The recent article in the New York Times about what would seem to be the ongoing and systemic harassment of Jewish kids in Pine Bush, a small rural town in upstate New York, strikes a particularly powerful chord precisely because the appearance of anti-Semitism in this country has something unexpected about it. The story showed up on Friday on p.1 and continued onto an inside page where it took up a full entire page. Apparently there are 3500 pages of written deposition about the case. This then is a very big story about a very little place about something kind of off the radar of popular consciousness of the type of polite society.
Anti-Semitism is a queer thing. In certain circles, it tends to be something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, aside from snarky remarks about the anti-Semitism industry, and the way rightwing Jews manufacture it for ideological ends, usually relating to Israel. Even by people who track it intensely, it is generally assumed that anti-Semitism in America today is at low ebb, statistically speaking. And so it barely registers. It’s not something that a lot of us are conscious or aware of. But in a country this big, if even 10% of the public hold consistent anti-Semitic views, well, that’s more than millions of people. One assumes that these people, the ones with consistent anti-Semitic views, are not distributed evenly throughout the general public, but pool together in geographic concentrations.
A statistic represents a fact that sometimes can obscure the details of the lives lived by those actual people whose experience doesn’t conform to statistical norms. Is it worth revisiting the point made by Franz Rosenzweig, a philosophical hero of Diaspora Judaism, regarding the eternal enmity between Judaism and Christianity? If that is what it is, it’s an enmity that can take many different kinds of form. Overt hostility is one kind of form that is rare today in the United States. But what about those antipathies or that distaste that subsist under the radar, or even more interesting, are off the radar, the ones that barely appear and the one’s that fail to appear on a normal basis? In these latter cases, anti-Semitism would constitute a negative phenomenon, out off of the margins of public consciousness, out there as a lingering sub-conscious affect?
Precisely because they are so elusive, I think “we” sometimes fail to consider how these more affective kinds of anti-Semitism continues to haunt the things that people like me think about today. These things would be things and the way we think about them relating to Jews and Judaism, American Jews and American Judaism, Israel and anti-Zionism in relation to larger cultural environments that define their shape in the world. For those who care about them, it’s easy to forget how small these Jewish things are. It’s not that I think anti-Semitism is helpful category with which to think about them most of the time, and most of the time I would agree that it’s a complete distraction, except when it’s not, by which point it has caught you up short. It’s always unpleasant to pass by synagogues, Jewish schools, and community centers with armed police guard, in New York or in Europe.
The story about Pine Bush reminded me about my own experience growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s and the intensity of the anti-Semitism that I witnessed in middle school at a private boys’ prep school. It was not something I suffered directly, which means that I wasn’t bullied. But there were those who suffered daily abuse and whose lives must have been hell. I wasn’t the only Jewish kid who left after eighth grade, disgusted by the place. Regarding the Pine Bush story, what strikes me the most apart from the systematic abuse, the snide jokes and name-calling, and hostile acts, all of which I remember, is the particular way in which the swastika keeps popping up as a visual marker. “The swastikas, the students recalled, seemed to be everywhere: on walls, desks, lockers, textbooks, computer screens, a playground slide — even on a student’s face… A picture of President Obama, with a swastika drawn on his forehead, remained on the wall of an eighth-grade social studies classroom for about a month after a student informed her teacher.”
There is something fecund about the symbol, the way a little thing like a visual sign gets copied or reproduced, moving across and marking, contaminating the physical infrastructure of a public space. All of a sudden it’s there, and then there, and then there, and you never expected it. I don’t think this is something that education can necessarily tamp down. Maybe it’s the case that hate can feed off education. You can introduce Holocaust studies into the curriculum, bring in speakers, including survivors, have the kids read books or watch videos. To what effect? Some kids won’t care or may even learn something not intended by their teachers, like how to draw swastikas, or to identify Hitler’s birthday, or to talk about things with the venom that comes with precision. Under certain conditions, my bet is that the Holocaust education intended to stem the abuse only aggravates it further, assuming that the anti-Semitism has been learned at home, something engrained in the local place.
I cannot speak about Europe one hundred years ago, where and when anti-Semitism inundated cultural consciousness and political life, and where today, more than half a century after the Holocaust, it probably remains just under the surface or never far away from the surface. In Europe today and certainly not in the United States, I am sure that anti-Semitism is not a “universal,” and I doubt it is experienced as such by most people, by some few, certainly, but not by most. Undoubtedly, Pine Bush is an exceptional place. Apparently there is a long history involving the Ku Klux Klan and there are different local patterns and pressures involving poverty and shifting demographics in the upstate region. But to say that anti-Semitism is not a universal is not to say that it doesn’t pop up, first here and then there, under this or that local provocation or pretext. And when it does, it can do so appearing as if out of nowhere, showing up from out of the shadow of a statistical margin with breathtaking virulence.