The Problem with Jewish Bigots

It is a problem that will not speak its name. We all know that there is bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance in the American Jewish community; that much is inevitable, and that’s not the problem I’m talking about. The problem I’m … Read More

By / November 21, 2008

It is a problem that will not speak its name. We all know that there is bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance in the American Jewish community; that much is inevitable, and that’s not the problem I’m talking about. The problem I’m talking about is this: how do we react when we encounter those things among our Jewish "friends"?

I am thinking about this because I recently had a troubling conversation with a good friend; let’s call him Bob. Bob has another friend who is an Orthodox Jew (of a certain kind), and they have a mutual acquaintance who is transgendered. Bob is struggling with the moral problem of determining his appropriate response. Does he allow his Jewish friend to spout homophobic garbage, or call him on his bigotry and stand up for the dignity their transgendered acquaintance at the risk of losing a relationship that he values deeply? This is not a new conundrum, of course; it is a basic problem that arises from living in a community marked by value pluralism. But as I listened to Bob’s description of the situation, I couldn’t help but think of the particular form that this conundrum takes within the community of American Jews.

We may pride ourselves on our cosmopolitanism and our open-mindedness. We cringe at the kind of question I was once asked by my grandfather on meeting two of my school friends: "are they Jewish?" We would never dream of insisting that our community of friends be limited to members of a certain religion or nationality or ethnicity. Except that when American Jews go to Israel they are often heard to say something like what a friend of mine once said: "Here, they’re all Yidden. Good Yidden and bad Yidden, but all Yidden." He assumed that would mean something to me, and of course it did. Life is easier, more comfortable, when we have common bonds with the people around us. "Birds of a feather flock together,"lunchroom tables self-segregate. It’s only natural.

Against that impulse there is a kind of politically correct lip-service to diversity. In America right now, it’s politics. Many of us would be appalled if people thought we only had conservative or liberal friends, or that we only talk to members of a certain political party. I recently heard the chair of the College Republicans on my campus express dismay at the idea that anyone would ever vote a straight party ticket. Sure, out there in the blogosphere there are the’s and the’s, but we are more sophisticated, more open. Some of my best friends voted for the wrong candidate.

The problem, of course, arises when the discussion of differences in political affiliation or religious background or historical identification are understood to be something more than the equivalent of rooting for different sports teams. What happens when these differences reflect fundamental differences in human values? A friend is someone whose feelings I care about, whose thoughts I value, whose well-being is important to me. A friend can rely on me to come to their aid in a time of need. Can I have a true "friend" who denies the humanity of other friends? Who is a homophobe or a racist, an uncaring laissez-faire capitalist or a theocrat? How — no really how?, through what set of discursive maneuvers and exercises in rationalization? — can I have a "friend" whose respect for me is diminished because of others who are also my friends?

It is always easy, of course, to turn this into a kind of moral relativist ju-jitsu. "You see?," cries the homophobic religious zealot, "you claim to be tolerant and open-minded but here you are rejecting my beliefs!" There can even be a point at which this move carries some substance: am I more comfortable with the raving atheist who derides all religious believers as naifs than with the religious believer who accuses atheists of (as another old friend puts it) "epistemic blindness? Maybe. Ultimately, to quote yet another old friend, we choose our hypocrites, starting with ourselves. But that answers nothing. We still have to choose among our hypocrisies, and those choices require justification, if only to ourselves.

These are universal challenges. But among Jews they take a particular set of forms. I have friends – I think they’re "friends" – who say things that go far beyond ignorance or wrongheadedness, the kinds of things that if one of my children said them I would immediate sit that child down for a long talk. "There is no such thing as the Palestinian people" is a good one. "Arabs have plenty of countries, it’s only fair that we take this one,"there’s another. This is not simply Jabotinskyite Revisionism (Jabotinsky understood very well that his Zionist project involved the displacement and defeat of a people). This is something later and uglier, a manifestation of an intellectual cancer that degrades historical memory in the service of recrudescent tribalism.

The Zionist version of the disease, like many others, goes beyond the basic symptoms of the disease by virtue of its selectivity. Curious that the same people never make the same argument about the Protestants of Northern Ireland, or propose that because there is no Gypsy nation residents of Romania should be forcibly displaced to create one. Fascinating – as writers on this blog, among other places, have noted – that genocidal violence fills us with existential horror when and only when it is directed against Jews. That same selectivity appears in the willful blindness, the resolute refusal to know what goes on in Israel and in the Territories. Is that in the same category of moral corruption?

I could go on, we could all go on. An American Jew who says he or she has not encountered this kind of ignorance and prejudice among their fellow Jews is either in denial or a liar. From my own experience I can quote examples of pure, outright racism: "Arabs only understand violence" and "Muslims don’t have Western rationality" were popular for a time. Then there was the woman, my hostess for lunch, who simply described Palestinians as dirty. Followed, brightly, by "shall we bench, now?" I know what you’re thinking. What did I do? Did I stand up self-righteously and howl in outrage? Make a scene? Refuse to join in prayers in the house where I had just been a guest for lunch? Actually, yes, and I have not spoken with that person since that date. But that’s not very satisfying. And in other, less obvious cases I have remained silent.

When I think about these things, I always remember a little girl named Aisha whom I met in Bethlehem twenty years ago. I was staying with her parents – her father, J, was a journalist. He spoke Hebrew so we could communicate, but with Aisha I had only my 50 or so words of Arabic. She would not believe that I was Jewish for the longest time; everyone knows Jews are vile, horrible monsters who kill children and blow up houses and torture people, and as a guest in her house I didn’t quite fit that mold. Eventually, though, we found a way to pass the time. You know the clap-slap-clap game American children play while reciting "Miss Mary Mack/All dressed in black," etc.? So I showed Aisha that game. After a while we starting making up more complicated versions; we got up to sequences of eleven and fifteen precise moves. When we demonstrated for the rest of the family she would shout out a number -"t’maanye"! "tish’a!" – and we would run through that particular routine to the cheers of the audience. I loved that household; full of love and warmth and commitment. Oh, and spotlessly clean, of course; on my best day I have never been able to keep a house as sparkling as that apartment.

It comes down to the children. To sacrifice a child on an altar was supposedly a Canaanite practice of Moloch worshippers; the story of Isaac is supposed to tell us not to follow those ways. So . . . can we have"friends" who would sacrifice children on the altar of their self-righteousness? Can I have a "conversation" with someone who would relegate Aisha to the ash heap of history for the sake of gratifying their own sense of tribal superiority? How about friends who would insist that the children of same-sex couples do not deserve families secured by the same legal protections as those afforded to the families of children born to mixed-sex couples? How about "friends" who relegate women to a second order of rationality and therefore deny education to girls? Are any of these things made more tolerable just because the people involved are Jewish? That question surely answers itself.

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