February 11, 2024
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Jews Against Jews

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Dear Lisa:

I do not know your name, so I invented this one for you.

I was marshalling (or, in Catholic Worker parlance, "peacekeeping") a demonstration for a ceasefire in East Hampton last weekend when you came over and started screaming insults at the protesters, calling us supporters of terrorism and rape.

It was a demonstration planned by two Jewish women, and some of the other attendees, myself included, were Jewish. We were calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, spread out along the main street reading Palestinian poetry, including a heartbreaking one by Refaat Alareer, which ends: “If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale.” Refaat is dead, killed by an Israeli bomb.

It was one of the most beautiful, meticulously planned actions I have ever attended-- and you felt entitled to shout over it, to call us gross names, to accuse us, in our poetry reading, of supporting murder. In a very clear and simple way, it was a classic peace demonstration, asking that war wind down, not be conducted so viciously. The majority of the people attending were over 70. You behaved like a classic schoolyard bully. A Martian anthropologist watching the scene might have wondered about your mental health or your condition: they would have been hard put to distinguish this spectacle from an inebriated bully shouting down the performance of a string quartet.

. What entitled you to behave that way? I think I know. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition that you love Israel, and feel greatly offended by anyone criticizing the Israeli nation-state. I flash on an additional huge contributing factor, the underwater 90% of the ice-berg: You have been infected by white privilege.

I refer you to an excellent book, Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White. He explains that all the waves of immigrants to this country in the first third of the twentieth century, but for the ones from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, were not considered Caucasian: Irish, Italians and Jews were only all promoted to be provisional members of the white race in the ensuing decades. I had an epiphany some years ago, that this status is actually quite provisional; and the best way to understand my life is as if many of the white Protestants with who I have associated in school and work understood me as having just a drop of some other blood. Nobody ever really wanted me to marry their sister; and there have always been some who, obsessive hand-shakers, wiped their hand on their pants equally obsessively (Note to them: no need to shake my hand at all, if you are going to do that).

I also lived much of my life in segregated (Jews only) neighborhoods, an I have experienced a (vanishingly small) degree of real anti-Semitism, of the "I can smell your kind a mile away" ilk. But I have lived a hugely privileged American life, never in danger of losing my home or not being able to eat, always able to buy whatever I needed. I went to Columbia and Harvard. And when cops pull me over on the highway, they don't shoot me.

I think, however, Lisa, that you are making far too much of your status as an honorary white person. That status will never be secure. My mother, a successful and respected doctor high in the hierarchy at the hospitals where she worked, never lost that second generation immigrant sense of provisionality: her first words to me, whenever I described a project which might attract unfavorable notice, was "be careful". (I am not oblivious to the Freudian arc which has led to my marshalling pro-Palestinian demonstrations.) History shows how easily our ticket can be canceled. I have read some of the indignant correspondence of assimilated Jews to Hitler, such as appeals written by the grandchildren of Bleichroder, Bismarck's secret and disrespected right hand, and certain World War I veterans: We are better Nazis than anyone, why are you doing us like this? Those are the boundary cases; but there was of course a much huger class of doctors, lawyers and professors who felt perfectly German, until they weren't. In this country, a year or so after my grandparents came, Congress effectively shut the door on Eastern European Jews. After the Second World War, there was a time when it was easier for a Nazi collaborator to get a visa to the United States than a Holocaust survivor.

Against that background, what made you think you should become the problem child in your class, the screamer, using up all the oxygen, and demanding that the white people extinguish your enemies? I think you caught the power hierarchy by surprise,and their compliance so far is a kind of virtue signaling: they are so jumpy about their own anti-Semitism that when you scream that someone you hate is one, they have a kind of kneejerk, and they attack. But you are also actively seeking allies who are themselves intensely anti-Semitic. In the long run-up to the 2016 election, Jewish reporters reporting on Donald Trump were deluged with Photoshopped images in which their faces were inserted into the inside of an oven, sometimes with Trump himself, in Nazi regalia, pulling a lever. Someone interviewing Trump asked him about the harassment of a particular writer who had profiled Melania Trump, and whether he would order his supporters to stop this behavior. He said it was a bad article about Melania, and refused to intervene. Elise Stefanik and Barbara Fox and the other Congresspeople you are relying on to be your defenders, won't call out Trump for this; nor do they care about you, or Jewish people. You too are a descendant of Bleichroder.

It also seems quite remarkable to me that you are asking the white people to settle scores for you against other Jewish people, such as me, the women who planned our demo, and the Jewish Voices for Peace. Since when does a marginalized, endangered people invite the Man into our midst? What are you thinking?

There is a terrible imbalance between our goals, yours and mine, Lisa: You want me silenced, shamed, punished. I want you to leave me alone.