what neo-nazis tell us

What’s up? Not much here. Ran into some swastikas the other day.

My husband and I were biking on a trail that runs under a string of overpasses. After we’d passed under the zillionth one, he told me he’d seen some swastika graffiti; when we returned a couple of hours later, I stopped to look more closely. The pillar holding up the underpass was completely covered: swastikas by themselves, swastikas with “1488” written between the arms, swastikas as the periods in D.O.S.* There were lots of words in German, along with some indecipherable stuff about Orange County. (I live in Long Beach.) I shook my head at it for a few minutes and then left, feeling a banal sense of bafflement that somewhere very near where I live, people want me dead.

But it doesn’t feel real, you know? It’s hard to believe they’d do anything to me if I encountered them; with Southern California’s large black and Latino populations, it seems more likely that Neo-Nazis here have priorities other than someone who looks like them. It’s easy for me to believe that they wouldn’t hurt a nice white girl; it’s hard to consider myself a target and not just an ally. What am I supposed to do with the knowledge that they’re somewhere nearby? Do I just go on assuming that they’re fringe crazies who are probably living in their mothers’ basements and don’t really care about me anyway? What if I did meet up with one? What would happen?

Because, I mean, they’re here. I passed a wall covered in swastikas.

In what could be called the beginning of a new trend in Jewish American literature, both Michael Chabon and Philip Roth recently published alternate history novels that focus on the hypothetical persecution of American and European Jews. In Roth’s The Plot Against America, Charles Lindberg becomes president and kicks off half a decade of pogroms, forced assimilation, and anti-Jewish propaganda that ends only when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union explores what would have happened if Israel had been destroyed within a few years of its inception; Jews live in Alaska and are faced with the end of their autonomy. I’ll admit, I was put off when I first read them (and not just because neither book is its author’s best). I’d experienced barely any antisemitism in my life. The Holocaust was over; the world had discovered what hate can lead to and had shuddered and repented and seen the error of its ways. Why were these guys inventing new ways for us to be victimized? It was like they still wanted to feel the piousness and tragic glamor of an oppressed minority, and had resorted to what-ifs to indulge in those feelings. Seriously, there was real oppression to worry about. How selfish of them.

That was before I learned about how antisemitism works – how it ebbs and flows, how Jews are allowed to rise to positions of power and then violently scapegoated. It was before I learned that the same cycles – Jews prosper, enjoy physical safety, and then are abruptly attacked en masse – have been occurring for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Whenever I hear a Jewish-sounding name attached to a conservative, I take note of it. Other people do, too.** And after awhile, it really does start to seem like there’s an inordinate number of Jews in high places, regardless of the actual numbers; we hear those names and make those associations and discard some facts that don’t fit with our theses and before you know it, people are blaming globalization on the all-powerful Israeli bankers.

And the main thing I’ve learned after a year of reading feminist and anti-racist commentary is that the most noticeable signs of bigotry – the really outrageous stuff that the mainstream media condemns – is only ever the tip of the iceberg. For every extremist who decides to go out and kill someone, there are a hundred thousand ordinary people who think hate is wrong but, well, just feel uneasy around women or black people or gays or Mexicans or Jews. Overtly sexist and racist crimes aren’t the disease; they’re merely symptoms of broader, low-level resentment and suspicion. My whole life I’ve thought that antisemitism only manifests itself in skinhead rallies and Stormfront message boards. But if it’s anything like other forms of prejudice, there’s no way for me to gauge how pervasive it actually is. Do ordinary people view me differently because I’m openly Jewish? Is that why it took me so long to fully identify as a Jew? Is it why I still rarely feel completely comfortable?

Because I’ll probably never be arrested or denied a job because I’m Jewish. So how do I address this without feeling sanctimonious or paranoid?

At least I’ve arrived at a better understanding of what Chabon and Roth were trying to do. They didn’t write those novels to invent new forms of bigotry; they didn’t write them to cash in on Gentile guilt. They wrote them, I think, because anti-Jewish sentiment still runs deep in American culture (not to mention other cultures – but I’m writing about what I know), even though it’s currently in a lull, marked only by occasional acts of extremism. I think those two novels are pressure valves, venting the fear that all antisemitism needs is one good catalyst to really flare up. Because what do you do when you sense it but can’t see it? What do you do when someone makes an offhand joke – “You’re half Jewish? Well, then half of you is all right!” “If he tries to charge admission to the party, slap him in the nose!” – and you only realize later that you should have been offended? What do you do when everything seems normal and safe and harmonious all the time, except that some invisible entity has spray painted swastikas on your bike trail, and you have no idea what they look like or how many of them there are?

Do you keep assuming that everything will be okay forever? Or do you start wondering who’s going to kick off the pogroms?

Because neither option makes much sense, does it?

*14/88, as I found out on a most pleasant and fulfilling journey to Google, stands for the Fourteen Words – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children” – which are adapted from an 88-word-long passage from Mein Kamph. I wasn’t able to find out what D.O.S. means.

** The link leads to Adbusters’ infamous Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?, which exposes Jews’ control of the Right. It’s interesting to note that, according to Adam Ma’nit, conservatives have published similar lists exposing Jews’ control of the Left. If we’re so powerful, where’s my damn health care?


10 Responses

  1. this is what i’m always saying. where’s my world domination instruction manual? or my living wage manual?

    i have to admit that i’m kind of surprised that you’re surprised. i think i’ve seen swastikas everywhere i’ve lived (though not yet in orange county, but that’s probably a lack of graffiti issue).

    in many other countries one hears a lot more scary shit thrown around openly, certainly including anti-jewish stuff (and, man, the shit they say about blacks, chinese (aka anyone deemed asian), arabs). a whole lot of bigotry is still built into the idioms in spanish, for example.

    i’d encountered a fair bit of ugliness growing up, but living in europe in 2001 meant hearing quite often that the september attacks were a jewish plot. not even zionist or israeli, just jewish. a chorus that had gotten even louder a couple years later when all the barna hipsters were sporting kaffiyehs and screaming about jews being the new nazis. non-zionist educated thoughtful jewish person who opposes the occupation? my friends still wouldn’t let me be open about my background. they knew that those are the kinds of distinctions that go right out the window.

  2. The disturbing patterns of anti-Semitism were one of the first things I learned while converting, and I actually know exactly what you mean about “looking like them,” except I always get that knot in my stomach thinking about it, like “what happens if people find out?” I mean, that is definitely a form of privilege, I suppose, that I’d be so upset about being ‘outed’, except, well, it wouldn’t bother me so much if I wasn’t disturbed by the apparent frequency of anti-Semitic incidents and seeing graffiti in my hometown this year for the first time, well, ever. Literally.

  3. Anna – I wouldn’t say I’m surprised, exactly; it’s just that the graffiti forces me to confront the issue. And yeah, this is the first time I’ve ever seen so much of it near my home.

    Interestingly, when I was living in France, I saw more reactions to antisemitism – police protection at Jewish schools, advertisements condemning it – than actual antisemitism. I think that allowed me to walk around thinking, “It’s okay – the state’s on it! It’ll all be over soon.”

  4. France is really pretty philosemitic, as far as countries go; most of the incidents there seem to be from recent immigrants from Muslim countries, at least from what I know. I saw a survey about various western countries and which people would make you uncomfortable as neighbours. I remember Jews was one of the options and France’s score for that was around 5%, one of the lowest if I remember.

    Anyway, France was one of the 3 countries to vote against the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism (the US, if I recall, abstained from the vote) so they’ve been fairly pro-Jewish in some ways at least since World War II. Elie Wiesel speaks rather highly of France in his memoirs, mostly.

  5. This is the way I’ve been thinking for a while. Maybe it seems right to you, too:

    Tim McVeigh’s favorite book was The Turner Diaries. In the far right, Jewish conspiracies are how they explain the failure of the white man to dominate lesser races. It’s for that reason that they view terrorism as necessary to wake up the ‘sheeple.’ When Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin Gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, they conceived it as an attack on Jewish power.

    I think one reason antisemitism is chronically underreported and underestimated is that the worst antisemitic attacks don’t seem antisemitic to most people. I don’t think those who worry about a Zionist Occupied Government are so concerned with the Orthodox Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn because those Jews stick to themselves and aren’t so involved in government. Neo-Nazis are much more obsessed with assimilated Jews and crypto-Jews.

    So who do they attack? Not so much religious Jews. Not so much Jews who are assimilated, because it’s hard to pick out assimilated Jews. Terrorist acts like McVeigh’s are relatively rare. And things like cemetary vandalism doesn’t seem to be part of a larger problem, so they get ignored. So violent antisemitism, the sort most people can recognize as antisemitism, only grows on the tail end of rising rhetorical antisemitism, and we respond to it much too late.

  6. […] that I’d wager it probably is. Is Israel safer than Europe? France, as Brown Shoes points out, is one of the better places to be a European Jew, but it still has its problems. And I […]

  7. my fiance is a non-religious jew and i plan on converting when we marry so that according to jewish tradition our children will be jewish, and when we marry were taking the yiddish word meaning “destiny” (Bashert) as out new last name. he has a star of david tattooed around his elbow in bold black ink (which we kno is against traditional jewish law, tattoos that is). he was out in line at our rural illinois bank the other day and noticed the man next to him staring hard at his tattoo, then he noticed the mans own tattoo, also on his elbow, of a spiderweb, a traditional neo-nazi skinhead tattoo, and that must not have been enough elbow hate for the guy becos in the center of the web he had the s.s lightning bolts. and on his chest, im not shitting you, a tattoo of hitler. my fiance hurried his bank transaction and came home without stopping at the store as he planned. we were both shaken for quite awhile, admittedly i still am. we both originate from heavily jewish northshore of chicago suburbs, so with the exception of the 1999 killing spree by world church of the creator member benjamin smith neither of us has ever experienced such blatant antisemistism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Nathaniel_Smith
    hearing about his encounter with a neo-nazi felt the same way i felt the day we drove past a large group of anti-choice protestors with the giant pictures of faux aborted fetuses. like a punch in the gut where you cant catch your breath.

    anyway, i found you via feministe and will continue reading your blog, and will also point it out to my fiance. i like your perspective on things.

    my own opinion is to be an out and proud jew is the same as being an out and proud homosexual or an out and proud feminist. it is resistance in the face of oppression. certainly resistance is frightening, to live life in the face of confrontation, but to achieve a completely free and equal society resistance is necessary.

  8. Yeah, I’ll admit I haven’t directly experienced any blatant anti-Semitism as yet – the main incident I can think of is my former friend calling me an Israeli after I converted, and it’s like, no, an Israeli is officially a citizen of Israel, which has citizens of all religions – I’m a Jew now, and the two things do not automatically conflate.

    It doesn’t feel so much like a punch in the gut to me, it feels more like a fight/flight panic response where my heart starts to race and I look earnestly for a way out.

    Anyway, welcome! We generally like new commenters here – don’t forget to tell your friends either.

  9. […] malevolent force that needs to be contained. The fact that some groups express their hate through vandalism, others through legislation, and others through violence is irrelevant. As many of you know, […]

  10. […] – bookmarked by 5 members originally found by qmikeslimdaron on 2008-12-06 what neo-nazis tell us https://modernmitzvot.wordpress.com/2008/06/27/what-neo-nazis-tell-us/ – bookmarked by 6 members […]

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