Tree of Life

October 30th, 2018

Let me share a few thoughts I have as a Jewish person relating to last week’s massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg.  I don’t write as a representative of Jewry or of any of its rich, complex, mysterious lineages.  I write as a Jewish person, in a very personally Jewish spirit, the spirit, for example, of remembering that the first girl I kissed, some fifty-odd years ago at summer camp in Vermont, was from Squirrel Hill.  I hope she and her family are alive and well.  When the names of Mr. Bower’s victims became public, my first impulse was to scan the list for hers.

I am prompted to write, to add my pittance to the overwhelming babble of lament, analysis, and commentary, by some things I heard on the radio on Monday.  One was the claim by advocates for immigrants that this was an attack on all immigrants and minorities.  Another, coming from a diametrically opposite point on the political cow-pie, was Attorney General Sessions’ announcement that this was an attack on American values.  A third was a commentator’s statement that Jews are like “a canary in a coal mine,” with rising anti-Semitism indicating social disruption and dysfunction.

Well, no.  I’ll take up the “canary in a coal mine” later, but, with regard to the first two, it wasn’t either of those things.  What Mr. Bowers attacked was a Jewish person, and another Jewish person, and another, eleven times.  He previously had been known to the public, to the extent he was known at all, for virulent on-line statements directed at Jews as the alleged instigators of what he considered to be a campaign of genocide against whites. He went to a famous Jewish community. He entered a Jewish house of worship. He sought out the Jews inside.  He killed as many of them as he could. While he did so, he yelled anti-Semitic invective at them.  He told the officers who arrested him that Jews are committing genocide against his people and he wants to kill Jews.  In short, it would be hard to imagine how he could have been more narrowly specific in his motivation (hatred and fear of Jews), targeting (Jews), and execution (killing eleven Jews).

Despite which, people from both the left and the right converge on characterizing the event as something other than what it was.  It’s not “just” an attack on Jews; it threatens immigrants and other minorities and American values.  What is the reason, common to left and right, that creates this distortion?  I think it has to do with making the massacre relatable. We have an instinctive common humanity that makes us recoil from the kind of horror that Mr. Bowers perpetrated. But that is overlaid by the vast perceptual and conceptual apparatus with which we consciously apprehend the world; and that is where relatability comes in.  The gravity of the horror demands that we relate to it.  But how are we to do that?

Start with attitudes about Jews.  There is going to be an element of caricature in the next few paragraphs, for which I apologize.  My excuse is that it would take a book of several volumes to present a fully fleshed, nuanced vision.  I hope that what I depict here will bear a recognizable enough relation to reality so that it can be considered broadly accurate, if not entirely fair.

American leftists, even including many Jews of that description, think about Jews, when they do so at all, mostly in terms of Team Israel v. Team Palestinian, with their sympathies tending towards the latter.  Otherwise they stereotype American Jews as Ashkenazi, quasi-white, economically successful, well educated, and liberal, all of which “privilege” tends to place us outside the sphere of leftist concerns.  Simply put, American leftists don’t tend to care about Jews as people who are Jewish, apart from the reflexively schematized issues of social and economic and political justice that are considered ideologically important.  So to describe a massacre of American Jews as “a massacre of American Jews” does not, for American leftists, make the event fully relatable.  But there is the undeniable horror, and the need to make sense of it.  How is this gap to be bridged?  This is done, I think, by using the same mental cantilever out of which the largely bogus concept of “intersectionality” is constructed.  As used on the left, this term largely seems to mean, “Whatever your issue or problem is, it’s actually all about me.”  Anyone who has gone to a rally about climate change and had to sit through speeches about LGBTQ rights, or vice versa, knows what I mean. Thus, a murderous assault directed at Jews can be made to appear to implicate whatever the cause du jour may be.

Non-Jewish, American right wingers have their own constellation of reasons why it has to be about something other than Jews if it’s going to be relatable. They mirror the attitudes of Jewish right wingers, but for different reasons. Jewish right wingers, like most Jews born in the post-WWII era and before, are afflicted by severe cultural post traumatic stress disorder, consequent upon the Holocaust.  Due to their proclivity for authoritarian, nationalistic “strength”, they cling to Israel as a sort of lethally capable security blanket.  Although they would consider me utterly absurd for saying so, I do not think that right wing Jews care that much about Jewish persons, as apart from the Jewish State and its institutions.  (Consider, for example, how the right wing Israeli government, which American right wing Jews adore, treats all strains of religious Judaism to the left of Orthodoxy.)  The non-Jewish right wingers come to their attitudes about Jews and Israel by a somewhat circuitous route.  There is an Evangelical Christian notion that Judgment cannot occur until all the Jews have gathered in Israel.  This makes Israel (a) eschatologically necessary and (b) the vehicle for getting rid of the Jews.  The latter component is congenial to right wing thinking, which has a long history of casual anti-Semitism and worse.  The Evangelicals’ electoral importance mandates the right wing’s adoption of their attachment to Israel.  The bottom line is that Israel matters, but Jewish persons, as such, don’t.  Confronted with an atrocity on American soil against American Jews of such a magnitude that some sort of response is unavoidable, a right wing Christian like Sessions automatically downplays the victims’ religion and ethnicity in favor of using a politically expedient label for the pigeon hole in which to bury them.

I recall an incident that occurred to me over forty years ago at Middlebury College, when I was a student there.  It is, I think, emotionally if not logically relevant.  It occurred after dinner in a lounge in one of the small dining halls on the south fringe of the campus.  My chair was backed up against one of the thick columns that supported the ceiling, invisible to a group on the other side of the column who were engaged in talking about their fellow students.  Said one of them, loudly and clearly, “He’s not a person.  He’s a Jew.”  To the credit of the others, there was a moment of silence.  Then the gay banter continued.

Here’s the point.  We live in a culture that does not care about Jewish people as people who are Jewish.  An assault on us is not relatable unless it can be characterized as an assault on something else – in which, case, of course, it no longer is an assault on us!  It cannot be seen and lamented just for being an attack on Jews, as such.  To the dominant culture, right and left, to the extent we are Jewish, we are not persons in the same sense they are.

When I was little, my mother told me something I have wrestled with ever since.  I don’t recall exactly what elicited it.  I must have come to her with some complaint about how the other kids treated me, or how they were treated.  She said, “You are different.  You always will be different.  You can deny it, but it always will be so, and they always will know.” I used to think about this mostly in relation to Christmas and Easter, Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even after I went to Middlebury.  The Tree of Life massacre reminds me how deep it really goes.  Speaking of which, I listened to the radio all day Sunday and Monday and never heard that word, massacre.

Now for that third thing, fellow citizens.  I am not your fucking canary in a coal mine.  I am not an instrument with which you can diagnose your disease.  I am a person.  I am Jewish.  I am American.  And I don’t live in the same sick country as you.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 30th, 2018 at 7:27 pm and is filed under Current events, Jewishness, society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.