Is American Pop Culture Anti-Semitic?
I’ve heard about it at two Passovers now, both the one at home in L.A. and the night up in San Francisco with some Israeli friends, the fog playing Elijah as it floated in wisps all around us, a constant yet absent presence. Somehow or another the topic of Mel Gibson arrives. Deep breaths are taken before there are exchanges of individual feelings on the matter. “He was incredible in Braveheart, but we didn’t know then that he was an anti-Semite.” But there are so many belligerent people that talk about us. Ben-Dror Yemini said a phrase for it that struck me like lightning. “Talking about Jews is sexy.” Yemini was referencing Israel and the international media, but I think that the phrase holds true in other situations. Whether to scorn us or to praise us, somebody’s always running their mouth about “Jews.”
In that same philosophy class that I now have with Leah Lau we were asked to name familiar racial slurs. The first comment that everyone from different parts of the country was familiar with: “don’t be such a Jew.” It was agreed upon by thirty plus nodding heads that the meaning of this phrase was “stop being an idiot/cheap/a buffoon.”
Even so, I’ve never felt endangered or publicly humiliated because of being a Jew. Could I still dare say that anti-Semitism is hip and happening in California?
I didn’t think so, until I saw crystal studded swastika jewelry.
This past week of Passover I went shopping with a visiting Israeli friend, a beautiful woman named Tal. I took her to my favorite mom-and-pop imported jewelry and clothing boutique. I was pointing out to her a row of earrings when I saw it twinkling in the middle, the pair of bejeweled swastika earrings. Gold chains dangling down from each of the symbol’s ends. I didn’t know what to say. We quietly moseyed out the door. Then later in the week I went with Tal to go eat breakfast. On the way I asked if she wanted to drop by Temple Emanu-el.
It’s gorgeous right? I figured it would be a chill place to show a visitor. But when we tried there were two guards and a towering fence in our way. The uniformed guards were very polite and accommodating. They let us look through the frame of the metal detector. But we couldn’t step beyond it to see the courtyard or the beautiful domed building.
It shocked me to have a a place of worship closed and guarded. Even the Kotel is open late into the night. But here nonmembers are not allowed inside unless it’s a service. I guess it’s because the temple has been defaced before on Passover. When we walked away I was still groping for the words to help my Israeli friend feel safe here. What could I say to her? Is this the best that Jews in America can hope for, recreational racism, paraphernalia and graffiti, mild assimilation, and the lingering traces of negative stigmas? Every once in a while the populace reminds us that we supposedly don’t belong.
In my case my family was told that quite literally, in safe-as-a-lollipop suburban Orange County.
In high school my brother was elected co-captain of the Wrestling team after 3 consecutive years of dedication and active involvement. We still don’t know who did it, a teammate with a wounded ego, a random student, it could have been anyone. That someone, whoever he or they are, broke into the school one night soon after the results were announced. They spray painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs across a classroom wall. And then they poured pure bleach across all of the wrestling mats, coating the thick, padded surfaces. The whole wrestling team would wash the mats for hours, scrubbing to try and clean their equipment. But when the team finally attempted to use the mats for wrestling practice their efforts proved to be insufficient. My brother had bleach burns all over his body for two weeks. The chemicals sizzled on the skin of the entire team.
When my parents told me what had happened my whole body shook with anger. It probably looked less intimidating than the energizer bunny but let me tell you, I was capable of some very unGandhi-like behavior at that moment. I kept thinking, over and over again like a skipping record, that if only the adolescent terrorist had the guts to face us, fight my brother fair and square, I could live with that kind of fear. But it drove me crazy not knowing if the person who sat next to me in class had put dangerous chemicals in my brother’s body, reached out and harmed him without even the chance of self-defense. Then I burst into tears. Because, what could I do? I couldn’t walk around punching every kid in school until my fist fit the face of whoever had attacked my brother. No, the only option that I had was to go with my brother to clean the mats again. Hope that it wouldn’t happen again.
If anti-Semitism is not part of American popular culture then how can it be so prevalent here in California, the liberal state home to Hollywood and original housewives and the leftist intellectuals crowding San Francisco cafes? The Anti-Defamation League identified 29 physical assaults on Jewish individuals, 760 incidents of anti-Semitic harassment and threats, and 422 cases of anti-Semitic vandalism during the 2009 calendar year, all of which happened here, in the United States of America. What can American Jews do to fight this racism today, when it seems so passé? Us upper middle class with liberal arts under the belt could almost believe the myth that racism has been made sterile, that it is only a vice of past generations. But we can’t believe that because well, we’re Jews. We know better. And we never forget. For thousands of years we’ve told the stories around the dinner table, wine glass half full, talking about how they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
(it also sounds catchy in song form. A youtube gem.)
In Passover, every year, when we aren’t talking about movies and politics we tell the story of our journey from slavery to freedom. But if “the land of the free” still retains prejudices against us, what then?