It all is weird to me

My experience of being a Jew is experiencing a lot of things and not having the slightest clue how to make sense of them in the context of history and contemporary life.

Like that one time I went to Oklahoma. I was walking a few miles on Shabbat and wearing my yarmulke. A car pulls up beside me and starts honking, pulls down their window, shouts “WE SUPPORT ISRAEL!” and moves on. What do I do with that?

Here’s something that happened in camp last summer. A bunch of kids were eating pizza. The pizza was not kosher, so I did not eat it. I was hanging out in a classroom where some kids were eating, including B.

“Did you eat pizza?” B asks.

“Nah,” I say.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not kosher pizza, and I only ever eat kosher food or pizza from kosher places.”

(Which is not a good explanation, but it’s sort of complicated and not every kid wants a whole long thing.)

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I grew up outside of Chicago and live in NY.”

This was followed by a longish, kind of awkward pause.

“But where are your parents from?”

“Boston and Philadelphia.” No nod of satisfaction from B. “Is that what you were asking?”

“I mean ethnically, where are you from?”

“So…I’m Jewish, but Jews come from all over the place.”

“Oh ok. So you’re from…”

“Mostly Russia. But, yeah, mostly like Boston.”

“…where is your family from?” I asked.

“Philippines. Do you think we can get seconds?”

So, what was that? Is there something wrong with that interaction? Clearly he is puzzled by my whole deal. And, he’s a kid. There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, and he asked questions in good faith. I was happy to have the conversation, even though it underlined my differences.

And what about the time, when I was new to my school, that a friendly conversation with the maintenance guy turned to, like, a list of all the stuff he knew about Jews? And I wasn’t exactly sure what he was saying about the Jews and JFK, but he was saying it in a friendly way? So while I got weird vibes it was probably meant well?

I have a mental list of weird interactions with people in my adult life that I honestly am confounded by. Like that person at the grocery store a few weeks ago. It was Thursday night at our local place. She was, like, “you people shop late!” And I said, “what?” She leaned in a whispered: “There’s a lot of Jews here.” And I said “It’s because tomorrow is Shabbat.” And she was like “I think it’s because you work so hard.” But then she talked about how much we had in common because we both had tyrants: El Jefe and Hitler. So that was a nice conversation!

So I don’t know how to make sense of all this stuff. I see some frum Jews write about anti-Semitism online, but mostly it’s from (in my opinion) mistake assumption that anti-Semitism is exactly like contemporary racism in its nature and effects. The fact that white supremacists hate both Jews and Black people doesn’t mean that our experiences are identical or ought to be written about in identical ways. Some Jewish writers come from a place of angst that anti-Semitism isn’t treated like racism.

I can’t describe my Jewish experience with anything but confusion. I think the weirdness of it is an essential part of walking around with a yarmulke, but also of Jewish life in general. It’s just very hard to know what matters and how much. So when a person is shot in a synagogue and it doesn’t dominate the news…is that appropriate? Proportionate? And does it matter? I have no way to think about this, except that it’s confusing and it probably should be.

A Jew thinks out loud about Farrakhan

I don’t know a ton about Nation of Islam. A few years ago I read Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, and I left that book with an enormous admiration for Malcolm X, feeling like we’d lost a really great American. And if only for that, I’m prejudiced against Louis Farrakhan.

The other piece of context I have for Farrakhan is Freddie de Boer’s excellent essay in Harper’s, titled “The Charmer.” Here are a few of the choice bits of that essay that pertain to his anti-Semitism:

To speak of what Farrakhan gets right about racism is to risk lending credence to all he gets wrong. For just as he has been correct in his indictment of white supremacy, so too have his critics been correct in their indictments of him. Farrakhan’s ample critical gifts have always come packaged with abundant bigotries: hatred of Jews, mockery and fear of homosexuals, denigration of women. I have heard occasional attempts to deny Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, but these defenses approach lunacy. Farrakhan’s distrust of and anger toward Jews are as central and constant as any other aspect of his philosophy; anyone reading over his speeches for examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric will quickly find herself spoiled for choice. Jews control the banks, they control the media, they control the government, Israel knew 9/11 was coming.

Why then does Farrakhan fear Jewish reprisals? For no good reason, it seems, other than his palpable anti-Jewish paranoia, along with the anti-Semite’s tendency to see one of the world’s most oppressed peoples as the shadowy driver of all events.

So let’s take for granted that Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is not subtle or interesting in and of itself. It’s not a phenomenon that demands nuance. It just is: he’s an anti-Semite.

OK, but Tamika Mallory, national co-chair of the Women’s March, was in attendance at Farrakhan’s most recent speech. And, apparently, it’s not an isolated thing, as she’s posted about Farrakhan before on social media:

Here is her defense, it seems:

If I understand, she’s saying that whatever Farrakhan’s faults, he is an important leader. She doesn’t share his anti-Semitism (or, presumably, his deep homophobia and anti-feminism!) but she won’t refuse to associate with him or to praise him.

OK, so what’s the generalizable principle here? I think it’s: Don’t refuse to associate with or listen to or offer praise to someone who plays an important, positive, communal role, even if they have deep, disgusting faults. 

Now, is her invoking this principle hypocritical? I don’t know much about Mallory, so I can’t say. It’s certainly true that e.g. Aziz Ansari didn’t get this sort of benefit of the doubt from the left, but then again that might be entirely consistent with the principle above. Ansari is, at the end of the day, an artist. Farrakhan’s faults — his paranoia and hate — may run deeper than whatever it was that Ansari was guilty of, but then again maybe it gets overridden by the Million Man March? I don’t know.

And, besides, I actually agree with that principle to a point, and wish it was more widely followed.

Is it anti-Semitism for that principle to be selectively invoked for Farrakhan but not for others? I’m not sure. Remember, Farrakhan isn’t just a hater of Jews. He’s homophobic, among other things. So the claim that Mallory and other leftists wouldn’t defend Farrakhan if he had issued hate speech about some other group…Farrakhan hates a lot of people. I’m not sure this argument really flies.

(If it does fly, it’s because of the intensity and persistence of his anti-Semitic speech, even compared to his homophobia or anti-feminism.)

So, where does that leave us? What’s at stake?

I think 95% of the emotion at play here is about whether Jews get to be counted as the oppressed or oppressors in the US today. Of course the answer could be both, and intersectionality would call for that, but in practice intersectionality is a cherry-on-top nuance over a baseline judgement: oppressed or oppressor?

Lots of Jews generally want to be seen as oppressed because of, you know, all of Jewish history.

Leftists want Jews to be seen as oppressors because they’re mostly white, and especially because of anti-Zionism.

Mallory could easily apologize for Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, but doesn’t want to, because Jews (as oppressors) have it coming for them, just as white people do in Farrakhan’s rhetoric.

Jewish critics want to hold Mallory accountable to leftists and progressives to force a reckoning, and to extract a concession that Jews are victims of oppression.

***

And where do I stand? I think this is some of the danger of thinking too much about identity and status. Is there anti-Semitism in the US that we want to fight against? Is there an actual plan on how to protect Jews from hate crimes?

I want to avoid the sort of metaphysical issues that talk of anti-Semitism usually devolves into. I’m interested in protecting Jews from the sort of things I’m afraid of: shul shootings, terrorism, street harassment. I’m not interested in fighting anti-Semites, I’m interested in defeating anti-Semitism, and it’s not clear to me that the two are the same project.

So Farakkhan is a loony, but I don’t see much good coming from trying to take down Mallory for her association with him. The Women’s March isn’t about to add an anti-anti-Semitism plank to their work anyway.

Jewish Internment Camps in Canada, 1940 -1943

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European refugees who had managed to escape the Nazis and made it to Britain, were rounded up as “enemy aliens” in 1940. Many were interned on the Isle of Man, and 2,300 were sent to Canada, mostly Jews. They were transported on the same boats as German and Italian POWs. They were sent to camps in New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec provinces where they were mixed in with Canadian fascists and other political prisoners, Nazi POWs, etc.

From wikipedia. From the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre:

Upon arrival in Canada, the refugees were spread out in makeshift prisoner of war camps in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. While some commandants and guards displayed tolerance – if not sympathy – for their prisoners, others combined anti-German and anti-Jewish attitudes when dealing with them. After a visit to Camp N in Sherbrooke, a military observer noted “strictness arbitrarily applied,…rude and appalling language and indulgence in antisemitic remarks [which] are particularly objectionable.”

Meanwhile, refugees interned in England were quickly gaining release and most were soon engaged in the war effort. The British, admitting their error, informed Canada that the refugees could be returned to freedom in Britain, although made it clear that they preferred that they be released into the safety of Canada. But Canada had resisted pressures in the past to grant admission to Jewish refugees, and officials were determined not to let Jews gain entry through the “back door” of internment.

Those who wished to join the British Pioneer Corps (a non-fighting unit) were soon able to return to Britain. Also released were scientists who had been working on top-secret military intelligence technology, and a few others needed for war-related work. The rest languished behind barbed wire in Canadian camps; some would stay there for as long as three years. They called themselves the “camp boys.”

The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre makes it seem like the camps were decent enough places — decent enough, considering that Jewish refugees were living side-by-side with Nazi POWs. Internees had access to art studios, lectures, a kind of “university.” Much more here.

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