A famous screenwriter/director and I were having lunch, doing our interview, and I asked him this one thing, and he answered this other thing, but that other thing didn’t make sense, and I followed up, and he once again said the other thing. And again, I said, “I don’t know about that.” And he asked me to turn my tape recorder off, so I did, and he said, “It’s about Israel.” He looked at me, testing me out. “I’m sort of pro-Israel.” I opened my eyes wide and said yes, I told him I was, too. Then he said, “I’m really, really pro-Israel, and I’m disgusted with what’s going on there, but what are you going to do?” He sighed, lifted his fork, and returned to the Chinese chicken salad (it is always the Chinese chicken salad), nodding at my tape recorder, saying I could turn it back on, that we were official again.
He didn’t need to explain his reticence. It is not OK to be openly pro-Israel anymore, and I know why. My DM boxes on Twitter and Facebook are filled with people like me—liberals, culture reporters, economics reporters—baffled and sad at the way the cause of Jews avoiding another attempt at our genocide has gone from a liberal one to a capital-c Conservative one.
There was no room for our sadness and fear to be public during the Gaza war. There was no room for us to say, “Hey, hold on a second, these terrorists are firing rockets at civilians!” There was no room for us to say that it was not a national character flaw to defend one’s own citizens from attack. There was no room to remind people how they felt when planes flew into the Twin Towers. All this did was serve to remind us what our teachers had taught us all those years, that Israel exists because we are not welcome here, on this earth. They taught us that we are tolerated, at best, and that we are enjoyed most when we are victims, or we remember that we are vulnerable. I know. This sounds crazy. But like David Brooks says, one of the most unfortunate things about anti-Semitism is how people here at home think it couldn’t possibly exist the way we say it does. (And only some parts of home. Let me remind you all that while on the Paula Deen Cruise, in a United States territory, a woman imitated a Jew to me after finding out that I was Jewish.)
Meanwhile, quietly, we whispered to each other that it felt like the anti-Israel sentiment was actually a new way of being openly anti-Semitic, somehow wrapping it up in a Democratic cause. My inboxes lit up again when Netanyahu spoke to Congress. They lit up again when the massacre at the Kosher market in Paris netted a #jesuisjuif hashtag, and when people rolled their eyes at the hashtag and say how it degraded the journalists who had been killed just days before. And then even again when some chucklehead wrote an essay asking if Jews “use” the Holocaust too much, in maybe the Guardian? I don’t know, don’t make me google it.
And then, there in my inboxes, are all of us—you know us, you’re friends with us—feeling righteous and sad, and keeping these conversations private, and also hating ourselves a little or a lot for wishing we were the types of people who could speak up. One of the reasons that I was given in my many years-long study of the Holocaust—this education comes via relentless osmosis and relentless actual lesson when you attend day school—for why it happened (and it was always our fault) was that we tried too hard to assimilate. The Jew, the world thought, was insidious because he could blend in so well. I thought that was about working and dressing. I didn’t realize it was about silent agreement, but it is.
The war and the election that followed set something free in people. They were allowed to be as critical as they wanted, and those of us who weren’t critical became more silent. I faved a bunch of Yair Rosenberg’s tweets. I RT’ed some of Jeffrey Goldberg’s, when I was feeling brave. But I sat there quiet, too.
There is much talk going around now about so-called Jewish privilege: That we can blend in, that we’ve “made it” here in America. But privilege only exists when you’re comparing one people to another people, and I’m not sure why we do that. Does anyone benefit from this kind of one-upsmanship? I would not trade my problems—which, to be clear, are that the country that I can flee to for asylum is under threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran and random, unprovoked attack by its neighbors—with anyone else’s. It sucks all around.
Privilege has two meanings: One is that those who are privileged are elevated somehow. The other is that they are different. I renounce the notion that Jews—Jews, being told to stay home from their synagogues for their safety, Jews being kept out of schools and ridiculed in the street, all this, right now in Europe—have the first kind of privilege. But the second, we have it in droves:
It is my Jewish privilege to have very few blood relatives because the rest of them were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s my privilege to have to keep my mouth shut at casually racist remarks, because “you know what I mean, like a JAP, everyone says it.” It is my privilege to have thought twice about accompanying a celebrity to Paris as I profiled him, then let the clock run down on the offer so that I could only interview in Los Angeles. It is my Jewish privilege that the word lampshade makes me cringe, that the word camp—camp!—makes me cringe. It is my privilege to always wonder what I should have been doing differently, how I am a disgrace to the martyrs of the Holocaust because my outrage and sadness is confined to my Direct Messages.
For the record, the Lena Dunham piece didn’t offend me except for how much it took over my life. David Remnick defended her—as did a lot of people—saying that her humor was in the long running tradition of Jews making Jewish jokes about themselves, and that that doing so, and it being OK, proves that we are part of the establishment. But it doesn’t. It proves the same thing that our silence proves on social media about things that matter to us, or when our recorders are turned off, or when we DM. It proves that we know inherently that we’re not part of the establishment, that we are surrounded by ourselves in certain enclaves, but mostly that this particular tradition comes from the fact that know we are believed to be disgusting, and we know we can calm everyone right down by letting them know we know that.
That’s not a privilege. That’s a nightmare of self-loathing. And yet, it is somehow our birthright. We do not speak up now. We didn’t speak up then. We might have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, yes, we stand idly by, and we would have as our relatives were being sent off to the gas chambers back then. This essay is the bravest thing I have in me. I don’t know for sure that I’ll post this on Twitter. But I know that someone, maybe a lot of people, will write to me about it. They won’t RT it. They won’t FB it. But they’ll write to me about it, and I guess I’ll have some comfort in my cowardice—because it will be shared.
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