Bob Schwartz

Tag: Jews

Netanyahu Scapegoats the Palestinians for Holocaust

The Jews killed Jesus. The Palestinians started the Holocaust. So who’s the scapegoat now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that in the early days leading up to World War II, Hitler visited the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and it was that Palestinian leader who came up with the idea of the Final Solution:

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’

Historians have already weighed in heavily on how historically bogus this is, given that, among other things, Hitler published Mein Kampf three years before that meeting. The assertion has been described as “jaw-dropping”, with even friendly politicians “agog” at this dark nonsense.

Just when you thought it was the Jews who have for centuries been scurrilously blamed for every terrible thing, Netanyahu goes and turns the tables and scapegoats somebody else. Not just any somebody else. The enemy within and on the borders, the one that you could happily live without.

It appears that the very unpopular Prime Minister is trying to take lessons from Donald Trump, with whom he shares the kinship of attending Wharton. The strategy: Demonize those unwanted immigrants and/or natives. Say anything, no matter how incendiary, explosive, ridiculous or unrelated to fact about the enemies within, and people will love it. And you.

Just one glitch. Trump doesn’t lead a nation at the center of global conflict; actually he doesn’t lead any nation at all. And if America has a history of scapegoating, which it does (take your pick among religious, cultural, political and ethnic groups), it doesn’t compare in long-term viciousness to what the Jews have endured.

Starting, of course, with the big one. In fact, if you look closely at Netanyahu’s indictment, it is not that the Palestinians actually ran the death camps. They just planted the idea, whispering in the ear of an emperor, who was happy to carry out the deed. This time a German emperor, instead of Roman one.

Who’s the scapegoat now?

A Chilly Breeze of Hate, a Hungarian Conductor and the Prospects for American Anti-Semitism

Ivan Fischer
Those of us who grew up Jewish in late 20th century America had a pretty good experience of tolerance, certainly compared to even our parents’ generation. The Holocaust had an immunizing effect, not so much because people saw where such ugly expressions of hatred might lead, but because it was harder to hold those views—at least publicly. There was not an immediate spillover effect, so common prejudices against blacks, women, gays, and other intolerance “classics” continued, while new groups such as Muslims were added all the time. Hate takes no holiday.

The news was not without stories of anti-Semitism. And if we lived in certain parts of the country, we might be more likely to feel like a stranger, and even to hear somebody we liked talk about bargaining as “Jewing” someone down. Oh well, that was ignorance talking, and overall those folks often had a good heart. Maybe the greatest deterrent to taking it too seriously was the Jewish cohort who daily found an anti-Semite around every corner. It wasn’t that there weren’t and aren’t anti-Semites everywhere, including some positions of high profile and power, it’s just that the progress Jews have made in acceptance and mainstreaming made these anomalies. There were other groups still having a much tougher time.

A story from this weekend’s New York Times prodded that complacency, just a little. It comes not from America at all. It is from Hungary. There, anti-Semitism and nationalism are on the rise, to the point where the country’s most celebrated conductor, Ivan Fischer, has written and staged an opera about it. Called The Red Heifer, it is about a 19th century incident in which Jews were blamed for the murder of a peasant girl. But contemporary elements make clear that this is not a story about historical artifacts. The whole world context of the opera is not just Hungary; much of Europe, particularly but not entirely those in the former Soviet empire, are trying to establish new identities in these trying times. That insurgent identity frequently involves a broad menu of nationalistic intolerance. See, for example, the treatment of gays in Russia and the rise of neo-Francoism in Spain. And where there’s a list, Jews are on it. That doesn’t make sense, but not making sense is precisely the hallmark of all this.

It is no secret that certain kinds of intolerance are a little more obviously a part of American life today. There can, for example, be argument about whether the unprecedented disrespect and vitriol for the President is purely political. It isn’t, and most know, or should, that race is near the heart of the hate. Americans too are having hard times that may continue for a while. Even if the current crop of demagogues seems penny-ante compared to “real” American demagogues of the 20th century—the Huey Longs, the Father Coughlins, the Joe McCarthys, the George Wallaces—demagoguery it is. And if we hope and do transcend history, it may be that some things don’t or can’t change: where there’s a list, Jews are on it.

One of the saddest phenomena of recent years is the ultra-ironic sight of a Jewish vigilance about anti-Semitism bizarrely combining with near-paranoid anti-Islamism. E-mails have circulated praising Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, who advocates keeping Muslims out of the Netherlands and out of all (supposedly) white and Western Europe, lest those white and Western values be despoiled, or worse. Why this appeals to some Jews may not be a mystery, but it is moral madness.

And yet. These are stressful times around the world; outside of war, the most stressful in generations. Distrust and fear of “the other” is bred in the human bone. We must work to rise above and to mutate it out. If you have any sense of history—and all of us should study to be amateur historians—you may at certain moments get a little instinct, a buzz, a foreboding that you hope is way off, one that might be as much about you as about the state of things, and thus should be shaken off. On the other hand, there is the cliché: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that somebody isn’t out to get you.

Two truths co-exist in America. Public anti-Semitism has never been at a lower ebb, and will not return to earlier levels. Privately, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans have never met a Jew, and know little about Judaism except the occasional news story or that it is the primitive religious precursor to Christianity. That unknowing is not pernicious, even if it’s not ideal. But seeing what is going on in the rest of the world is a reminder that vacuums can be filled by suspicion, perplexing troubles need someone to blame, and this “other” or that “other” is just too convenient not to accuse.

For American Jews, it is overstatement to call this a chilly breeze. There is not much in the air at the moment. But intolerance is a funny thing. It has a life of its own, and it doesn’t always take the same course. Over-vigilance and paranoia can be counter-constructive and debilitating. This doesn’t mean that closing your eyes works either. What’s happening thousands of miles away is not happening here. But who’s to say who’s next, once the dogs of hate are let loose.

There are never enough occasions to repeat the famous words of Martin Niemöller, the Protestant pastor who was a public foe of Adolf Hitler and who spent years in concentration camps. In a sense it is his translation of Christian (and Buddhist) non-judgmentalism and non-dualism. If you think you are not different but/or are “the right kind” of different, you are mistaken.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yom Kippur: A Serious Day for a Serious Man

A Serious Man
This evening begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last of the ten Days of Awe that starts a new year. The mood is somber. It is the most serious day on the calendar, a day of fasting and reflection, a day to contemplate the actions and inactions of the year past, and to commit to a better year ahead.

Which is why it is a day to recommend a darkly comic movie.

A Serious Man (2009) from Joel and Ethan Coen has never been taken seriously enough (playlist of clips). It was nominated for two major Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but none of the cast members were invited to the festivities until the last week before the event. That is an ironic nod to the movie itself.

Scholars have spent papers—entire careers—explaining why Jews try to be funny and why so many succeed. One of the stock rationales is that Jews are an historically beleaguered people, and the humor is a natural response. Another related thought is that Jewish attempts to make sense of it all have come to nothing, and so absurdity is the only possible answer.

A Serious Man is grounded in those ideas and more. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor in the 1960s. In his academic life, he is up for tenure, a student is trying to bribe him, and even as he lectures on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, there is a sense that he really doesn’t understand uncertainty at all. Things are worse in his personal life, much worse. As his son prepares for bar mitzvah, Larry discovers that his wife is having an affair with his friend, his brother is caught in a gay bar, his dentist espouses weird mystical tooth theories, and there is a question whether Larry may have a serious health problem.

Larry looks for answers in faith, but the mysterious Rabbi Marshak, the older spiritual head of the congregation, is impossible to see. At the bar mitzvah. Larry’s son Danny, who at the start of the movie had his transistor radio taken away at Hebrew School, goes off to see this rabbi. He finds him in an inner sanctum, where Rabbi Marshak explains it all through the Jefferson Airplane and with a powerfully simple piece of advice:

Marshak is an old man staring at him from behind a bare desktop. His look, eyes magnified by thick glasses, is impossible to read.

Danny creeps to the chair facing the desk. He gingerly sits on the squeaking leather upholstery, self-conscious under Marshak’s stare.

Marshak’s slow, regular, phlegmy mouth-breathing is the only sound in the room. The two stare at each other.

Marshak smacks his lips a couple of times, wetting surfaces in preparation for speech.


When the truth is found. To be lies.

He pauses. He clears his throat.

. . . And all the hope. Within you dies.

Another beat. Danny waits. Marshak stares. He smacks his lips again. He thinks.

. . . Then what?

Danny doesn’t answer. It is unclear whether answer is expected. Quiet.

Marshak clears his throat with a loud and thorough hawking. The hawking abates. Marshak sniffs.

. . . Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma. . .somethin.
These are the members of the Airplane.

He nods a couple of times.

. . . Interesting.

He reaches up and slowly opens his desk drawer. He withdraws something. He lays it on the bare desk and pushes it across.

. . . Here.

It is Danny’s radio.

. . . Be a good boy.

The movie closes with a note taken straight from the Book of Job. A tornado approaches. Will it be the voice of God out of the whirlwind? Or will it just be one more inexplicable disaster, one more serious touch of uncertainty?

Who knows? Yom Kippur and every day, listen to Rabbi Marshak: Be a good girl or boy.

Immigration: The Right People and the Wrong People

Pilgrims - Superman - Jews
Today brings another high-profile politician talking about immigration policy that lets “the right people” in (those who will create the next Google) and keeps “the wrong people” out (vaguely defined, but you’ll know them when you see them).

A reminder that except for continental natives, all Americans are immigrants. Even the Mayflower people. Even Superman, an undocumented immigrant who for years was hidden by a seemingly kind and gentle Midwestern couple—of outlaws; why weren’t Ma and Pa Kent ever put in jail?

In the lead up to World War II, America could not find a place for thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler. These were apparently the wrong people, or the right people at the wrong time, or something. Any country is apt to make mistakes; America is no exception. Still, it is ironic that some of the people who were turned away might have started hundreds of Googles, or the 1930s equivalents. As it is, we can only imagine.

We can’t let everybody in, or so we say, but we don’t really talk about why not and what that means. Instead, we have immigrants who are “the wrong people”, but we also have “the right people” to serve particular national or individual interests (see also involuntary immigrants who were cheaper and more versatile than machines).

Not everybody is Superman. Not everybody is a bunch of unwanted people who will become the cliché of founding stock (Pilgrims) or unwanted people who never make it to shore (Jews). Not everybody is an entrepreneur. Not everybody is willing to take the worst jobs that few others want. Immigrants are people, not “right” or “wrong”. We can and should have a conversation without forgetting that.