I was born a Jew but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know it until I was about 6 years old, playing in a freshly dug ditch with my best friend, our mom’s looking on. He said, “I’m Russian.” I said, “I’m Russian too.”
“No, you’re not. ” My mom said, “You’re Jewish.”
At the time I already loved flags. I knew of countries. If she told me Armenian, American, or Uzbek, or Chinese, I would have been less perplexed than “Jewish”.
“What’s Jewish?” I asked.
“It’s a people.” She said.
It’s not my fault. In the Soviet Union being Jewish just meant that you could not speak Yiddish, attend synagogue or do any cultural aspect but would have to have the mark in the passport and be denied jobs and spots at Universities.
Anyway, from that moment on, I knew I was Jewish, I just didn’t know what that meant.
This is not all that different from the rest of the world. Everyone knows of Jews, but who Jewish, none of them know. All they know is that there are a lot of them in banking and Hollywood, and some seem to be successful. People are scared of that which they do not know, and our education system doesn’t help us.
I remember the class where we learned about Jews. It was in 6th grade, a year and a half after we arrived in the US. By this point, I knew how to speak English and I remember my teacher, Mrs. Ramsey describing Jews in class. It was part of our Social Studies class, the part on religion. According to the book, we were not a people, we were a religion. She simply said, “Jews believe in one god, and they are the ‘chosen people’, isn’t that right Sam?”
I was so confused. I’ve never heard of these “chosen people.” Chosen for what? By whom? For what? I don’t know if I answered, but this demonstrates the extent of what people know about us. We are chosen, we believe in one god, Nazis hated us and killed a lot of us, and then some went to Israel and some became rich in America.
American education is terrible. We all know this. It robs Americans of an understanding of the world. It prepares them for jobs where they think little and do as they are told. They learn to do homework and study hard for the tests, just as they eventually will fill out paperwork at a job and do their best to complete assignments for deadlines. They will not think about orders, they will not know about their place in the world, and certainly not wonder about a fellow co-worker’s place in the world. They will never ask what anyone earns, they will simply buy a home, take the kids to soccer practice, get them through college, retire and play golf. There’s no need to fill their brains with the complexities of life, violent shows, and shopping is enough.
But the human mind is not as simple as a gear. It asks questions, and when it doesn’t get answers it makes them up. When it gets wrong answers from an authority, it learns to not believe authority and seek the answers that make sense. But the answers that make sense are rarely the right ones.
What Americans do know is that as Americans, they are exceptional, and no one else is allowed to be exceptional. Jews being “chosen”, regardless of what they are chosen for, is being exceptional and it is not good. It upsets a lot of Americans in my experience as seen on Twitter these days where the argument that Jews being “chosen” makes us racist.
So we have a country, where Americans are exceptional but Jewish people are visible in positions of power, positions of responsibility, but rarely seen, rarely interacting, and thus clearly chosen for things that the masses are not chosen for.
People in America create a lot of silos, whether it is Catholics in a Catholic church, or Evangelicals in theirs, or Mormons in a temple or Jews in a synagogue. Everyone is by themselves, everyone is an individual in their tribe, doing their best and never trusting those whom they do not know.
I thought “Jewish” was a strange word when I was a kid. There was no country that it corresponded to. Israel doesn’t sound right, maybe if the founders of Israel called it Judea, maybe that would have made sense. But in a sense, America is no different. When Russians think of America, they think of cowboys and Indians, but it is so much more complex than that. It is a wealthy white male ruling class, an ethnically cleansed indigenous people, it is the ex-slaves forever made to feel inferior, and a group of minorities, who are always to feel thankful just to be allowed to be in America.
That’s how I saw my parents when they expressed gratitude to America. It wasn’t gratitude of a friend to a friend. It was the kind of gratitude of a slave to a master for allowing him to live and work, simply because their past place only allowed the slave to live but not work.
The Jews in America keep their heads down, it is better to be despised for being too successful than to be hated for being lazy, because then we might not be allowed to stay at all. Thus Americans don’t know about us, our past, our path to America, our customs. They mistrust us like a neighbor’s dog, it could be nice, but better not risk it. They mistrust us like a con artist, you know what to expect from a thug who can take your lunch money, but a quiet smart crook can take everything. And that’s how we are seen. The Jewish ability to work hard and smart is not seen as a bonus but a threat. As such, Jewish people are tolerated during the best of times and reviled and feared during the worst of times.
Last month, Vox published an article with a subheading of “Violent anti-Semitism spiked in America during the Israel-Hamas war. And we don’t know why.” Jewish people were naturally angry. “What do you mean you don’t know why, it’s obvious!” But it makes sense, given that even most of my own friends see me as a “religious group” even though they know I’m not religious, it makes sense to a non-Jew to say, why would Israel create antisemitism, why would people attack Jews because of a war in Israel. Those who are not antisemites, who don’t see a connection between Jews and Israel have a hard time understanding the link.
But the antisemitic people who see a connection not only between Jews and Israel but between Jews and money and success and power, who see Jews as people with dual loyalty, who are insulted by the fact that Jews might be proud of who they are and might be more exceptional than they due to being “chosen”. To these people, there is no way to separate the Jews and the stereotypes, these stereotypes are a convenient way to hide antisemitism in a country that wants to appear as one that is different from the antisemitic Europe of the mid-20th century. But if we learned Jewish history, we would know just how antisemitic America was to Jewish people in 1924, in 1944, in the 1970ies, and today.
However, Antisemitism is different in America than racism. I can tell a racist act and most people who are not racist will have disgust and aversion. They will most likely share and condemn that act. With antisemitism, there’s a kind of apathy. I feel that I speak to deaf people when I am telling people that I am a descendant of Holocaust survivors, repression of Soviet, that I could have been killed in a synagogue where I used to go for morning prayers. There’s a kind of belief that as long as some Jews do well, that we are fine, that antisemitism is fine, that it is the realm of the poor and uneducated and nothing to be concerned about. And yet, it is something that rarely gets called out, and when it does, it is done begrudgingly and with half-effort. For instance, Republican new leader Elise Stefanik condemned antisemitism on the left but has yet to condemn the vitriol of Qanon or Marjorie Taylor Greene, the same goes for the GOP. Antisemitism is called out as a way to score points rather than to actually show genuine condemnation of reprehensible thought and behavior.
I’ve already spoken about how to battle that, to show anger as Asian people did, but somehow, I don’t feel like it is enough. There’s a kind of tiredness about it like we ran so far and it wasn’t far enough. It feels a little bit like a lie, that we would leave the Soviet Union for America, a place of freedom and laws, and yet, we learned it isn’t, not always, and not for everyone.
In a battle, one must know their enemy. My enemy is not the American people, but antisemitism, a pernicious lie that I am dangerous to the world. So Why is there antisemitism? Many people have many answers for this. My answer is that it’s the same reason why there is hate anywhere: ignorance leads to fear and fear leads to hate. If we want to make a country with less fear and more love, we’re going to need to educate people about all people who live in America, including the not always visible but often influential Jews. But for that America is going to have to let go of ideas of power and allow everyone to succeed, regardless of their class and race, and clearly, it is not yet ready to do that.