Jordan Michael Smith | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,744 words)
If someone spits bigotry at you while you’re a kid, you’re unlikely to forget it. You’ll remember it not because it’s traumatic, though it can be. You’ll remember it not even because it’s degrading and excruciating, though it is certainly those things, too. No, you’ll remember it because it instills in you an understanding that people are capable of motiveless evil. That humans can be moved to hate because they are hateful. You aren’t given a reason for why people hate you, because they don’t need a reason. You’re you, through no fault of your own, even if you want desperately to be anyone else. And that’s enough.
I am a Canadian. I was born in Markham, which is a small city about 30 kilometers northeast of Toronto. That distance meant a great deal. Markham was a large town of middle- and working-class families when my newlywed parents moved there, in the late 1970s, with a population that hovered around 60,000. It was pretty mixed demographically, I recall, though containing a white majority. My older sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school, except for one other family who arrived after we did and seemed not to attract much ire; I imagined it was because they were beautiful and popular (we were neither).
We were one of the minority of Canadian Jewish families living outside Toronto or Montreal. More than 71% of all Canadian Jews reside in these two cities, according to Allan Levine’s serviceable but unexceptional new book on the history of Jewish Canada, Seeking the Fabled City. Levine describes a familiar story of an immigrant group gradually gaining acceptance (and some power) in a once-largely white Christian country. For the first half of the 20th century, Jews in Canada were arguably detested to a greater degree than in America. By the 21st century, Canadian Jews felt as safe as Jews anywhere felt safe. Levine quotes a Toronto rabbi as saying, “Living in Toronto, my children don’t know that Jews are a minority.”
I always knew. I knew it when my grade five teacher encouraged me to sing along with the Christmas Carols, mouthing the words about how greatly I loved Christ, the Lord. I wrote an essay about how I hated Christmas because I felt left out — but when the teacher, annoyed, asked me if I actually felt that way, I lacked the courage to affirm that I did.
That was what might be called casual antisemitism, deniable to its practitioners because of its thoughtlessness. It can be distinguished from other varieties of antisemitism, which are less casual and more menacing. Such as the kid — the most popular in my grade, who I badly wanted as a friend — who told me that I looked Jewish because I had a big nose. Such as the kid who used permanent marker to brand the word ‘JEW’ on my sister’s knapsack in giant black lettering. Such as the kid who teased my sister for being Jewish so intensely that my family left Markham when I was in grade eight.
I’d like to look back satisfied at having reacted to these incidents with righteous anger. In the School Ties version of my life, I confront every single kid who hissed antisemitism at me, beating up the boys and browbeating the girls. Maybe I confront their parents — in the pre-internet era, they likely learned their precocious bigotry at home — and beat them up, too. My grandfather beat up his antisemitic childhood tormentor, my father used to tell me proudly. In high school, one of my friends attacked a kid who called him a dirty Jew when they were playing hockey, and my Dad always congratulated my friend, for years after.
But what I remember feeling on those occasions in Markham was not anger but fear. That emotion infused a few crucial years in my adolescence, and it’s one that singularly hinders heroism. Fear cripples action and encourages paralysis. So I reacted to jokes and slurs by laughing along — I actually once brought a yarmulke to class and paraded it around on my head to the amusement of my social betters, like a dancing Russian bear — or by pretending I didn’t mind while I panicked internally.
One of the awful things about oppression is that sometimes you can’t bring yourself to hate your oppressors. You want them to like you too badly.
Experiencing bigotry can instill a morbid curiosity about the perspective of one’s oppressors. At some point, in grade six or seven, I started wondering why my school chums despised my Jewishness. Or, perhaps it wasn’t that intentional; maybe I simply became enthralled with the Holocaust at the same time I faced antisemitism at school.
I fixated on the swastika, the symmetrical right angles hypnotizing me. I drew them on notebooks and spots where my parents wouldn’t see. In a remarkable feat for a 13-year-old, I read William L. Shirer’s mammoth The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as a book on Auschwitz and a biography of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor. I didn’t feel strong emotions reading about the Holocaust, no eruptions of horror or sadness. It was just fascinating to me, the way an unfamiliar animal can seem fascinating. Skinheads, the frightening antisemitic menace at the time, were attractively dangerous. I remember thinking that I’d be a neo-Nazi if I could. They were tough and feared, and I was weak and scared.
Something else was happening to me that became apparent only later on. In his excellent new book on the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, A Specter Haunting Europe, Paul Hanebrink writes about how the Holocaust became the primary moral tale for the contemporary Western world. The unique nature of genocide “made the Holocaust a paradigmatic case of evil, and charged Holocaust memory with implications for the teaching of toleration in a modern multicultural and liberal society,” writes Hanebrink, a historian at Rutgers University. The Holocaust wasn’t just something else to learn about it. It offered clear, imperishable moral lessons that could sustain me. I had evidence, if I needed it, that my Jewishness was innocent, and my persecutors were guilty of … something. And that those distinctions mattered.
The problem was that I lacked internal strength. I had convictions, but they gave me no courage. Even if I was convinced I was undeserving of discriminatory treatment, I was too unsure of the other parts of me to act. And so I didn’t. Not when I sat during recess against the brick walls of the school and two boys turned the corner to toss pennies at me. Not when two other boys directed Hitler salutes at me. Not when one of those kids drew a swastika on his pencil box and the principal happened to see it and ineffectually told him to erase it and walked off. Not even then.
I suppose I did have one conviction — I wanted to be popular. Popular kids seemed to have more fun and get more respect. And so, even while I burned at the Jew-hatred thrown my way, I wanted to be friends with the flamethrowers. The next few years I invested heavily in ingratiating myself with the same kids who heaved pennies and Hitler salutes at me. One of the awful things about oppression is that sometimes you can’t bring yourself to hate your oppressors. You want them to like you too badly.
Hanebrink’s book gestures at this without quite making the connection. A Specter Haunting Europe is about the once-widespread theory that Jews were imposing communism on Europeans as a way to destroy the continent. In our era, conspiracies about Jews normally involve them trying to extinguish the white race, using Zionism to poison humankind, or just running the financial system to their own benefit.
But Hanebrink recalls a time — beginning at the end of World War I, culminating in the Holocaust and surviving into the 1980s — when the primary threat from the Jews was thought to be communist. “Over the course of the twentieth century, the belief that communism was created by a Jewish conspiracy and that Jews were therefore to blame for the crimes committed by communist regimes became a core element of counterrevolutionary, antidemocratic, and racist ideologies in many different countries,” he writes. That belief was crucial to Hitler’s worldview, and to some postwar conservative anti-communists, as well.
Several factors combined to smother the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. The Holocaust’s penetration into mass consciousness offered lessons about where conspiracy theories could ultimately lead. The rise of human rights as an ethical system for understanding the world gained popular appeal. And the demise of the Soviet Union meant the danger posed by communism was pretty obsolete anyway.
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But conspiracies about shadowy communities didn’t disappear alongside the U.S.S.R. Instead, Hanebrink writes persuasively, a fear of political Islam and terrorism assumed the position in the Western imagination once held by Judeo-Bolshevism. “The figure of the Jewish Bolshevik was imagined as a cunning border crosser who brought a dangerous and foreign ideology to a disloyal and discontented minority,” he writes. Jews then, like Muslims today, were seen as hostile to European traditions, preying on innocent whites. When Donald Trump and Ted Cruz advocate patrolling Muslim-majority neighborhoods in the United States to monitor foreigners, or when states introduce a ban on the implementation of “sharia law”, they are repeating lines read by political actors a century earlier who feared Jewish communists.
Hanebrink situates Islamo-panic in the 21st century. Certainly the 9/11 terrorist attacks inaugurated an era of unprecedented mass hysteria about the threat posed by Muslims. But in the United States, that hysteria actually dates to 1979, when Iranian students captured American diplomats and staffers at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held them hostage. That event, coupled with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s verbal assaults on America, inspired hostility toward Muslims that has never abated. As early as 1981, the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said observed that, “In many instances ‘Islam’ has licensed not only patent inaccuracy but also expressions of unrestrained ethnocentrism, cultural and even racial hatred, deep yet paradoxically free-floating hostility.” The rise of political Islam in Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Algeria and elsewhere in the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s provided further impetus for the fears of Americans and Europeans, as did increased immigration to Western countries by people from the Global South.
It was strategic forgetfulness, acting like I remembered less than I did.
A Specter Haunting Europe notes how Jews morphed from being seen as opposed to Christian civilization to being part of it — to being the bulwark of “Judeo-Christian civilization.” A term regularly invoked primarily but not exclusively among conservatives, “Judeo-Christian” meant in the sense of a shared moral or spiritual sensibility is a fairly recent construct. (The earliest known uses of the term were, utterly predictably, antisemitic.) Instead of invoking Jews as The Other, “Judeo-Christian” integrates them into a White West besieged by alien forces. But it still maintains the paranoid mindset in opposition to foreigners, Muslims, atheists, gay people or feminists. The players are different, but the game is the same. (The sharp-witted gay atheist Jewish former Congressman Barney Frank once memorably quipped, “I’ve never met a Judeo-Christian. What do they look like? What kind of card do you send them in December?”)
The ethos of “Judeo-Christianity” is not something strictly imposed on the Jewish community by outsiders; some Jews participate in the creation of the narrative of the Muslim takeover. In the United States, scholar-activists like Daniel Pipes have been instrumental in spreading fear about Muslims, as have Republican magnates-cum-donors like Sheldon Adelson, activists such as David Horowitz, organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and politicians like Joe Lieberman. And Israel has been at the forefront of anti-Islam activism for decades. It is telling that, in Seeking the Fabled City, Allan Levine repeatedly and favorably quotes the Canadian Jewish columnist Barbara Kay, who wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Toronto van attack that it was normal, and in fact commendable, to hope that a Muslim was the perpetrator, because when a Muslim attacks people it is “part of a pattern” that is familiar and legible, but when anyone else does it, it’s just “a random act over which we hadn’t a scintilla of control.” She wrote this even while acknowledging early (and accurate) reports that “sexual grievances” had motivated the killer, who was later reported to be an “incel” inspired by a previous mass murderer who targeted women. That kind of “sexual grievance” is just the product of mental illness, Kay asserted at the time — the work of someone with “addled perceptions”; only if a Muslim had perpetrated the attack would it have been the result of “radicalization” because “jihadists are not insane.” Kay also persistently inflates the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalism and its attendant symbols, like women’s face covering, portraying a fringe practice that should be easily tolerated in a democracy as some kind of existential threat to the body politic. But Levine cites her as “bright and insightful … possess[ing] a sharp and witty sense of humour … she continues to write about the important issues that matter to her with award-winning and always readable columns, while also being the best grandmother she can be.” Segments of the Canadian Jewish community are as hostile to Muslims as their American counterparts are, and Levine thinks they are just good bubbes.
These Jews are part of a community that was — and still is — the target of conspiracy theories alleging their nefariousness. Now they are indulging in their own parallel prejudices. This fact says nothing about Jews or Judaism. But it says something about human beings. About the ease with which victims become victimizers, and the oppressed become oppressors. About my desire to be among my tormentors rather than their mark.
That ambition actually led me to befriend the guys — and they were all guys — who had leveled slurs and coins at me. In grade eight, my final year in Markham, I made a point of ingratiating myself with them. It wasn’t that I forgave them. More that I pretended to forget what they had said and done. It was strategic forgetfulness, acting like I remembered less than I did. It was more convenient that way, for them and me. We all became pals, watching The X-Files, smoking cigarettes and chasing girls together. I never expressed discomfort with their antisemitism, let alone disapproval.
But geography, like time, can change an adolescent’s thinking. When my family emigrated to the predominantly Jewish suburb of Thornhill, it was just a 25-minute drive from Markham but seemed a world apart. After being one of two Jewish families in town, I became one of the few Jews to have spent time in a non-Jewish neighborhood. My status made me more aware of my Judaism, not less. Here it was cool to be Jewish and un-cool to be anything else. Slurs about Jews were out. Jokes about goys were in. My ethnic pride ballooned, and my confidence likewise did as I aged. But for years I continued to have nightmares about my former friends, the only recurring nightmares I’ve ever had.
And yet, with about 25 years’ hindsight since all this went down, what’s striking is how little all of it has affected me. At least consciously, I never thought much about the pennies and the Hitler salutes. Nightmares aside, I never agonized over facing antisemitism, or even got angry about it. I simply filed it away as something else that happened in my childhood, alongside the time someone stole a porn magazine I’d hidden in a tree and the night my friend and I stayed up late to watch as many Friday the 13th installments as we could. I have this weird ability to analyze the events clinically, devoid of emotion, let alone trauma. If I wasn’t over-sensitive about endless other things in my life, I’d be worried about this detachment.
While thinking about writing this piece, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in decades. When I was in grade two or three, my friend and I leveled a slur at a kid of South Asian descent. I said something terrible to him, using a word whose meaning I didn’t even know — my friend had used the term, and I joined in, wanting as always to be part of a good crowd (an impulse that can make adults into fascists). A teacher explained to me that we had done wrong and made us apologize. A few years later, the kid we bullied and I became friends, too. I wonder if he forgave me, or just strategically forgot about what I’d done. Sometimes kids have to do a lot of forgetting. Sometimes they don’t forget at all.
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Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single, Humanity. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and many other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky