The New Anti-Semitism: A Geshrei
October 1, 1991
MY GRANDMOTHER HID IN a bureau drawer for three days while colorful Christians rampaged through the shtetl. But that stuff happened in the Old World — we lived in America, the greatest country in the world. I knew about the Holocaust, of course, but all my relatives had the luxury of dying from natural causes. We lived in New York, the greatest Jewish city in the world. We didn’t need the promised land — we were Yankees, safe at last.
When I was eight, we took a vacation in Pennsylvania, my first trip out of New York. While we stopped for gas on a country road, I went to get a Coke. I noticed a group of men in overalls staring at me, whispering. A boy my age stepped forward and politely asked if I was Jewish. I realized the star of David was dangling out of my T-shirt, and grabbed it instinctively. When I nodded yes, he asked, in a strangely animated voice: “Can we please see your horns?” I shuddered and backed up toward the car. When I told my mother what had happened, she yanked me into the seat beside her and held me tight, while my father paid. Then we sped away.
I stopped wearing the star of David that summer. I had learned an important lesson about the terms of my liberation in America: the less I look Jewish, the safer I will be. Even as an adult, when I tell jokes in dialect I’m always aware of who I am addressing and what their response will be. And I always feel uncomfortable during the High Holy Days watching people in yarmulkes rushing through the streets, knowing they’ll be swaying and moaning something ancient and indecipherable, even to me.
I always wear jeans on Yom Kippur. Not just because I’m a secular humanist, but because, on some level, I want to hide. My mother’s terror in Pennsylvania stays with me, along with her unspoken message that history is not over for us. Even in America, we are vulnerable to superstitions and slanders so grotesque there can be no defense against them. And these fairy tales for fanatics linger just below the surface of ordinary life, until they’re unleashed by the powers that be. As they were in Crown Heights.
What happened there was the worst outbreak of anti-Semitism in New York during my lifetime. Things went down I thought I would never see: people shouting “Heil Hitler.” Windows smashed in dozens of Hasidic homes. A jewelry store torched while other shops were left standing. A Hasid from Australia stabbed to death — the suspect, a 17- year-old, dubbed JEW-SLAY TEEN by the indefatigable New York Post. It seems the boy’s father had bawled him out because the landlord — a fellow named Klein — complained about the noise he was making. In protest, the boy reportedly scrawled a star of David in front of the building, with his nickname inside. “The Jew got me in trouble,” he was heard to say.
On the night of the riot, did this boy hear the crowd cry, “Let’s go down to Kingston Avenue and kill the Jews”? And when he saw Yankel Rosenbaum fleeing toward him, baffled and babbling, did the boy see his landlord in that Hasidic face? “I didn’t like his accent,” he told police when they arrested him, his clothes still wet with blood.
Several days later and miles away, on a train roaring up the West Side of Manhattan, an Orthodox Jew was punched by a black man shouting, “That’s for killing children.” Perhaps this Jew looked just like the teacher who dissed him back in high school, or the Jews who called his mother “the schvartzer” when she came to clean their house. Bad Jews, good Jews; all Jews are the same. And we all risk punishment for daring to assert our Jewishness.
As a child, I was intensely aware of the old men, stooped and scarred, wandering through the neighborhood with long beards and strange fringes hanging out of their pants. They frightened me — and I still recoil from Hasidim. Their image as kosher Mennonites notwithstanding, to me they are no different from Christian fundamentalists — just as nasty, narrow-minded, and contemptuous. I remember a group of Hasidim picketing in the Village during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. “A gay synagogue is like a whorehouse on Yom Kippur,” their handout read. That night, I had a nightmare in which a Hasid wearing a long black coat strode into the hospital room where I lay in a stark white bed. He reached across me and turned the resuscitator off.
These days, when Hasidim cruising the Village in their Mitzvah mobile ask me, “Are you Jewish?” I reply, “Not if you are.” Yet I know my uneasiness in their presence is not just a matter of belief. Sitting across from a Hasid in the subway, I feel that old chill in my shoulders. It’s not so different from a closet case eyeing a drag queen. These people are flaming, and they remind me of my vulnerability. To the anti-Semite all Jews have horns.
I know there is racism in Hasidic hearts — and fists. And I’m sure there have been deals struck with politicians and privileges traded for votes. But the riots that followed the death of Gavin Cato cannot be explained solely in terms of class privilege or racial injustice. During that unholy week, the entire mythography of anti-Semitism was unfurled.
Hovering over the rage at a child’s accidental death were centuries of belief that Jews prey on Christian children. You can read in Chaucer, that titan of the Western canon, about a schoolboy abducted and ritually murdered by Jews, though his body miraculously emits a hymn of praise. Jews call this the Blood Libel because it stems from the myth that matzoh must be made with the blood of Christian infants. You can give guided tours of matzoh factories till kingdom come, but this idea persists in the subconscious. It allowed a mob to transform a reckless driver into the emblem of their oppression. As the false rumor spread that a Jewish-run ambulance had refused to treat the child, you could sense the ancient belief that Jews promote only their own interests, not with the solidarity every community exhibits toward its own, but from some deeper tribal drive.
In Crown Heights, there’s a black Episcopalian priest named Reverend Heron A. Sam who preaches that Jews have appropriated the term Semite, which rightfully belongs to Africans and Arabs as well as “the Hebrew race.” (Although the reverend thinks “the hooked nose popularly associated with Semitic types is actually Hittite.”) From this racialist obsession, it’s easy to assert that “the Jew has managed by consanguinity [interbreeding with Europeans] to affect a skin complexion change that has put him outside the realm of blackness, and so he can appeal to his acquired white brothers and sisters…” This tactic “can only lead such a race of people to become manipulators and anarchists.”
Imagine the impact of such a sermon on a 17-year-old who is furious at his Jewish landlord. Imagine how easy it would be for that boy to conclude: “The Jew got me in trouble.” And once the belief has been implanted that Jews are an ersatz people who abandoned their natural skin-tone to gain racial advantage, imagine how logical it is to think of the Hasidim as part of an international conspiracy.
“Diamond merchants,” Reverend Al Sharpton called them at Gavin Cato’s funeral. “Don’t just talk about the jeweler [whose store was burned] on Utica. Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants here in Crown Heights.” There’s a social reality here, but the mob in Crown Heights was invited by its leaders to jack it up with the iconography of anti-Semitism. They were encouraged to see the Hasidim, not as a tight-knit voting bloc with significant political clout, but as an incarnation of the Elders of Zion — that invention of the Czarist secret police. Black rage at white power was transformed into anti-Semitism by the myth of the omnipotent Jew.
How could this happen? How could people who have never lived in Europe believe in legends from the mists of Valhalla and the fields of Bessarabia? The answer doesn’t lie in the souls of black folks — they are no more anti-Semitic than whites. It lies in the nature of the prejudice. Fear and loathing of Jews is a pervasive force in Western consciousness, ready to be shaped and directed whenever the time is right. Permission to act on it comes from the top down — and typically the ruling strata stand silently by while demagogues whip up the masses. These periodic outbursts are a safety valve for those unable to overcome their oppression, or even comprehend its source. That was the scenario for the pogroms my grandmother dreaded, the Holocaust my parents escaped, and the violence in Crown Heights. The conditions of life for African-Americans — the growing indifference, the worsening poverty, the impending demise of affirmative action and the genteel racism of the governing elites — are a classic matrix for anti-Semitism. Jews have always been a handy target in tough times.
But it’s been clear for some time that among some segments of the black intelligentsia, anti-Semitism is more openly expressed than anywhere else in American life, apart from the far right. Within this milieu, the most primitive ideas have been given an overlay of reason and righteousness that harks back to the dregs of Western civ. Talk about the return of the repressed: When Leonard Jeffries asserts that Jewish faculty at City College are organized into a secret cabal that actually calls itself the Kaballah, he is piecing together a cosmology the Czar’s henchmen, not to mention Goebbels, would be proud to call their own. Talk about Eurocentrism!
Racialist scholarship might seem arcane, if not loony, to most black folks if it weren’t tethered to the power and glory of hiphop. And this exhuming of ancient stereotypes in music and movies has done much more than the ravings of Louis Farrakhan to make anti-Semitism respectable again. When Public Enemy rap about the “so-called chosen” who “got me like Jesus”; when Professor Griff says “Jews are responsible for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe”; when Spike Lee creates Joe and Josh Flatbush, cardboard club owners who reduce every human emotion to profiteering — they make the most archaic myths about Jews seem modern and heroic again.
Why do these artists get away with Jew-baiting? The answer lies in the racially mixed market for their work. Black culture often performs a surrogate role in American society, defining rebellion and delineating the forbidden for a funk-hungry nation. Just as rappers play the sex-outlaw many whiteboys wish they could be, slamming women and gays with all the bile that must be swallowed in bourgeois society, black anti-Semites act out the bigotry other Americans aren’t quite willing to express. And their emergence signals something about American culture as a whole.
For the first time since the Great Depression, Jewish stereotypes are being used to provide a gritty frisson to works of art. The Death of Klinghoffer has a libretto that equates Jews with bourgeois banality and Palestinians with proletarian dignity. Barton Fink has movie moguls who behave like figments of T.S. Eliot’s imagination. (“The rats are underneath the pile/The Jew is underneath the lot.”) The Jews in these works are more complex than Spike Lee would allow, mostly because the audience is more genteel. They prefer their anti-Semitism with an edge of irony — but the negativity remains unprecedented in my lifetime. And the fact that Jews played a role in creating these works is itself a sign of profound anxiety. One way for Jews to deal with the horror of anti-Semitism is to deflect it onto an evil Jewish other. But this strategy only fuels the fire.
Last week, the Family Entertainment Network announced it was pulling a series of Bible videos to change the features of certain Jewish characters. The Anti-Defamation League had objected to the fact that the moneychangers were hook-nosed and epicene. Network officials were embarrassed; and they stressed that making the Jews look like normal people would cost a pretty penny (everything is money with these evangelicals). But the question remains how anyone in modern America could render Bible characters that so closely resemble the cartoons that once graced Der Stürmer. The only answer is that the image of conniving Jews is so entrenched that it doesn’t seem remarkable, except to Jews.
By locating anti-Semitism exclusively in the black community, the Post/Commentary axis hopes to convince Jews that their interests lie in an alliance with other white ethnics, under the neocon umbrella. But this ambition blinds the Jewish right to the extent of anti-Semitism in American life. Even Jews who agree with George Bush’s position on Israeli loan guarantees must feel a familiar shudder when they hear him complain about being “one little guy” held hostage by 1000 lobbyists. The president apologized for that remark and promptly positioned himself as a defender of Israeli interests in the U.N. By invoking the myth of Jewish omnipotence and then extending the olive branch, Bush demonstrated how easily anti-Semitism can be used in a carrot-and-stick routine. This is a far more subtle and threatening strategy than anything in Al Sharpton’s bag of tricks — and it suits the style of a president who won the White House by invoking Willie Horton. The omnipotent Jew and the rapacious black male are twin spectres in the Western psyche, always available to be played as an instrument of public policy.
It is Bush and the elite he epitomizes that are ultimately empowered by Crown Heights. Now, blacks may be held up to Jews as the real anti-Semites, even as Jews are held up to blacks as the real racists. This spectacle shatters an alliance that has been the fulcrum of progressivism for generations. How fortunate for the enemies of blacks and Jews alike.
What’s a liberal to do in the face of such a crisis? Pretend it’s something else.
For the most part, the media have taken note of Jew-baiting asides in rap music, or crypto-Nazi imagery in a colorful jazz musical, as if it were a sour belch to be quickly swallowed. Some critics spoke up loud and clear, but the mainstream was reluctant to risk it. As a result, the anti-Semitism of Public Enemy and Spike Lee was less than resolutely condemned, sending a signal to the audience that it’s permissible to act on such ideas. Those who overlooked the obvious, for whatever reasons, helped lay the groundwork for Crown Heights. By the time someone fired a bullet through a synagogue, it was too late to speak out about the ideology of Mo’ Better Blues.
By now, there’s a consensus that the riot was an act of anti-Semitism. But this judgment wasn’t generated by the left. At first, many white progressives focused on the advantages the Hasidim enjoy, as if that entitled the crowd to shout, “kill the Jews.” Only gradually did the left confront the truth. It’s painful, indeed, to face the fact that victims of bigotry can be guilty of bigotry — it threatens your image of the oppressed. How much easier to buy the claim that blacks cannot be anti-Semitic, or even to convince yourself that what happened in Crown Heights is part of some larger geopolitical struggle — a hiphop intifada.
I’m convinced that some white leftists were silent because, consciously or not, they share the assumptions of the rioters. It’s hip, in certain progressive circles, to speak of Jews as if they’ve lost their legitimacy. You could glimpse this reflex in the antiwar protesters who cheered when Scud missles fell on Israel; and you can see it in the lubricious alliance between the New Alliance Party and Farrakhan. There’s nothing contradictory about this pact. Anti-Semitism of the left has firm roots in populism as well as Marxist ideology. (The term itself was coined in the 19th century by a liberal mayor of Vienna, who used anti-Semitism — as Ed Koch would later use racism — to secure a populist base.)
David Dinkins called the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum what it was: a lynching. But other black leaders were as prone to euphemism as white progressives. Many reiterated the underlying conditions in Crown Heights and demanded a redress of grievances as the price for peace. None spoke of the deadly myths about Jews that had animated this violence, just as few black leaders condemned the anti-Semitism of Leonard Jeffries. (Reverend Calvin Butts, the city’s most influential black minister, said he wanted to hear more from Jeffries himself before addressing the question; and he never did.) Solidarity makes truth-telling difficult, and the reality of oppression makes it hard for any black leader to condemn an eruption of black rage. But there are other, less savory, possibilities. The conflation of Jew-baiting with black empowerment is now so evolved that it seems like Tomming, if not treason, to call anti-Semitism what it is. The sight of a phalanx of black men marching through a white neighborhood has achieved the sanctity of a ritual, and hardly anyone on the left questions the context, or the content, of what is being shouted at whom. The likelihood of black — or white — progressives speaking out against icons of resistance is slim indeed.
The silence of humanists had a sickeningly familiar quality to Jews who remember the world’s response to the Nazis: the reluctance to act on, or even acknowledge, the possibility of genocide until it was too late. This sense of abandonment remains an indelible part of Jewish consciousness. It fosters that larger mentality the world so often reads as Jewish paranoia. It animates the comedy of Jewish assimilation, and the Noh drama of Jewish self-hate — both are strategies to hide the dirty secret that can lead to disgrace and even death. And it creates the illusion that the only safety for a Jew is within the tribe. This last tendency — call it psychic Zionism — is the leading beneficiary of what occurred in Crown Heights. In terms of Jewish history, this was another victory for the spirit of Jabotinsky over Einstein — another triumph of nationalism over humanism.
During the height of the violence, the Post ran a front-page photo of a 12-year-old Hasidic boy sobbing by the fallen frame of his injured father. It raised goose bumps when I saw it, resonating with the image of children in the Warsaw Ghetto, surrendering to armed Nazis against a background of flames. The Post was milking my memory of Jewish helplessness, just as Sharpton had milked his constituency by envisioning Gavin Cato sharing “heaven’s playroom” with the three girls killed in the 1962 firebombing of a black church in Birmingham. While readers of The City Sun were invited to regard Aaron Lopez, an 18th century slave-trader, as the emblem of the Jews, I was invited to regard Sonny Carson and his storm troopers as the vanguard of the black community. “Who speaks for New York’s blacks if not the… riot inciters?” asked Eric Breindel from his perch facing the Post’s editorial page. He compared the events in Crown Heights to Kristallnacht, when thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed and hundreds lost their lives — with the cooperation of the German state. “The pretext in Crown Heights,” Breindel blithely asserted, “was far thinner [than in Nazi Germany].”
Long before Kristallnacht, the German socialist leader August Bebel warned his compatriots against the illusion that bigotry is a source of power. “Anti-Semitism is the Socialism of fools,” Bebel proclaimed. His words have yet to be heeded, as we saw in Crown Heights. The polarization process that followed in the wake of the rioting is now a fact of urban life. The failure of moderate black ministers to articulate an alternative to demagoguery left the door wide open for Sharpton, just as the inability of white progressives to confront anti-Semitism gave right-wingers an excuse to come out swinging. As the Post asked disingenuously: “Who else speaks for the black community?” It’s a cry that will surely be echoed in Commentary and all the house organs of retrenchment. The new excuse for polite white racism will be Crown Heights.
Already Ed Koch brays that he would have unleashed the police much sooner. An editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal blames the minimum wage laws for black rage. And Al D’Amato, desperate to draw attention from the diversion of antipoverty funds to his cousin, tells a crowd — at a synagogue, no less — that Dinkins should go to South Africa “and stay there.” D’Amato crossed party lines to endorse one of the most rabid candidates for City Council, Rabbi Yehuda Levin. “He stands for values you and I share,” the senator said, echoing Levin’s pledge to “seek enactment of a new anti-gang bias law,” which would severely curtail the rights of black militants to march and organize. D’Amato, too, demanded that the Justice Department “put these racial racketeers out of business.”
So striking is the damage done to black empowerment by Crown Heights that it’s fair to say the men who drove on the mob were either fools or government agents. Those who hope to split the still substantial white liberal vote from the black community have been handed a powerful weapon. Now, it will be easier than ever for the Kochs and D’Amatos to conflate affirmative action, multicultural education, and even the aspirations of black politicians with savagery. David Dinkins now faces the all-but-impossible task of overcoming two equally abhorrent images. The Jewish right paints him as a schlemiel who placates black bigots, while black enragés call him “Dinkinstein.”
The only way to take back righteousness from the right is for progressives to call this riot what it was: a wannabe pogrom. The O.E.D. defines that word as “an organized massacre… chiefly applied to those directed against Jews.” No one planned this riot, nor did the city of New York tolerate it. You can argue that the police response was too little too late, but their restraint was standard procedure during a racial disturbance, and nothing directed at Jews. In the end, the system worked to contain the violence, something my grandmother, who lived through a real pogrom, would have found miraculous. But what if the mob had been left to its own devices? Were these people so different from the Jew-haters of other eras? Were the demagogues that spurred them on?
The real lesson of Crown Heights is that Jews must learn to live in a more dangerous world, where hate goes unanswered and primitive passions are stoked as a safety valve for helpless rage. Jewish children in years to come may live much like my parents, with a subtle but consuming sense of dread. America could yet turn out to be not so different from the Old World my grandparents fled. But there’s another possibility: that by confronting anti-Semitism and racism, people of good will can transcend both — or at least keep them dormant.
In Crown Heights last week, the cops were busy keeping blacks and Jews apart. Hundreds of Hasidim coming out of a Yom Kippur service scuffled with police, and menaced a black woman trapped in her car. The next night, a group of blacks showed up at Lubavitcher headquarters, shouting slurs through a megaphone and throwing rocks. In public, the hate persists. In private, I’m convinced, many blacks and Jews are horrified by what’s occurred. That may explain why, in the recent City Council primary, the worst hatemongers — C. Vernon Mason, Colin Moore, and Yehuda Levin — all went down to defeat. It may be too much to hope for some grand gesture of reconciliation; in the current climate, you take your hope where you can find it — in small courtesies that signal what still can’t be proclaimed.
Last week in Brooklyn, I forgot where my car was parked. Walking down a dark narrow street, I saw a group of black teenagers hanging out. I felt my body tighten against the desire to draw back. I’ve spent much of my life struggling against that reflex, so I approached the kids and asked directions. They answered politely and we fell into an oddly formal banter — broad smiles and cordial “good nights.” I realized we were acting out an elaborate etiquette of communication in tough times. I wouldn’t call it trust, but at least I didn’t yell for the police, and they didn’t ask to see my horns.