, and precisely because secular Zionism and that State of Israel were founded largely in response to antisemitism, discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict become one of the few opportunities we have to talk about antisemitism period, all of it, how it has worked and continues to work all over the world. The result is that what should be a conversation about Israel and Palestine and the people who are living and fighting and dying there ends up bearing the burden of, for example, not only every instance of antisemitism I listed above, but the history out of which that antisemitism arises and that continues to give it context. No single conversation should have to bear that burden.

    This was an eyeopener to me. It helped me understand a lot better the dynamics and the bitterness and anger over at the Feministe thread. Thanks again.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  11. 11
    monkeypedia says:

    I’ve had pennies thrown at me also, on school trips (I went to Jewish schools) and at high school cross country races, and I was in high school in the 90s (this was all in PA also – what’s with that?). We also had swastikas spray painted on my elementary school, among other things.

    Like others, I’ve also experienced less of that as an adult, but I wonder if that’s not only about location and age but also partially about being easily identifiable as a Jew. Our school was Jewish and that was clear from its name, not to mention that many of the boys wore yarmulkes in public (and at my elementary school, we did an after lunch prayer, including on school trips, which is often what triggered a reaction in others).

  12. 12
    AndiF says:

    Since I’m older than the rest of you and grew up during the waning years of virulent antisemitism and before the passage of the civil right acts, my experiences were more systemic and somewhat uglier — places Jews weren’t allowed to play, work, or live; ugly name-calling (my other name was dirty kike Christ-killer) and shunning; vandalism of Jewish homes, cemeteries, synagogues, and the Jewish community center*; Christian prayers and songs as a regular part of public school (with the sometimes offered choice of standing out in the hall if we didn’t like it), the necessity to hide one’s Jewishness (an uncle took my aunt’s not-Jewish sounding-name when they married so he could get a job), quotas at universities, etc. But the money-throwing was around then too. It only happened to me once though and was actually one of my proudest childhood moments: the money landed in a glass of water and I took the glass over to where the boy sat down and said, “You lost something” and poured out the glass over his lunch. (And yes, I was the only one who got into trouble.)

    When I went to university, I was shocked to find that I was the only Jew on campus (there were two townies) and that many students told me I was the first “live” Jew they’d ever seen. But though I expected to see more of what I’d grown up with, that was also the beginning of the end of my bad experiences with antisemitism and a real change in how I viewed goyim — the students were sincerely interested and although they held a lot of ridiculous stereotypes, they were incredibly open to learning and would ask me questions that would befuddle a rabbi (fortunately my mom had a very good friend who was a fantastic scholar).

    * the JCC was a favorite target because anyone could join which meant that many blacks did as it was one of the very few places with a pool and the only place with a competitive swim club that admitted them. The worst time — for me — was when I showed up for work in 1966 at day camp and was greeted by 6-foot high message of “Kill the Jews. Fuck the Jews”.

  13. 13
    Dianne says:

    Finally, in twelfth grade English class–I had switched from yeshiva back to public school–while discussing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Mr. Giglio asked if anyone knew the biblical reference in the poem’s closing lines: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

    Off topic, but…I thought that the lines were a reference to a different mythos altogether: Hera and Zeus’ wedding night which was said to go on for many days because Zeus stopped the sun to keep the honeymoon going for a longer period of time.

    I’d like to be amazed at your teacher’s (apparently) not knowing that the holy book of Judaism is more or less the same as the first holy book of Christianity, but unfortunately that sounds fairly typical.

    Re pennies being thrown: I grew up in Dallas in the 1970s and never saw pennies being thrown at anyone nor do I remember any particular anti-semitism. This is probably not because it wasn’t there but rather, I’m afraid, because I didn’t notice it, it not being directed at me. The point of this anecdote is that when non-Jewish people claim that anti-semitism is dead, that only idiot nazi wannabes and extreme backwater southerners would even think of being prejudiced, that they’ve never observed any anti-semitism, etc…they’re more likely wrong (not paying attention) than lying (denying what they know is happening.) If that helps in deciding how to approach the issue at all.

  14. AndiF: Thanks for sharing those stories. I think more Jews of your generation need to tell those stories more often. Those experiences are so invisible to so many, including Jews who are younger than I am, and knowing that they were real provides a meaningful context for so, so much.

    Diane: You’re right; it is Hera and Zeus’ wedding night that the lines of Marvell’s poem are referring to, but I would not have known that at the time, and Mr. Giglio–who was a devout Catholic–would not have referred us to a “heathen” mythology. So when he asked for a biblical reference, I supplied the one that I knew And, to be fair to him, it’s not that he didn’t know that the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament are, more or less, the same texts; he was berating the class that a Jew would know that text better than the Christian students who should have been in church the previous Sunday. (Never mind the fact that–at least I am assuming; I have no idea–not all Christian churches have the same readings each week.)

  15. 15
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Part of the problem is that Israel appears to have the kind of political power over the US government that conforms perfectly to the stereotypical shadowy-Jewish-conspiracy that modern antisemitic stereotypes are built upon.

    According to Olmert’s account of what happened, given in a speech on January 13 in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, “I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone’. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said, ‘I don’t care: I have to talk to him now’. They got him off the podium, brought him to another room, and I spoke to him.”

    “I told him, ‘You can’t vote in favour of this resolution.’ He said, ‘Listen, I don’t know about it. I didn’t see it. I’m not familiar with the phrasing’.” So Prime Minister Olmert told President Bush: “I’m familiar with it. You can’t vote in favour.”

    Bush did as he was told: “Mr Bush gave an order to Secretary of State Rice and she did not vote in favour of it—a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organised, and manoeuvred for,” said Olmert triumphantly. “She was left pretty shamed, and abstained on a resolution she arranged.” The Security Council passed the resolution 14-0, but the United States, its principal author, abstained.

    http://www.straight.com/article-194702/gwynne-dyer-did-ehud-olmert-bully-us-abstaining-un-ceasefire-vote

    That stuff makes it very easy to intertwingle antisemitism and discussion of Israel.

  16. 16
    Individ-ewe-al says:

    When I was 7 I had a virulently antisemitic headmaster who took to preaching about the Jews as Christ-killers (NB I live in Europe so it’s not unconstitutional for him to mention Christ in school). Soon after that I had a few incidents of antisemitic name-calling in the playground, which wasn’t a surprising consequence. Like you, Richard, I dealt with it fairly smartly by bashing anyone who called me a “weak Jew” until the other kids decided I must be right if I could make the bullies cry.

    A year later, two things had changed. The headmaster in question was involuntarily committed to a mental institution, leading us kids to conclude that you had to be literally crazy to express antisemitism in the 1980s. (I don’t actually know if his antisemitism and his mental health troubles were in any way connected.) Secondly, I had moved to an all-girls school, where I found that responding to verbal bullying with violence led to massive repercussions, both from teachers and from peers. By the time I reached puberty I was totally incapable of using my fists to establish my place in the social pecking order.

    That’s a good thing in a way, because I don’t actually think that the 7-year-old morality of “the most vicious fighter wins the argument” is a good way to run society. But I also regret it somewhat; I’ve grown up ladylike enough that if someone attacks me I get embarrassed and sputter for a polite response, instead of defending myself.

  17. 17
    MH says:

    I’m happy to report that, as a younger person, the experiences related in this post come across with a sort of ridiculousness, an unreality – like they couldn’t possibly be true, because who would ever do anything like this? Must be a put-on, right?

    I can say that, growing up, it was just assumed that being Jewish didn’t mean anything more or less than having glasses, or brown hair, or always wearing that green coat – just some trivia about the person, no one cared, and it certainly wasn’t assumed to be any bad thing to be Jewish – it just wasn’t even worth bringing up. It was: Oh, you go to Hebrew classes? Me, I go to tennis practice, and my friend does archery, and my other friend, he plays video games. Just another one of those things that people do after school, so who cares, and who would ever make a big deal out of it?

    Because of this, I’m always taken aback when I hear expressions of antisemitism. Like, wait, what? Really? Somebody actually believes this stuff? It’s like finding a flat-earther: you think, “Nah, he can’t really think that, must be some actor, am I on Candid Camera or something?”

  18. 18
    chingona says:

    places Jews weren’t allowed to play, work, or live

    Quotas are so associated now with affirmative action that it’s easy to forget they started as ceilings to make sure no more than some limited number of Jews could enter an institution, not as floors to make sure at least some limited number of whatever group could enter an institution.

    My grandmother tells a story about her first job. This was in New York City in the 1940s. She went with several friends from her neighborhood to apply for jobs in the secretarial pool of a large insurance company. She was the only one to get hired, but none of them thought much of it until she went to her first day at work. Another woman took it upon herself to make my grandmother feel at home, get her situated, walk with her to the washroom during the first break, etc. In the course of their small talk, she asked my grandmother where she lived. When my grandmother said “Brighton Beach,” the woman actually physically recoiled from her. It turned out the company had a policy of not hiring Jews, and my grandmother had slipped through the screening process because of her rather generic last name. And so her first day was her last.

    My grandmother said it was the first time – at 15 or 16 years old – that she had ever personally experienced antisemitism. Growing up in Brighton Beach, she literally didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Jewish.

    ///////////////////////

    MH, if I may ask, how old are you? I’m only in my early 30s.

  19. 19
    Dayna says:

    While I appreciate your post, I also find it very befuddling; What exactly are you talking about? The definition of anti-Semitism? Your experiences growing up Jewish?

    Your writing reads like a scattered mess of thoughts that you forgot to link together.

  20. 20
    Mandolin says:

    “Your writing reads like a scattered mess of thoughts that you forgot to link together.”

    Dayna: Thanks for commenting, but I think you’re out of the loop here. You might try reading the various posts that have been linked to so that you can discover the context of RJN’s writing. I assure you; for those of us who have been following the conversation in which RJN is participating, his essay is concise, lucid, and extraordinarily well put together (as is all his writing).

    I’d also suggest a slight rewrite to your comment so that you come across as less insulting: “Your writing reads to me like a scattered mess of thoughts that you forgot to link together.”

  21. 21
    AndiF says:

    I appreciate that comment, Richard. I’m glad to know it didn’t come across as some geezer going well, in my day ….

    I think sometimes that best summary of the experience of antisemitism came from one of my grandmothers who, with only an older brother, came to America at 13 after her shetl was burned to the ground and then found a less violent but still hateful prejudice here: Get all the education you can so when you have to leave, you’ll have something valuable to take with you.

    A history of violence and oppression made her feel displaced in her own life. And that’s what the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians. It has to stop and stop now. I’m really tired of all the fights over who is right or wrong. I really don’t care. But if the Israeli government needs a reason beyond all the physical harm and lost lives, they should consider the dishonor that’s being done to the lives of all those Jews like my grandmother.

  22. Thanks, Mandolin! :)

    Dayna: I am wondering, and this is not a disingenuous question, what you appreciate about the post if you find it so disconnected.

    AndiF: My grandmother was born here; my grandfather came over from a part of Austria-Hungary that is now in Poland when he was about 7. He never spoke about whether he’d seen pogroms or about his childhood experience of antisemitism, but the my grandmother’s aunts, some of whom were still alive when I was a kid, told me stories about the pogroms in Romania–I was doing a family history project for school. One of them had a story about the Christians across the street who hid her and her family in their cellar until the pogrom was over, and this happened several times.

    But my grandparents had an attitude similar to what your grandmother’s was.

  23. 23
    AndiF says:

    Richard, all four of my grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe but only this grandmother was willing to talk about her experiences. The other three either didn’t talk about it or actually refused to (my grandfather who lived with us would not answer any of my questions). I don’t know if that was because they found it too painful or leaving their past behind was something they saw as part of becoming an American.

  24. 24
    ansel says:

    I’m sorry for all that bullshit you had to deal with, Richard. Maybe if I had been religious as a kid I might have experienced some of that. Instead, I can only remember some friends of mine making fun of me for being a Jew during middle school. They’d drag out the word, “Jewww.” They were really my best friends and they weren’t trying to hurt me at all, so it was annoying but it didn’t offend me at the time. Looking back on it now, I have to wonder how they treated Jews who were more religious or who weren’t their friends…

    Then three weeks ago at work some drunk women told me and a friend point-blank to our faces that they hated those “fuckin’ Jews.”

    I also appreciate that you outlined the borders of your experience of antisemitism – that it’s faded away somewhat and hasn’t interfered too much in your livelihood as an adult. I think that’s a problem with David’s analysis – I’ve been reading his blog for years as well as his latest posts, but I still don’t understand how antisemitism is a structural oppression in this country or know exactly what he means by that. And I see that there is gentile privilege but I think it’s important, if we use that phrase, that we know how it’s different in scope and form from white privilege, which seems more precisely defined and widely understood.

  25. 25
    Mandolin says:

    I thought that structural effects of antisemitism were documented? I mean, isn’t there sociological research on this? It feels weird to be reinventing the wheel (is it structural? how? where?) — there are people who study these things.

    Frankly, I’m not intimate with their findings, but someone must be?

  26. Pingback: What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) antisemitism and Israel - 2 « It’s All Connected…

  27. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) antisemitism and Israel - 2

  28. Mandolin, ansel and others: A good place to start reading about antisemitism in the US, though it should only be a start–at least it is where I started–is Leonard Dinnerstein’s Anti-Semitism in American.

  29. 27
    Emily says:

    My grandmother told me a story of learning in school (this was the 1930s) about Russia and about the Cossaks (sp?) who sounded to her like great romantic knights on horseback. She came home and told her mother about it, who sat her down with a – You want to know about the Cossaks? And told her about hiding with her mother and brother face down in a ditch to avoid the pogroms.

    I grew up in a heavily Jewish area/school system during the 80s and 90s, and don’t have many memories of antisemitism, but there is still a way that global antisemitism along the lines of – get an education so you’ll have something of value to take with you when you have to leave – has influenced my worldview. It’s something that I didn’t know made me different from my (generally very non-religious/Unitarian) Christian friends. It was when we watched Schindler’s list in the high school auditorium and my best friend came up to me afterwards and said “that could have been you.” It honestly had never occurred to me that my classmates/friends/anyone would react to the Holocaust/Holocaust stories differently than me (which had always been “it could have been me,” not it could have been you“). As soon as she said it it made sense, but it just hadden occurred to me. I read a lot of young adult Holocaust fiction and stuff as a kid, usually with young female protagonists, so I had a lot of identification with it.

  30. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Maybe We Should Share Our Stories of antisemitism

  31. Pingback: Sharing Stories of antisemitism « It’s All Connected…

  32. I just wanted to say, for anyone who’s still interested, that there is an interesting conversation going at the version of this post on my blog, one aspect of the kind of discussion that I think David’s original posts were intended to start.

  33. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) antisemitism and Israel - 3

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  37. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » And Now For Something Completely Different: Classical Iranian Poetry

  38. 29
    Blanks says:

    Actually, European Jews are pretty effing Oriental.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/01/the-assyrians-and-jews-3000-years-of-common-history/

    I am Ashkenazi/Sephardi myself, but I identify as Middle Eastern/Oriental. That’s just me though. It’s up to the individual I guess.