Feeling under siege

The struggle of the Jewsih garment workers in the US in 1909, also known as the Uprising of 20,000 is part of the rich tapestry of Jewish history

These past couple of weeks have put me in a particularly vile mood, to the point when watching Family Guy with my husband yesterday, there was a scene where Lois is having severe allergies with a runny nose and decides to take a shower so that she can actually blow snot into her hands, and as she is walking out of the kitchen she bangs her arm on the doorframe; Peter walks in and says good morning and she replies “drop dead” to him – my husband comments “reminds me of someone I know” to which I responded “drop dead”, writes Susan Pashkoff.

While I would rather have my life imitating other things than what is often a misogynist and stupid cartoon alas this is not the case. As the world descends into barbarism with racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia on the increase in Europe and the US, I am beginning to feel somewhat under siege. My prediction after the Brexit referendum that the Tories will crash Britain out of the EU with a “no deal” Brexit, call a general election and leave Jeremy Corbyn to clean up the mess is becoming more and more possible by the day as the divided Tories are completely unable to negotiate with the EU as they strongly disagree on what they want. Quite honestly Theresa May has demonstrated constantly that she has no leadership abilities to speak of; that some Tories are completely living on another planet where the rise of the British empire is possible, and where Boris Johnson has decided to get advice for a leadership campaign from Steve Bannon of all people. Boris seems to be really going for the fascist vote with his idiotic Islamophobic and racist comment about women that wear burqas looking like letterboxes which he refuses to apologise for. Bannon also praised the fascist Tommy Robinson (founder of the English Defence League) and Boris Johnson. If I were Boris, I wouldn’t want to be in the same sentence as Tommy Robinson (unless he really thinks that fascism is the way to win a leadership election; this is odd as most of those that are Tory party members are certainly xenophobes, but not fascists, but that is another story) leading to speculation that Bannon is doing more than meeting with Boris, but actually advising him.   Given Bannon’s greetings to a free Tommy Robinson march in June and his attempt to develop an international right-wing movement, we have a lot to be worried about.

Holiday in the Sun

So, while on holiday (where I do not have access to baking to relieve my anger and stress – somehow baking pies and cakes helps me relieve anger, who knows?) and having re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, in my desperate attempt to try and understand the insanity that the US is undergoing, I picked up Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America and start reading. I came across what I think is an excellent paragraph to provide an insight to my husband about what my life as an American Jew was (even though this was written about the 1940s and I grew up in the 1960s and clearly there were differences) and I started reading this paragraph to him at which point I burst into tears:

“Israel didn’t yet exist, six million European Jews hadn’t yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine (under British mandate since the 1918 dissolution of the victorious Allies of the last far-flung provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire) was a mystery to me. When a stranger who did wear a beard and who never once was seen hatless appeared every few months after dark to ask in broken English for a contribution towards the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, I, who wasn’t an ignorant child, didn’t quite know what he was doing on our landing. My parents would give me or Sandy a couple of coins to drop in his collection box, largesse, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who, from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I easily observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header. Our homeland was America (Phillip Roth, The Plot Against America, Vintage, 2016, pp 4-5).”

What in heaven’s name caused this emotional outburst? What was in this paragraph that so deeply moved me? Why this of all things caused me finally to give way from anger to deep sorrow? I am not someone that cries easily; given my upbringing, crying became to me, losing a battle – never give them your tears sort of thing. I cry at funerals, I cry in despair, but it is not something I do easily. Yet here I am bursting into tears at a paragraph and I sat there for the next few days wondering what had finally pushed me over the edge. Heaven forfend that I just move on; that is not me either unfortunately. As if I wasn’t already verklempt, later on I was sitting on the beach and I looked up from my book and there was a fascist arse with a large swastika tattooed on his body standing right in front of me; this needless to say was the cherry on the top of a crappy year.

I came to the conclusion after days of soul searching that I was in despair and what had put me there was a series of incidents that have happened to me. The first was the elimination of my relationship with members of my family that had supported Trump (whom I warned that he was an antisemite and a misogynist; he is of course a racist and an Islamophobe, but I had a bad feeling that my family members that voted for him wouldn’t give a damn about that). The second was being called a kapo at a counter protest against an accusation against Corbyn’s so-called antisemitism. I rejected Zionism as a solution to antisemitism when I was 14; I have been called a self-hating Jew and an antisemite many times in my life by other Jews whom I have disagreed with, but never a kapo – quite honestly I cannot think who I am working as a kapo for; comparing me to those forced into service by the Nazis at concentration camps is beyond appalling. The third was being called an antisemite by non-Jews on a local Labour Party (LP) FB page; being called an antisemite by people that are antisemites definitely pissed me off mightily.

Why are these people antisemites, you ask?

Because these people think that as a Jew I necessarily must be a Zionist and support Israel. Do I reject the fact that I am a Jew; do I hate Jews? Most certainly not, I neither reject my religion and the culture I was brought up in, I am a proud Jew. My rejection of political Zionism at age 14 came about as I believed (and still believe) that the actualisation of political Zionism in the state of Israel and the actions of the Israeli military and state were inconsistent with what I understood to be Jewish ethics and morality that I had been schooled in by my parents and the Hebrew School I attended. So, it was as a Jew that I rejected political Zionism; not the opposite.  So the accusation by non-Jews of being an antisemite really angered me.

I do admit to hating gefilte fish; I tried. I even had the fresh one made by my grandfather (I remember the fish swimming in his bathtub – he liked to go fishing and, as a child, I wondered about eating fish that were swimming in his bathtub; but I loved him very much and tried it – I remember asking why he just did not bake the fresh fish rather than gefilting it). There is not enough horseradish in the world that would make gefilte fish edible to me. I even tried it in Britain where it is deep-fried thinking that deep frying makes everything tastes better … alas no … but that does not qualify me for antisemitism (there are many Jews that find it gross especially those that are not from an Ashkenazi background like me).

As I have said many times on this discussion, those that self-identify as Jews come from various classes, they have different religious beliefs, they have different political beliefs ranging from the hard extreme right as fascists (think of Meir Kahane founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Israeli Kach Party) to the hard left (as Marxists and Anarchists). We disagree about most things, we do agree there is antisemitism; however, we do not agree on how to define it (and how to fight against it and eliminate it). The majority of Political Zionists are no longer Jews; in fact, they are antisemites (see Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel as an example). The fact that people that are non-Jews are telling me what to believe and have the chutzpah to call me an antisemite is galling; most of these people do not even realise that there is political debate among those that identify as Jews and have no idea of the history of political division conditioned, of course, by different classes and political (and even religious) belief.

As the latest battle about antisemitism in the Labour Party  raises its head, this time the issue is the adoption (or not) of International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) working definition examples (the IHRA’s rather meaningless definition itself has been adopted; it is the examples which all the fuss is now focused on). The Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) has put out a different group of examples to help clarify what is antisemitism.  One of my problems with the working definition (rather than the examples) is that it does not use the term racism to describe antisemitism; while races clearly do not exist as a scientific category, racism does exist and is a significant social problem. But there are serious problems with the examples themselves which could lead to those that are not antisemites being accused as such. Quite honestly, I am wondering if the political positions of the Jewish Bund would pass the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and that would be a serious problem. So, it is important that these examples are clear and do not obfuscate understanding of what antisemitism actually is. Brian Klug discusses the differences between the texts addressing how the Labour Party NEC text attempts to clarify guidelines about what constitutes antisemitism.

On July 18, Dame Margaret Hodge the LP Member of Parliament from Barking actually called Jeremy Corbyn “a f*cking antisemite and racist” – it is amazing to me that she has worked alongside him for so many years and has never called him such; how could she hold her tongue for so long if she actually believed this?

Following the adoption of legalised apartheid with the Nation-State Law passed in the Knesset on July 19 2018 in Israel (de facto Apartheid has, as numerous people have pointed out existed for quite some time there) once again the accusations against the Labour Party flair up. If you think that non-Jews in Israel are happy with Israel legally becoming an exclusive Jewish state with different civil rights for Jews and non-Jews, you haven’t been watching the news. One of the biggest problems with the usage of the IHRA definition is how it will impact on the rights of Palestinians to criticise Israel; there are Palestinian members of the LP, do they have no rights in this discussion?

But perhaps the most absurd part of this discussion is the accusation against Jeremy Corbyn by three British Jewish newspapers on July 25 of posing an “existential threat to Jews” – while many people think of existential threats as attempts to forbid worship or practice your culture, have children and raise them with your beliefs, work and have an income because you are a Jew, or the actual murder of Jewish citizens for being Jews, this actually refers to his refusal to adopt the IHRA working definition with examples. We have reached new heights of ridiculous … and I am angry. I know that I am not alone as this discussion is actually an international one, as an article published in  Forward (an American Jewish publication since 1897) by Annie Cohen raises:

“To demand that the IHRA standard be met or Jews face an “existential threat” means that even here in the diaspora, our safety and security is still dependent on the silencing of another people.

That is simply not something I want to be part of. If your definition of anti-Semitism instantiates racial discrimination against Palestinians, it’s worthless (https://forward.com/opinion/407456/why-corbyn-s-definition-of-anti-semitism-is-actually-what-jews-need/).”

This week I was told on the same local LP page by a non-Jewish elected councillor that she was fighting antisemitism, fighting for Palestinian rights and against apartheid while I was still in nappies. Given that she is close to my age, give or take a year or two, her struggle against the forces of evil as a toddler is impressive. This came in reaction to a discussion on the IHRA working definition which she supports; I said to her that the person that wrote the IHRA working definition of antisemitism said it was not supposed to be used in the manner it was being used. I also asked her since Apartheid was now legal (rather than de facto) in Israel, whether she opposed apartheid and supported the use of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against apartheid South Africa.

I am a Jew that grew up amongst Jews and learned about antisemitism very early on in life. In the area which I lived, the population was at least 95% Jewish (the remainders were Italian Americans) – essentially my parents moved from a shtetl in the Bronx, to a shtetl in Queens and then to a shtetl in Florida. Reading Phillip Roth’s description of his mother playing mahjong and canasta made me smile as my mom used to play the same with other women; his description of the relationship between his family members in Newark sounded so familiar. My mother loved the US, there were no pogroms against Jews like those in the “old country” that her family spoke of; in the book, the protagonist’s father talked about how we were protected by laws and the constitution …

Just for example, only four members (including an infant) of my whole extended family living in Europe survived the Holocaust (one of my cousins and her husband had numbers tattooed on their forearms; the others had the money to flee), and parents of my friends had numbers tattooed on their arms – one of whom came to talk to us in Hebrew school about her experiences in a concentration camp. I grew up among people horrified by antisemitism and the Holocaust, how can she possibly understand what I learned at a young age and how I have chosen to fight against it?

How can she understand that when I rejected political Zionism at 14 what that cost me (think about the rejection from people that you knew since you were young)? I will never forget that in High School on Holocaust Remembrance day they showed a movie called Night and Fog (warning, this is a link to the movie and it contains horrifying and heart-breaking scenes of concentration camps and their victims) and my friend asking the teacher if she could miss assembly that day as she feared she would see family members’ bodies – I had seen the movie when I was younger; it stills has a starring role in my nightmares. At age 19, I began doing Palestinian solidarity work seriously. At age 23, I stepped into an antisemitic beating being given to a young Chasid by a group of antisemites; I doubt the young man was happy being rescued by a woman, but I was not going to stand there and do nothing. One of my students (who was Muslim) when I was teaching at University asked me when Operation Cast Lead was happening whether the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust was exaggerated; I explained what happened to my family and explained that it would have been genocide even if it was only 10,000. I also explained to him that whatever happened to Jews in the Holocaust cannot justify what is happening to Palestinians.

Can she understand how that comment affected me (just want to say that all the other Muslim students came up and apologised for his comment; they were also horrified)? That antisemitism, like all racism, colours your life experiences daily … that oppressed people understand the impact of racism in their lives far better than an ally can. That you need to respect and hear those that you are offering solidarity to if you actually want to help rather than assuage your conscience or show that you give a damn.

I asked her if she told people of colour that she understood racism better than they did. Because, if she did, they would think she is a racist; just as if she told Muslims that she understood Islamophobia better than they did, they would think her an Islamophobe.

The reality is that her experience of second-hand racism and antisemitism is irrelevant; it is the oppressed that understand what they experience and she cannot tell the oppressed what to believe; that is racism, that is antisemitism, that is Islamophobia. She has no idea of the impact of these things on oppressed people as it is not a slur here and there; it is being forced to live with people’s hate and its consequences every day of your life. My knowledge and experience, that of my family, my friends shaped me and made me someone that has been fighting against injustice my whole life. Did she not realise that her comment demeaned my life; and everything that I learned and have fought for? Clearly not.  She offered a fake apology about her not meaning to upset me (as though my upset was due to my emotions and feelings rather than the objective fact that her comment was appalling).

If she wants to be an ally and in solidarity (and this holds for all allies), then she damn well better not tell me that her second-hand experiences are more important or relevant than mine. One thing is solidarity and support; another is her belief that she understands it better than me through second-hand experience. None of her family members had numbers tattooed on their arms, none of her friends’ parents did, she did not live with survivors guilt; she also never felt the condemnation of people she grew up with when she rejected Zionism. She hasn’t the slightest clue and she does not have the right to say shite like this to me. I admit I do appreciate that she gave me my anger back; despair is a rather desperate thing after all. Unfortunately, I can no longer say that I have not experienced antisemitism in the LP; I have experienced it not from the Labour left, but rather the Labour right – how far have we fallen that in a discussion about antisemitism, antisemitism is being deployed against Jews that are critical of Israel and Zionism? More and more younger Jews are moving towards my position; will we all be labelled antisemitic?

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Kos

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