Shortly before the beginning of seventh grade, when I entered the public school system for the first time after spending my earliest formative years at Nebraska’s only Jewish day school (student body: 37), my mother came to me with a warning. It wasn’t her intention to scare me, she explained, but she wanted to make sure I was prepared for some of the challenges that lay ahead.
“What challenges?” I asked. “What do you mean?” I wasn’t expecting the schoolwork to give me any trouble, and my grandmother had recently furnished me with several new back-to-school ensembles from the Limited that I was certain could at least partially smooth over my problem of not having any social skills.
My mother paused for a very long time before she spoke. “It’s possible that you may have to face some…anti-Semitism.”
Anti-Semitism. It wasn’t precisely clear to me what a Semite was, but I knew what it meant to be anti one. It meant you hated Jews and wanted them dead.
The existence of such a prejudice was hardly news; the bookshelves in my room groaned under the weight of solemn tales of the Holocaust and the pogroms, stories festooned with grim illustrations of terrified children laden with bundles, peering helplessly through pen and ink fence of barbed wire. My parents had their own stories: anti-Semitism was the reason my immigrant grandmother refused to let her children go swimming with the non-Jewish neighbors, why my father had been beaten up several times a week on his way home from junior high by roaming gangs of feral Gentile children.
But that was years ago.
“I’m not saying it will happen,” she continued, “but I want you to prepare for it if it does.”
As I had not yet learned that my mother’s general pessimism towards the human race was not always based in tangible reality, her warnings filled me with a consuming, atavistic sense of dread. When would the assault come, and in what form? Would I be shunned in the cafeteria or disinvited from birthday parties? Would I be physically attacked: trapped in lockers or forced to gather change from the floor as a gang of Esprit-clad Aryans mocked the parsimoniousness of my race? At the very least, I assumed I would be taunted verbally with cries of “kike” and “yid”; “heebie” and “hook-nose” and “Red Sea pedestrian” and other racial epithets I learned from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
“You forgot sheeny,” said my mother.
“I thought that was an Irish person.”
“Nope. You’re a sheeny.”
As time passed, I would hear all those words and more. What my mother didn’t tell me is that they would mostly come from other Jews.
Everywhere, young Jews are eagerly, even gleefully appropriating the traditional iconography and language of anti-Semites faster than you can say “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” We howled with laughter at Borat, at the grotesque puppet in “The Running of the Jew” laying its “filthy Jew-egg” as Sacha Baron Cohen spewed der Sturmer-worthy invective in pidgin Hebrew. We read publications with names like Heeb and Jewcy, and cheerfully throw around terms and stereotypes that would have sent previous generations straight to the local ADL office. Recently, I was watching TV at home when I received a phone call from a co-religionist friend.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m at home, watching The Jewish Americans on PBS.”
“Yeah? What’s happening?”
“Oh, I guess this episode is on Leo Frank. But as far I as can see, the whole thing is mostly about how we’re ugly and everybody hates us.” We dissolved with laughter.
There are a number of possible reasons for this change in attitude. The age we are living in is a peculiar one, equal parts irony and genuine turmoil. Festering internecine and tribal hatreds have once again become a very real part of how the world operates; as a result, political correctness has died an unceremonious death, while multiculturalism is dying a somewhat more tortuous one. At the same time, overt intolerance has become nearly obsolete, to the point that one can perpetuate almost any form of prejudice with the implicit understanding that if the speaker is of a certain social class or education level, he or she cannot possibly be a bigot. On a strictly Jewish level, I think my generation has simply lost patience with our Hebrew school educations, with the constant focus on victimhood and hardship, and the sometimes reactionary politics of the Jewish establishment—with the powerful lobbies and their professional outrage, the shell-shocked parents and grandparents ever at the ready to pick up a phone or file a formal complaint the second a Jewish child is made to sing “Silent Night” or assigned a biology midterm on Yom Kippur (I speak from personal experience here.) There are better things to do with one’s time than to be constantly on guard against closet Nazis. Or maybe after 5000 years of the being on the wrong end of the world’s general shittiness, we’ve just stopped taking it so personally.
But to borrow a phrase from David Mamet in The Wicked Son, his provocative and occasionally infuriating book on the subject, “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.”
In this, my mother was right. All of our mothers were right. My generation, we American Jews in our 20’s and 30’s, may have missed having taunts and dirt clods thrown at our heads as we waited for the school bus, but you don’t have to look very far to find our people held in general contempt. In fact, don’t look hard at all—just look in the comments section of any major internet blog that so much as mentions the State of Israel, the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg, or boiled chicken.
So welcome to The Protocols, named of course for the famous (and forged) Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or as I like to think of it, the book that started the international craze, the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone of twentieth century anti-Semitism. Here, I’ll strive to answer the important questions—not so much “Why do they hate us?” but “So what if they hate us?” I’ll look at how Jews have, for better and for worse, internalized the tenets of anti-Semitism and turned them inside out, how Jews judge other Jews, and what it means to be a self-hating Jew (as opposed to a Jewish self-hater.) I’ll examine anti-Semites through history, anti-Semites in the news, and once every few weeks or so, anti-Semites we love. (And yes, I’m taking recommendations.)
My qualifications for this mighty task, taken on by everyone from Moses Maimonides, Mark Twain, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Adolf Hitler? None whatsoever; except I’ma writer, I’m a Jew, and I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my life worrying about who doesn’t like me.
So, my fellow filthy Christ-killers, if you can stop counting your golden ingots and draining your neighbor’s kids of their blood long enough to actually read something, I hope you’ll join me. We may not win any hearts and minds, but in the words of the immortal G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle.
And after all, we’re supposed to be so smart.