Private Conversations and Passing

I happened upon this excellent post from JVoices a few days ago, and it helped reinforce something I’ve been seeing for a while that people don’t believe or are horrified to find out – that anti-Semitic hatred may not be institutional in North America, but certainly still exists at the individual level, just as many others have noticed about sexist hatred and other forms of racial hatred.

I know this, because I’ve been exposed to it, and I should probably explain how that comes about. I underwent a traditional conversion at a large Conservative synagogue some years ago, so I am indeed Jewish, but (and I hate to get into stereotypes here given how ethnically diverse Judaism truly is), I don’t seem to look typically so. I tend to look much more very Anglo-Saxon, which means I hear things I otherwise never would. Two such examples come immediately to mind:

Last fall, when I was in school, a student remarked to me after getting a bad grade from a teacher notorious for tough marking: “That guy is such a Jew on marks”. I seriously doubt he would’ve said that to me had he known that for certain, but he was a fairly obnoxious sort anyway, so it’s hard to say. He must’ve automatically thought I agreed with him, though, because I certainly didn’t LOOK Jewish.

Another school-related incident, that I can recall, was a discussion about current events, and another, different charming fellow told me that, in all likelihood, “OBL didn’t exist and the Israelis probably did the WTC bombings.” Yeah.

I kind of wanted to tie this into this excellent comment by Sylvia, who also writes here, about passing, and I think she has it exactly right. It’s not much of a privilege that people who might otherwise persecute me, possibly violently in some cases, don’t do it only because I have the dubious privilege of it not being immediately obvious.

Which only ultimately means that I had to take great pains to conceal this from just about everyone, and this involved not speaking up in direct ways when I ought to have (though I did tell the kid who said that about our teacher that that was a really stupid thing to say), but the point remains: when the panic sets in about possibly letting something slip and being totally controlled in all your behavior so as to not betray any hint of one’s true self at the risk of some kind of harm, how is this privilege and how is this a boon to anyone? Why is this a society and system we should not speak out against?

EDIT: Matt, in the comments, asked what makes me think that anti-Semitism isn’t institutionalized in America, and as I told him, I suffered from temporary blindness on that front, and for that I’d like to apologize especially if anyone else noticed it. It’s the consequence, sadly, of not thinking as hard as I should before I speak.

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4 Responses

  1. What makes you think antisemitism isn’t intitutionalized in America?

  2. The quick and flippant answer is that I’m Canadian, so I’m not 100% intimately informed about institutionalized anti-Semitism in America, but to be serious, I definitely would say that given the prominence of John Hagee’s brand of Zionism, I could easily be shown to be incorrect and naive. I think you have a good point. I spoke in too much haste, I think – my apologies.

  3. Matt, why do you think antisemitism is institutionalized in America? Care to elaborate?

  4. Btw, I really like this blog.

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