Friday, July 29, 2011

Arabs, Jews, and the Varieties of AntiSemitism

i was reading via facebook an excellent article on 'the new antisemitism', marking the arabs and muslims as the semites now endangered by the kind of bigotry that caused the Holocaust, and the fact that the Israeli government, and many Israeli citizens, are complicit in that bigotry.  It's hard to argue with that; the Israeli government has lived up to its role as outpost of the West in the middle of the East.

i'm no historian, and to the extent that i escape into history, it's old history: i could tell you much more about henry 8 than about stalin or churchill.  but i have done reading over the years about the varieties of murderous bigotry, and to some extent about the pernicious and apparently unstoppable phenomenon of imperialism.  and i know about the holocaust.

and no, the holocaust doesn't justify anything lousy the Israeli government does to the arabs who are homeless because palestine was taken away from them.  it only makes the whole situation more complicated than we might like it to be.

what i have seen happening again and again over the years is that the need for having a good guy and a bad guy seems overwhelming to the human mind.  the article i read is doesn't quite go that far.  but too many people i know and too much stuff i read does.  so who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? it depends.

broadly speaking, if you're jewish and the holocaust has been built in to your life's view, whether liberal, leftist, or conservative,  israel is likely to be the good guy, even if the good guy sometimes slips from virtue. anyone who opposes zionism  or the state of israel is pretty much a bad guy. if you're an extremist of this ilk, criticism of Israeli policies or of the state itself makes the critic an antisemite, one step away from a nazi. if you're a non-jewish liberal or conservative with an awareness of the holocaust and /or a gut-deep believer in the superiority of the western way of life, israel is probably the good guy--civilization in the midst of barbarians.

if you're jewish and feel guilty for being white and/or comfortable, and have never been personally touched by antisemitism, you're much more likely to see the arab nations and the palestinians as the good guys and Israel, as well as anyone with deep concern about the isrealis' survival, as the bad guys.  if you're leftist and not in the category above, you too are likely to see the far-more economically suffering arabs as the good guys.  isrealis are much more like us: privileged, hypocritically imperialist, concerned only about their own comfort.

part of this, i think, is that historically jews are or one of the few oppressed groups whose oppression doesn't combine with economic oppression.  there are plenty of poor jews, rich  jews, and working class and middle class jews. this is rooted in the history of the diaspora and the hatred toward jews throughout medieval christianity. but  it doesn't fit into a marxist or any sort of socialist mould. the antisemetic jew is an old story, and a tragic one.  have you ever read marx on the jewish question? i did, a long time ago, and was both amused and horrified by its tone.  most of it read like all his stuff--like the work of a german philosopher,   convinced but detached.  then, suddenly, it becomes pretty much like AN ATTACK ON THOSE DAMN JEWS WHO CAUSE ALL THIS TROUBLE AND I HATE THEM! and then glides back into his german-philosopher dignity.

in the old days of the new left, i had these conversations with jewish friends frequently--always finding myself in the ironic position of a shiksa telling jews they're oppressed. one of these conversations [actually several of them, which for purposes of readability i'm condensing into one] was with two jewish friends--both leftists, both  civil rights activists, and, both avidly pro-feminist men.  one of them was of the 'guilty middle class jew' temperament, and, in discussing the then-new gay-rights movement, seemed uncomfortable because, as neither female nor homosexual, he didn't really feel free to speak to the experience of the oppressed.  the other guy finally had had it.  "Don't worry, you don't have to feel guilty.  You are oppressed: you're jewish!'  he said. [it didn't do much good.]

my own background, ironically, may have made it easier for me to be conscious of the oppression of jews.  my best friend, who was 2 years older than me and thus perfect, spent part of one summer with her family in a bungalow relatives owned in monticello, ny--at the time, very much a jewish vacation area.  i was, i think, about ten. i spent a weekend with them. right next to their property was a 'bungalow colony' whose residents were orthodox jews.  my friend and her kid sister loved to make fun of them when we were alone together. their dress, language, etc, were odd to us. naturally i followed their example and eagerly sougt out comic behavior in our neighbors. one day i found something really silly, and couldn't wait to tell my friends:  these people were so stupid they tattooed numbers instead of pictures on their arms. my friends, of course, didn't laugh.  instead, they told me about those numbers.  i suppose i should have been ashamed of myself, but i was too caught up in the realisation that human beings did this to other human beings.  i thought it would kill me, the pain of this sudden, incomprehensible knowledge.   i thought, very clearly, that when i grew up i had to spend my life making things like that stop, or i wouldn't be able to live at all.  and so each awareness of oppression that came to me in later years was an echo of that one, and it never changed.  moving on to ann frank's diary and, in my teens, to 'rise and fall of the third reich' confirmed and deepened that knowledge.

so did 12 years of catholic school, where  antisemitism was routine and casual.  when jfk became president, one of the nuns read out the names of his cabinet.  when she got to 'goldberg,' she snickered and the class laughed.  i didn't get the joke at first. to me goldberg meant that nice tv show, and, far more importantly, my friend jeannie whose father owned the kosher restaurant where we sometimes dropped by and he gave is half a hotdog apiece.  when john the 23rd became pope, our priest [who did a special mass for us once a month, in english], told us there were some changes we had to make on the cards we read the prayers from--the pope had taken out the jews-killed-jesus references.  father owen was angry, you could tell, though all he said, bitterly, was, 'i don't know why.' there were other incidents, and they were all part of the reason i was determined not to go to  catholic college.

at first when the existence of Israel came to my attention, i got all 'exodus' about it.  the freedom fighters, the kibbutzim with their socialist base, the true ideal of human equality--here was a people living the dream of what i saw as the good life.  i went there, once, in my early 20s, when pacifists took their guard duty on the kibbutz carrying broomsticks instead of guns.  standing on a hill looking down on jerusalem, which seemed to spring out of the earth itself, i connected its beauty to the beauty of the israeli ideal. i understood, in a rowboat on the dead sea, looking up at the golan heights, why the Israelis had to control who lived up there.  a massacre of the town beneath would be very easy.

that vision of a glorious Israel couldn't last, and didn't.  but i knew and felt too much to replace it with a glorified crew of oppressed and thus good arabs, when i knew that a lot of those arabs would, for reasons i couldn't argue, gladly slaughter the Israelis. i heard  the glee with which arafat talked about the nazis, about destroying the jews.  it was hard to let go of the perfect Israelis, and equally hard to buy into the perfect arabs.  it still is.

oppression sometimes seems to create saints. ghandi, king, etc etc. it is equally like to create monsters, willing to do anything to survive, including what was done to them in the first place.  i like the saint idea better. i settle for the simply decent, rational victims who keep that decency.  i am sad for those who turn monstrous, and i have little doubt that i could easily be among them.  and i wonder what, in both cases, they should or could do, should or could have done.

the largest fault is, as it tends to be, if only because of the power factor, the West's.  to the victor belong the spoils. what were the great powers going to do with these jews they had rescued from the concentration camps?  take them into their own countries?  shit, they were kicking them out of their countries in the midst of the third reich, when boatloads arrived at american and european ports.  they all took in some; america, at least, sent back others.  so give them a country of their own.  where? who do we kick out to accommodate them?  well, they did have a claim to Israel, though it was a 2600-year-old claim, and even back then they coexisted with arabs of whatever religion.  but america had a good example of how to decide that land inhabited by different sorts of people was land in fact uninhabited.  and the jews? what were they supposed to do--nobly refuse to dispossess the occupants of that land and demand that their liberators find them a fairer deal?  and how else could they acquire a 'homeland'?  they had learned very well that they weren't safe in anyone else's country: they had been well integrated into germany and the later occupied lands.  who, precisely, could they trust to let them live-and-let-live?

and how could the arabs respond, kicked and tricked out of their homes, the homes of their ancestors? nobly declare that they were willing to give up their lands to these people who had so horribly suffered? there was no winning then, and there seems to be no winning now.  the powers that created this situation still control it, and as long as they are getting something out of it, israel is likely to be fairly safe.

but surely, even as those who survived the holocaust die off, the jews of Israel and jews around the world know how tenuous the support of the west really is.  anti-semitism--anti-jewish antisemism-- may have been overshadowed by more immediate horrors,  but it has a very long history and a very real living existence.  vandals everywhere still often carve swastikas on the walls of synagogues and on gravestones. maybe that is in part because it's easy to draw, and can thus encompass other hatreds as well. in america right now, it is probably safer to be jewish than to be black or to be visibly muslim.  muslims may indeed be 'the new jews' in western europe.  but jews remain the old jews, the jews shoved into ghettos, used as tax collectors and then killed by the angry poor, beaten up routinely on 'good friday,' finally dubbed a 'race' and murdered, not even with the horrible shylock alternative of forced conversion.

i can respect the dislike of a jewish state by people leery of theocracy.  i don't believe in theocracy either.  i want 2 states, each able to determine their own form of government and their own culture. in theory, i think Israel should be an open state, where religion is whatever you want to be and no laws limit non-Jews in the country.  but jews have lived in non-Jewish countries for centuries.  they have lived at some times in some cultures believing themselves fully accepted, fully integrated.  they have learned where that got them.  Western opportunism may have created the specific Jewish state of Israel. but history made it, in one form or another, essential.  that it relies on the same western cultures that have betrayed jews over and over again is as tragic as it is ironic.  that they are pitted in enmity against another group whose sufferings for centuries have also been imposed by the west may be the worst tragedy of all.  and we don't have to look too far to see who gains from the situation.  the winners are those whose greed and contempt for humanity spews out at us these days from our government, barely concealed and as clever as they have always been in exploiting the fears and dreams of the people they will gladly crush, in their own country and everywhere else.


American Peacock said...

Karen, wrote a long unwieldy response that Blogspot destroyed when I started pushing buttons. Can't write it again so. . .I will say that I took issue with many of your assertions, anecdotal evidence, and relying too heavily on AF's diary and the Rise and Fall. Lots of scholarship since WWII has been written, which give more nuanced readings of the making of Israel. You might go through the Angry Arab's blog for a pointer to where some of it lies. But not just Arab scholarship. Check out Gilead Atzmon for other routes. Sorry, but the response I wrote was a few thousand words (should have written in Word and copy/pasted it--at least it would not have vanished)and am too exhausted to rethink it.
It's a big issue and I should commend you for taking it on as you did.

karen lindsey said...

thanks, rich---

i hate it when that happens! i would like to have read your comments, and will, when summer classes are done, pursue your suggestions. thanks for taking the time and energy to respond. you're right; it's a huge issue, and i'm hardly an expert. it's just my concern--and experiencially, a real one--about the ongoing reality of antisemitism. i see it, and i see it being ignored. if there were a new holocaust it would maybe not be against jews: certainly muslims are a big target these days. and in the US, african americans as well, and in a larger time frame, maybe predominantly. but scratch a racist, and you're likely to find a lot of other bigotry, with jews included. anyhow, this got a response from you! and maybe will cause some others to talk/think about it. and what more could i ask?

Baysage said...

I see the problem in the all-encompassing picture of human suffering and the inevitability of the Grey. Who is right? Who is wrong in any of this? The answer as you have grappled with at such length is that nobody is right, nobody is wrong. It's not either/or but both/and. Which we humans simply cannot abide. So we continue killing one another.