The Conspiracy

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.)

JEWMONGOUS – They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)

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?

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2 Older Responses to “Is American Pop Culture Anti-Semitic?”

  1. pheldermaus
    April 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    @ Leigh

    I enjoyed your well written post. Thank you.

    I cant argue with your perception or emotion. I can only offer my own point of view to start a discussion.

    I encountered some swastika themed jewelry here (i live in western US) and after some research I realized it was inspired by hindu/south asian symbols, rather than nazi influence. I dont know what you saw and if that was the same case but this is something to think about.

    I think we ALL sin to the PC g-d sometimes. it happens especially when we feel comfortable and safe with the people around us as there is (in my opinion) a different way we talk in public and in private. Now I dont know if ‘jewish’ comments today have to do with hate for the jews or it is an unfortunate piece of lingo that was never rooted out. We always need to ask – what is the context, and who said it? a stupid remark (even well rooted one) does not necessarily point to actual hatred and bias. the fact that so many of your peers mentioned that experience actually strengthen my theory.

    The last piece – the synagogue security – is a bit of an irony. you see, after 9/11 the federal gvnmt gave VERY kind grants to religious and cultural institutions for security. I can tell you from first hand experience that Jewish institutions – even those who NEVER experienced any threat – beefed up their security and took advantage of this ‘free’ money (that covers actual police and technology).

    my assertion (that earned me the title ‘anti-semite’ by one of the NV writers) is that there is MORE antisemitism in Israel (by Jews against Jews and against arabs) than in the US. dont buy it? try this:
    example from the last week:
    or this:

    again thank you for this post.

  2. Rachel Schiff
    May 3, 2011 at 9:28 pm #


    I deeply respect your interest in the topic of Anti-Semitism and Popular Culture. I am a Masters student in American Studies, emphasizing in Jewish culture and religion, at California State University, Fullerton. I was also president of CSUF Hillel and worked for Hillel of Orange County. In my youth I was victimized like your brother, which became the very core of my passion as a Jewish American.

    As I read your article, I felt this was a broad scope and sequence you presented to your readers. I, like you, usually feel that way. However, in modern context, popular culture’s tolerance for singling out minorities is on the decline. Yes, Mel Gibson is clearly not an advocate for peaceful dialogue, but he has not been received well since his anti-Semitic outbursts.

    “Don’t be such a Jew” is a very old term, harvested by authors such as Charles Dickens. I would be more concerned with the perversion of the term “gay” and how it is used in social context.

    In your reference to the Kotel versus Temple Emmanuel, which I am very familiar with both, you must look at the geography and social climate surrounding these locations. I agree, any need for protection is saddening, but again this is not new. In addition, the Kotel is heavily protected and you must go through metal detectors and a search from the Israeli Defense Force before entering. Temple Emmanuel’s security policy is not nearly as invasive. Anaheim California used to be coined “Klan-a-heim”, due to its vocal hate groups. Although they still exist, they are less prevalent. (Thank G-d)

    Your citing of the ADL was profound. These numbers still terrify me every day as I march through Orange County publishing Jewish articles and conducting research. Your call for awareness strikes a chord in our community, I am sure. But, there is good news. The American population, by large, is improving thanks to activists like the ADL and yourself.

    I encourage you to continue with your passion and address these issues in a myriad of ways. I, for one, am always for a positive, educated, civil, and harmonious call for action. You have the community’s attention! If you feel that there needs to be a response to the anti-Semitism, what are the steps that the Jewish American public need to take?

    It seems fitting to end this response in a prayer, so here it goes. May our concerns as Jews not be a concern to just those of the Jewish faith, but for all of humanity. And may someday our children look at the word “Anti-Semitism” in their old age and have to look it up in a dictionary that is terribly outdated.

    Shalom and a late Chag Sameach! Respectfully,
    Rachel Schiff

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