The Wall of Terror in Berlin, Gestapo and SS Headquarters (Photo by Paul Stoller)
Even though I was long ago the object of anti-Semitic scorn and abuse, I have steadfastly remained an optimist about my personal and professional life in America. The memories of people calling me “kike” or a “dirty Jew,” or sale juif (in the Paris Metro) have drifted deep into the background of my consciousness. I hardly ever think about a gang of young boys sticking my head in the junior high school toilet, flushing it, and saying, “you Christ killing dirty Jew.” In the 1950s and early 1960s such events were not exceptional and rarely reported. I, for one, was too afraid to report these anti-Semitic acts to the school principal. I thought that no one would punish their behavior. Whenever those boys saw me, they laughed or gave me threatening stares—all because I happened to be Jewish.
I was lucky, though. Unlike my African American, Latino, Native American, LGBTQ and Muslim friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to long endure the ugly everyday presence of racism, ethnic prejudice, homophobia or Islamophobia. Unlike my female friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to confront a daily barrage of gender bias. Instead, I tried to hide my Jewishness and pretend that I was white.
Passing for white made it easier for me to get over the anti-Semitism I had experienced as a child and teenager. I went to high school, college, and graduate school where I studied linguistics and anthropology. I lived in West Africa where I conducted research in rural villages in the Republic of Niger. I learned to speak French and an African language. I became a university professor and have been teaching college students for more than 30 years. I’ve written books and won some awards. I have a nice house and a beautiful family. You might say I have a lovely life. Why would I think about those past events? Why would I worry about hate in America?
The events of the past week, though, have brought those worries to the surface. A racist anti-Semitic Trump-loving loner sends pipe bombs to the most prominent people on Trump’s “enemies list,” including two former presidents, a former vice-president, a former secretary of state, former directors of the CIA and of national intelligence, two Jewish billionaire activists, and several members of Congress—all highly visible critics of the current president. In Kentucky an armed white man unsuccessfully tries to enter an African American church in an effort to kill black folk. Determined to carry out his mission, he goes to a Kroger grocery store and executes an elderly African American man. Still not satisfied, he exits the store and executes an elderly African American woman. His work completed, he passes a shocked onlooker, who is white, and says: “Whites don’t kill whites.” In Pittsburgh a white man armed with and AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and several hand guns enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a day of peace and announces that “all Jews must die.” He then brutally kills eight men and three women—the worse incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history.
In Trump’s “nationalist” America, can Jews like me, or for that matter Jared Kushner, still pass for white? Consider the perceptive words of anthropologist Karen Brodkin in an essay “How Jews Became White Folks and May Become Non-white Under Trump” published in the Jewish Daily Forward, December 06, 2016.
In the wake of World War II, the horrors of Nazism were becoming public and publicly repudiated. Eugenics and political forms of institutional anti-Semitism lost much of their hold. A good economy and a progressive political climate enabled America to dismantle some aspects of legal discrimination and segregation. One result was that Ashkenazi Jews became white; for a while, in the ’50s, we even became a best-selling flavor of American popular culture. Those benefits weren’t extended to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans. Racism itself didn’t take a hit. The category of white just expanded to include Southern and Eastern Europeans. I figured it was permanent.
Now, Trump’s election and the closet of bigotry it has opened raise a question. Have the decades of whiteness we’ve enjoyed affected American Jews and Jewishness permanently, so that Jews would still be considered white, in the sense of still being included among the racially privileged, those safe from persecution?
Or is it possible that the new Trump regime will “unwhiten” and mark Jews racially on a national scale?
Following Trump’s election, of course, hate crimes, according to the FBI, spiked significantly. According to a June 26, 2018 report published in the online journal, The Conversation: Academic Rigor and Journalistic Flair, a team of sociologists and criminal justice scholars who study hate crimes considered the increases in US hate crimes:
We see three factors behind the moderate overall increases in 2016. First, there was a precipitous spike around the election. Second, on top of sustained levels of hate crimes against African-Americans, and a small increase against Jews, were larger percentage increases against other groups. Third, hate crimes increased by double-digit percentages in several large states, including New York, California, Florida and Illinois.
In 2017, our data show that hate crimes rose 12 percent over 2016 levels in 38 of the largest cities. There were 1,038 hate crimes in the nation’s 10 largest cities – the highest in more than a decade.
Trump’s direct and indirect affirmation of hate through continuous public vilification of women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews has clearly opened the floodgates of hate in America. As the disturbingly deadly events of the past week indicate, many “nationalists”, a designation that Trump assigns to himself, think it is now okay for white people to openly hate, vilify and in some cases kill African Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Latinos, Jews, and even politicians who are Democrats) –all to “purify” America and prevent white genocide.
In Trump’s America I’m afraid Jews are no longer white folks. We now join all the stigmatized Others who in this culture of hate must vigilantly look over their shoulders and wonder why the white dudes in the pickup truck are staring at us as we walk our dogs or when we stroll with our children and grandchildren in our neighborhoods. Is the white man lingering outside the synagogue or Mosque packing? Would he kill Jews attending a bris (male circumcision ceremony) or Muslims praying during the Friday Jumu’ah prayer?
Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Paul Stoller
Have we reached an deadly impasse in American social life?
In the short term, we live in tragic and troubling times. The hate crimes of the past week have probably made made many of us angry and less optimistic about the here and now. Those crimes have reminded me of troubling incidents from my past. They have made me reflect deeply about my Jewish identity. They have also compelled me to worry about America’s unraveling social fabric. As an anthropologist I know that social bonds are fragile. I know that senseless violence can erupt at a moment’s notice. Even so, hateful domestic terrorists have not sapped my spirit.
During my time as an anthropologist, my mentors in West Africa always advised me to take the long view of things I have learned from them that human beings are resilient. Even in times of tragic sadness, there is space for hope. Indeed, the students I’ve met in my classes and the young professionals I’ve met on my travels in the US and Europe have given me hope for the future. They are passionately committed to a more perfect union in which we work together for social justice, in which we demand respect human difference, in which we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.
Taking the long view, the contemporary culture of hate looks like a bright fire that will eventually burn out. On the long road to social recovery, it will take some time for us to wake up and force the “rats,” as depicted in Albert Camus’s The Plague, back into their holes. Considering the impressive qualities of the next generation I am confident that despair and hopelessness will slowly dissipate and be replaced with hope and resolution–a prediction that reinforces my optimism–even in this tragic and troubling moment of American history.