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?
Filed under: antisemitism, literature, nazism | 10 Comments »