man holding a letter covered with nasty critters

Unlike a lot of people I know, I speak to my parents regularly, so it was many months ago that I first heard of the e-mails being circulated in some quarters about Barack Obama. I’d call home to parse a debate performance or rejoice over a particularly miraculous primary victory, and find myself on the receiving end of dark and embittered mutterings from my father.

“Aren’t you happy? You should be happy!” I would exclaim. “We love him! He’s going to transform our reputation overseas, fix the economy, and give us all healthcare, remember? And the war! Don’t forget about the war.”

“I just don’t want to get too optimistic,” he’d say ominously. “There’s all this stuff getting passed around that I think could really hurt him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh you know, these e-mails, smearing him, saying he’s a Muslim, that he’s bad for Israel . . .”

“You don’t believe those, do you?”

“No! But some of the people around here . . .”

I’d guffaw. “Let’s not overestimate the voting power of the Jewish population of Omaha.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about. It’s the people in Florida, in the retirement communities . . . you know . . . I sent you that article from the New York Times, remember?”

He had. I find it a continual source of puzzlement that my father, in Omaha, feels compelled to send me, in New York, stories from my local newspaper that I have already read, but it’s for added emphasis. This particular piece was a doozy. It quoted several Jews in Florida—not a single one under eighty—repeating the various tropes of misinformation that seemed to be festering around the shuffleboard court: Obama is a Palestinian, he’s bad for Israel, his wife is so angry and rancorous that the campaign is deliberately keeping her out of sight.

I sighed. “Those are the same people who couldn’t figure out the damn ballot in Florida. Frankly, I’m surprised any of them even know how to read an email.”

“Exactly.” My father would pause, for effect. “Exactly.”

Still, I wasn’t terribly worried until I finally received one of these emails myself, just a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t the political ramifications that I found troubling—if these sorts of rumors are as widespread and credulously received as their progenitors might have us think, then the Jewish community is waging a battle for its soul.

The email was forwarded to me from an unfamiliar address, by someone going only by “Etan.” Scrolling down the screen, I could see that it had been forwarded to Etan from someone called “Pat.” Pat had tacked a slightly sinister proviso of his (or her) own onto the message: “God still has plans for Israel. They play a major role in the Lord’s dealing with mankind and the end of the ages.” I inferred that this person was one of the Christian Zionists who have managed to insinuate themselves into some echelons of the conservative Jewish community due to their unbending support for Israel, despite the fact that their zealotry may have less to do with the welfare of the Jewish people than with hastening the arrival of the Rapture.

Following Pat’s pithy preface was a message from a woman called “Ruth.”

Ruth was asking me, or rather pleading with me—Jew to Jew—to reconsider any warm feelings I may have entertained towards the Senator from Illinois, as she possessed incontrovertible proof that he meant harm towards my people and our ever-imperiled homeland. She raised all the familiar and well-worn specters: the Senator’s association with Jeremiah Wright, Reverend Wright’s association with Louis Farrakhan, the presence on Obama’s advisory team of Zbigniew Brzezinski (former National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration, seen by many as no particular friend of the Jews).

But there’s an even more troubling item in Ruth’s email missive that sets her argument apart from any mere vestigial fearfulness. While she understands that we in the United States are terribly excited and self-congratulatory about the prospect of electing our first black president, she would like us to know that Barack Obama is not truly black.

She isn’t referring to his white mother, although she does take special note of Obama’s Caucasian ancestry. She’s speaking of his Kenyan father, who she asserts was not really “African Negro” (as she quaintly puts it) but primarily of Arab descent—to the tune of 87.5 percent. Even discounting the pesky fact that Barack Obama Sr. died in 1982, long before one could easily swab some saliva on the end of a Q-Tip and promptly receive a letter in the mail declaring one’s descent from the ancient Kings of Ireland, Genghis Khan, or some other conquering ancient inseminator, I’m unsure as to how someone can be 0.5 percent of anything.

No matter, states Ruth. Barack Obama Sr.’s Kenyan birth certificate lists him as Arab (how she managed to access this document is unclear). Therefore Barack Obama Jr. is an Arab too, making him unfit to lead, bad for Israel, a closet Islamic radical, and an anti-Semite.

And then she plays the trump card.

“Obama definitely antagonistic towards Jews! This reminds me very unpleasantly of the days when I was nine years old and living with my family in the place of my birth, Wiener Neustadt, Austria. I spent most of my days hiding in our coat closet with my doll and teddy bear, waiting for the dreaded knock of the SS on our front door. SS is short for Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, the group primarily responsible for the crimes against humanity. They were set apart from other Nazi organizations by their distinctive black shirts and the insignia of the death’s-head.”

I can only imagine this addendum is intended to edify the Gentile recipients of Ruth’s email, Christian Zionists like Pat, for example. Because there is not a Jew alive who doesn’t know exactly what the SS is, exactly what it means, and exactly how afraid we should be when they are mentioned in conjunction with any public figure or policy. As it’s played here, this information seems somehow meant to excuse the whispered charges, the muted bile, the hushed mendacity that comes before it. All this talk about ethnic backgrounds, secret conspiracies, and sinister allegiances is eerily familiar. And it isn’t just the ladies playing mah-jongg by the pool in Boca. It’s the guy in his early twenties who leaned toward me at dinner and whispered confessionally, Jew to Jew, “Barack Obama? You mean Mohammad Hussein? That’s his real name you know. Did you hear that he went to a radical madrassah?” It’s the speech Joseph Lieberman gave on the stump for the Republicans, in which he stated “[The choice is] between the one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first…and the one candidate who has not.” As Marty Kaplan, writing for the Huffington Post, eloquently pointed out about this statement: “What is to be made of this? Does Joe Lieberman not realize he is using one of the oldest anti-Semitic tricks in the book to paint Obama as the Islamic candidate?”

Propaganda is effective because it insidiously presses our buttons. It finds the sorest spot, the rawest hurt of a given group and burrows under our skin, forming a stubborn, inexorable splinter of doubt and resentment that, given enough prodding, can flare into a full-scale infection. For the Germans of the 1920s and ’30s, the humiliating defeat of World War I and the economic and social disaster it wrought (not to mention the brutal streak of nationalism and bigotry running beneath the veneer of a pluralistic society) made them uniquely receptive to a message laying blame for their current woes at the doorstep of a shadowy Other, a parasitic race of unassimilable exotics whose essential rottenness could not be renounced or repented for, but was in their soul, their spirit, their blood. And we know how that turned out. Jews understand the terrible price that hatred and intolerance extract from humanity—not just from the victims, but their antagonists as well. When one group is demonized for their customs, their tendencies to dress differently, to look different, to hold themselves apart from society at large, we all suffer.

It’s hard to deny that anti-Semitism is in resurgence. The hatred of Jews and the Jewish state is all but institutionalized in much of the Muslim world, and even in some liberal arenas, it’s hard not to detect a certain smug triumphalism in critiques of Israel and Israeli policies—an alarming note of, “Well, we gave you Jews the benefit of the doubt after six million of you were murdered, and now look at all the trouble you’ve caused.” To dwell on this sort of criticism ignores the deeper truth that in America today Jews are a more integral and accepted part of society than ever before in our history (I wasn’t there during the Golden Age of Maimonides, but I think it’s a pretty safe assertion.) But does being a part of mainstream society mean abetting xenophobia, taking part in the decision of who belongs and who doesn’t? For Jews to be mainstream, do we have to hate like the mainstream? Don’t we know better than that?

This is the dark psychic underbelly of years of victimization, and it isn’t pretty. If you disagree with Senator Obama’s policies or politics, then by all means, cast your vote elsewhere. But to use our tragic history as an excuse—or worse, a conduit—for lazy judgments and outright lies, and to give into the kind of latent but destructive prejudice of which we have all too often been on the receiving end, is outrageous. It’s an insult to those who lived, fought, and died before us.

And let’s not give my father any more things to worry about. He—like all of us—has already angrily forwarded enough emails for a lifetime.