It’s getting to be that time of the year in northern California when some of us, often called “spiritual sluts,” celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza and Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, which I enjoyed in Hanoi for the first time twenty-years ago. I have often celebrated all of those holidays, one after the other, because I’ve felt like I belong to the world and to all its religions, though I know that religion has brought violence and calamity, and though I was born into a secular Jewish family and grew up when Jews were excluded from country clubs and fraternities.
When I was eleven-years-old, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two American-born Jews, were sent to the electric chair after they were found guilty of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and then handing it to the Soviets. That event seared my childhood more than any other; my parents were also Jewish and had belonged to the American Communist Party from 1938 to 1948.
The American Nazi Party was alive and well when I was a boy. Members of the organization wore swastikas and paraded in largely Jewish neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they had a right to do so under the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Jew Boy” was a term of derision and so was “New York Jew,” which might be taken to mean a Wall Street banker or a Communist agitator. Now, New York Jew it might mean the former mayor of the city, Michael Bloomberg, the eleventh richest person in the world, or the orthodox Jews who are anti-Zionist.
To paraphrase Henry James, “It’s a complex fate to be an American Jew.” Now, more than ever before the American Jewish community, which is as divided as ever before since the height of McCarthyism and the Cold War, faces crucial political and social issues that will not be resolved anytime soon.
I probably will never lose my identity as a Jew, though I don’t believe in the Messiah, don’t care if I never see Jerusalem and have never thought that Jews are the “Chosen People” who have suffered more than any other people because of discrimination and prejudice.
I’m a Jew who believes that the State of Israel has often behaved like a Nazi regime when it comes to Palestinians. I don't think of myself as a “white person,” if only because so-called “white people” have reminded me for much of my life that I was Jewish and didn’t belong in their fraternities, clubs and cliques, though sometimes I have been a token Jew, as when I played rugby in New York in the early 1960s and rubbed shoulders with Irish from Ireland, white South Africans and white Australians.
After all these years, I remember now a dinner party in Antwerp, Belgium in 1988 when the host, who was also a colleague of mine at the university, began to talk about a Belgian woman he described as “a Jewess,” a word I had never heard spoken before. I associated “Jewess” with Rebecca, the dark, exotic Jew, and the daughter of a moneylender in Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe, which is set in the twelfth-century, about the same time that some astute observers of human nature first explained that non-Jews projected their own “dark side” onto Jews, rather than owning it themselves.
The word “Jewess”—when coupled with my landlady’s comment that “the Jews were taking over Antwerp”—raised my hackles, made me aware of Belgian anti-Semitism and brought out my own self-identification as Jewish, which is magnified whenever I hear negative comments about Jews.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, published in 1945—just as the world was becoming aware of German concentration camps—has been my Bible when it comes to anti-Semitism.
Soon after that 1988 Belgian dinner party, Eric Schellermans, my landlady’s youngest son, took me to a World War II “detention center” for Jews who were subsequently shipped to places like Auschwitz and Dachau. “It wasn’t a concentration camp,” Eric insisted, though I felt differently, probably because there was a plaque on a wall with the names of several Jews who had died in a failed attempt to escape. Some of them had the last name “Rasquin,” the French spelling of Raskin. Not surprisingly, I had an immediate sense of kinship.
The visit to the “detention center” reminded me of the long history of European anti-Semitism, the fate of Dreyfus and Zola, and the Holocaust, too, which my father told me about when I was five. He didn’t call it the “Holocaust,” probably because I wouldn’t have understood the word, though he explained that Nazis put Jews into ovens and gassed them. It was a lovely bedtime story and gave me nightmares.
In Morocco the year before I lived and worked in Belgium, my friend, Mohammed, invited me for lunch at his home, where his mother made couscous and where he told me that, “Jews ran the U.S. and controlled the media.” And also that “Rockefeller was a Jew.”
Wherever I have lived, whether in New York, northern California, North Carolina, Manchester, England and Mexico City, I have experienced anti-Semitism. I experience it now more than ever before and especially since Trump’s election, which has ratcheted up attacks on Jews in the U.S. I’ve been aware all my life that Jews have been a target of hatred.
My own journey started in Huntington, Long Island in 1942, when Jews all over the world were very endangered, indeed. Even in Huntington, where my grandfather owned and operated a store and helped to create the town synagogue, there was anti-Semitism. The boys in the neighborhood called Jews “Christ-killers.” The girls in the neighborhood wouldn’t date Jewish boy because they had been circumcised but not baptized.
I drove Benjamin Raskin to the synagogue on Saturday mornings, though I never joined him, and he never invited me inside. His only son, my father, Samuel, had been bar mitzvahed at 13. Then, he turned around and told his father that he was an atheist and would never set foot in a synagogue again. As far as I know, he never did.
I was never bar mitzvahed, and have rarely gone to a synagogue anywhere in the world, though out of curiosity I visited a reform temple in Antwerp where men in suits conferred with one another in Hebrew all through the service. An odd way to practice their beliefs, I thought. In fact, they were conducting business and ought to have been chased from the temple.
My initial reaction to Trump’s election was a kind of instinctive sense that the U.S. was hurtling toward fascism and that anti-Semitism would escalate. After all, Trump had made anti-Semitic remarks. The mid-term elections have reinforced my apprehensions. The right wing controls the White House, the Senate and the Supreme Court, though the resistance succeeded in electing a majority of Democrats to the House of Representatives and to state houses across the nation and to governorships, too. Two cheers for Democracy.
When I settled in northern California forty-two years ago, I naively thought I would escape anti-Semitism. Indeed, I met working class Jews, Jewish gangsters and racketeers and learned about Murder Incorporated. I also learned that in the 1940s some Jewish refugees from European fascism moved into the houses vacated by Japanese families when they were sent to detention camps simply because they were Japanese.
In Sonoma County, an hour North of San Francisco I heard the kinds of comments about Jews that I had not heard since the 1950s, namely, that Jews had horns and tails and that Jews were the killers of Jesus Christ. As a faculty member at Sonoma State University, I heard anti-Semitic comments from faculty members and from students, though I also heard black students referred to as “niggers” on campus and off campus.
In the men’s locker room one afternoon, I heard one student say to another, “it smells like a Jew in here.” Walking across campus a professor in the history department approached me and asked, “what are you doing here,” followed by “Why don’t you go back to New York?” I took that to be coded anti-Semitism.
In another era, I had been told to “go back to Russia” and “love it or leave it.” One evening while having dinner with friends at a Sonoma County restaurant that happened to be owned and operated by a New Yorker who is also Jewish, a man at the table complained that, “The Jews are taking over Los Angeles.” When I repeated his comment to my own friends, they said, “He’s from the Valley,” as though that excused his comment.
In Sonoma County, where Jews are a small minority and where they were tarred and feathered in the 1930s, just because they were Jews and communists, too, I heard Jewish students in my classes tell me it “was impossible to have peace with Palestinians,” and, when I attended a Santa Rosa synagogue for the bar mitzvah of a son of a student, the first thing the rabbi said to me was that I should give money to the State of Israel and that if I was a “good Jew” I would also be a Zionist.
For my whole life, I have rejected the idea that to be a Jew also meant to be a Zionist and to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel. The Santa Rosa rabbi was in part merely expressing a widely held sentiment that holds that the fate of the Jews in the U.S. and the fate of Jews in Israel are inextricably linked.
Indeed, ever since 1948, the existence of Israel has altered what it means to be a Jew in the United States. Any Jew who doesn’t bow down to the Israeli government runs the risk of being demonized, ostracized and marginalized.
These days, Jews don’t lead labor unions and strikes, as they once did, though many of them do humanitarian work. But so do citizens of all ethnic groups. The idea that there are “Jews without money” is now largely a thing of the past, though in 1930, Mike Gold wrote an autobiographical novel about penniless Jews.
In Sonoma County, there are a great many Jews, including myself, who can’t and don’t have civil conversations with other Jews on the subject of Israel without shouting at one another and refusing to agree to disagree. I also have Jewish friends my age and generation who don’t know any Yiddish—what a shame!—don’t know Jewish history and traditions and who have been more assimilated into white Anglo Saxon Protestant America than any Jews I have ever known. I feel much the same way about them that James Baldwin felt about African Americans who were in denial about their own blackness and who identified as white.
I have not accused those Jews of being “self-hating,” though that phrase has been hurled at me because I don’t belong to a congregation or attend a synagogue except on rare occasions, for funerals, for example. There may be some Jews who have internalized anti-Semitism.
I know that Jews collaborated with the Nazis, much as Jews also resisted the Nazis, but I refuse to accept the idea that Jews who aren’t Zionists or who criticize the State of Israel are “self hating,” much as critics of the U.S. aren’t necessarily anti-American. When I taught in Belgium I heard anti-American statements, along with anti-Semitic remarks. In the 1980s, with Reagan in the White House, it was relatively easy for Belgians to hold and express anti-American sentiments.
I know what Anti-Americanism looks like and sounds like. It’s an instinctive hatred of all things American, by which people usually mean the U.S.A. In Belgium, I did everything I could to combat anti-Americanism in the classroom by introducing students to the diversity of American culture and literature, written by women and people of color, playing jazz and the blues and lecturing on the history of American radicalism that was fueled by Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and more.
Under Trump, and in the wake of the recent killing of Jews in Pittsburg, I feel more Jewish than ever before, and more American, too. Jewish in the ways that Marx, Einstein, Freud, Bella Abzug and Philip Roth were Jews, and American in the ways that Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Ben Shahn and Emma Goldman were Americans and Jews, too, and of Lithuanian and Russian ancestry, like me.
When I say I’m Jewish I don’t mean to end the conversation, but to start one, much as students who would tell me, “I am Irish,” started a conversation, though they often thought they were stating a fact and ending a conversation.
In a long rambling article entitled “Do American Jews Still Believe they’re White?” that recently appeared in Tablet, the African American writer, Ishmael Reed mostly talked about himself and the media, though he ended his piece by saying, “The United States has never been a white nation and it never will be.” What Reed fails to appreciate is that “whiteness” is a social construct and that it was constructed in the U.S., where European immigrants, whether they were Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, Italians, Polish or Irish, largely bought into the myth that they were “white” not “black”—not African-American
To say that the U.S, has never been, nor or will it ever be a “white nation” is to focus on skin color and to ignore the myth of “whiteness,” which the earliest settlers and their descendants created as a way to distinguish themselves from Indians, whom they called ‘redskins”—whom they aimed to subdue and exterminate, if necessary, while they were the “pale faces” who would conquer the continent.
Reed also insists that we’re now “hearing the death rattle of white nationalism.” In support of his argument, he urges readers to eat at a Burger King and spend a night at a Holiday Inn and see the “variety of languages and colors.” Sorry, comrade Reed, but that’s wishful thinking. White nationalism is no more experiencing a death rattle than anti-Semitism. Just look at the corpses. For some U.S. citizens, the more there’s linguistic and ethnic diversity at Burger King and elsewhere, the more reason there is for white nationalism.
Reed might remember that Jack London, who was a member of the Socialist Party of the United States, was also a white supremacist and an anti-Semite, though he also had friends who were Jewish, and who thought that Jews were weaklings and that in the struggle for survival they would die off, while whites would thrive. The picture is far more complicated than Reed allows.
Now, as much as at any time in history, what it means to be Jewish and an American is up for grabs, and ought not to be in the hands of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, or with Trump himself, the protégé of one of lowest, slimiest American Jews ever: Mr. Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s sidekick.
In the thick of the 1969-1970 Chicago Conspiracy trial, Abbie Hoffman, who was one of the defendants, accused Judge Hoffman of being a “shanda fur die goyim”—a henchman for the master class—who betrayed his own people. Saying it in Yiddish made more sense and conveyed more punch than saying it in English.
In Miami in 1972, Abbie Hoffman reached out to retired Jews, reminded them that Nixon hated Jews, and invited them to support the Yippies who were as Jewish as the members of any organization in the Sixties, and who never forgot the Holocaust, even as they never surrendered their patriotic sentiments, especially when they showed up at the House Committee on American Activities in shirts made from the American flag and in uniforms that mimicked those of the patriots of 1776.
There’s a dark, dark tradition of Jewish writing in the books of Isaac Bashevis Singer and others, and there’s also a tradition of Jewish humor that once became American humor, much as the blues became American music and might once again, especially now in the age of Donald Trump, a “great dictator,” in Charlie Chaplin’s sense of the word, if ever there was one.
I’m not so Jewish that I can’t laugh at fascism and Trump, and not so stoical that I can’t and don’t cry when I see and hear about the murder of human beings on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, social class and political beliefs. I sometimes wish my parents hadn’t named me Jonah. But they did. It’s too late to change it now. I’m of the Old Testament. I can’t escape it, or deny my sense of affiliation with the prophet Jonah who fled his home, was swallowed by a whale and then went to Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, to call upon its citizens to repent their sinful ways. My goals are more modest, or maybe not. What I’d like is a world without Anti-Semitism. And that’s just a start.