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Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 3
This will be the last post in this series, though I plan to be writ­ing a lot more about anti­semitism in the future. In case you haven’t seen the pre­vi­ous two posts (Part 1, Part 2), this is what I wrote about why I decid­ed to write them: I don’t know about you—and here I’m address­ing myself to my Jew­ish readers—antisemitism has always been a part of my life. We need to tell these sto­ries from our lives, and tell them and insist that they be tak­en seri­ous­ly, not sim­ply as expres­sions of an unfor­tu­nate and per­haps resid­ual hatred, left over from “a time before” when peo­ple were not as enlight­ened about Jews as they are now—a not uncom­mon atti­tude I have encountered—and not as what we ought (sad­ly and resigned­ly) to expect giv­en how Israel behaves in the world, espe­cial­ly towards the Pales­tini­ans; but as the sys­temic form of hatred and oppres­sion that it is, woven no less ineluctably into the sec­u­lar Chris­t­ian cul­ture of the Unit­ed States than racism and Islam­o­pho­bia.


Twelfth Grade

In twelfth grade—I had switched from yeshi­va back to pub­lic school—we were dis­cussing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mis­tress” in my Eng­lish class. The teacher asked if any­one knew the bib­li­cal ref­er­ence in the poem’s clos­ing lines: “Thus, though we can­not make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” I raised my hand and said it referred to Joshua mak­ing the sun stand still at the bat­tle of Gibeon. “You should be ashamed of your­selves!” he scold­ed the rest of the class. “This boy who doesn’t even go to church knows the bible bet­ter than you. The Bat­tle of Gibeon was in the read­ing this past Sun­day!”

That same year, one of the girls in my class invit­ed me to her house for din­ner. It was a big deal for me, since I didn’t have many friends, and it didn’t hurt that she was cute. As we sat around the table after the meal, I don’t remem­ber why, but the sub­ject of the Holo­caust came up. Joan’s father said some­thing to the effect that, well, maybe a cou­ple of thou­sand Jews at most had been killed in the con­cen­tra­tion camps, but the idea that 6 mil­lion had died was just pre­pos­ter­ous. More­over, he said, the fact that so much of the world believed it was 6 mil­lion was the result of some very good pro­pa­gan­diz­ing on the part of the Jews in gen­er­al and the State of Israel in par­tic­u­lar. He said this in the most friend­ly of ways, as an adult try­ing to edu­cate a mis­in­formed young­ster. Joan argued with him, which I wish I had appre­ci­at­ed more at the time, since so few of my peers had ever stood up for me in sit­u­a­tions like this, but I sat there more or less silent, feel­ing like I was being punched in the stom­ach over and over again. I had heard about Holo­caust deniers, but I had nev­er actu­al­ly met one in the flesh. I don’t remem­ber what hap­pened after that din­ner, but I do know that Joan and I nev­er became the friends it had seemed we were on the verge of becom­ing.


As should be obvi­ous from the last three exam­ples, phys­i­cal safe­ty was not my only wor­ry, nor was it the only way my body was at stake in the anti­semitism that per­vad­ed so much of my child­hood. Once I start­ed to grow, espe­cial­ly once I hit puber­ty, the kids in my neigh­bor­hood latched on to the fact that I had “a Jew­ish nose,” and they teased me about it mer­ci­less­ly, some­times to the point where I would run home in tears and refuse to show my face out­side for the rest of the day. Nei­ther they, nor I had any way of know­ing at the time that “the Jew­ish nose” is an anti­se­mit­ic trope with a long his­to­ry. As Beth Pre­minger points out in “The ‘Jew­ish Nose’ and Plas­tic Surgery: Ori­gins and Impli­ca­tions,” the promi­nent anthro­pol­o­gist Robert Knox described the Jew­ish nose in 1850 as “large, mas­sive, club-shaped, hooked [and] and three or four times larg­er than suits the face…. Thus it is that the Jew­ish face [is nev­er and can nev­er be] per­fect­ly beau­ti­ful.”  This lack of beau­ty, Sander Gilman argues In The Jew’s Body, was under­stood “not mere­ly [as] a mat­ter of aes­thet­ics but [as] a clear sign of pathol­o­gy, of dis­ease [and] syphilis [was the dis­ease under­stood to be respon­si­ble for] the form of [the Jew­ish nose]” (173).

The Nazis, of course, also made use of the Jew­ish nose as an iden­ti­fy­ing fea­ture of the Jew. Here, for exam­ple, is “Lit­tle Karl” from How To Tell A Jew, a sto­ry in Der Gift­pilz, an anti­se­mit­ic children’s book pub­lished by Julius Stre­ich­er, the pub­lish­er of Der Stürmer:

One can most eas­i­ly tell a Jew by his nose. The Jew­ish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the num­ber six. We call it the Jew­ish six. Many non-Jews also have bent noses. But their noses bend upwards, not down­wards. Such a nose is a hook nose or an eagle nose. It is not at all like a Jew­ish nose.

Look at any anti­se­mit­ic car­i­ca­ture of the Jew from the 19th cen­tu­ry until today, and the the Jew­ish nose will fig­ure quite promi­nent­ly. You can find these car­i­ca­tures in today’s neo-Nazi pub­li­ca­tions, in anti-Israel car­toons through­out the Arab world, in France in the 1890s and even as recent­ly as 1996, in plas­tic surgery man­u­als that, accord­ing to Pre­minger, con­tin­ued to por­tray the Jew­ish nose as a defor­mi­ty.

As I said above, nei­ther I nor the kids who teased me so cru­el­ly could pos­si­bly have known at the time that they were con­tin­u­ing a long tra­di­tion of see­ing the Jews’ body as deformed and dis­eased, but the effect of their teas­ing was, nonethe­less, to make me see my body in pre­cise­ly that way, and so I grew up with an image of myself as hor­ri­bly ugly. Even when I entered the yeshi­va in eighth grade, despite the great relief it was to spend my day with oth­er Jews, to whom my nose–not to men­tion every­thing else that was Jew­ish about me–was no more remark­able than the fact that I had two hands, it was hard to shake the feel­ing that I was some­how phys­i­cal­ly defi­cient because I was Jew­ish.


In 2004, when I first wrote the posts in which I told these sto­ries, I also wrote this, which I have edit­ed slight­ly:

If I were to con­tin­ue this account­ing of anti­semitism in my life and tell you about things that hap­pened to me in col­lege, in the work­ing world, in my career as a col­lege pro­fes­sor, and in my mar­riage to an Iran­ian Mus­lim woman, the exam­ples would, in gen­er­al, grow less and less fre­quent, more and more sub­tle and the overt vio­lence or threat of vio­lence would com­plete­ly dis­ap­pear. With the excep­tion of hav­ing been advised when I was a teenag­er not to both­er apply­ing for a job at the coun­try club near my home, since it was well-known that they did not hire Jews, I have nev­er been denied a job because I am Jew­ish; I have nev­er had a hard time get­ting a loan, rent­ing or buy­ing an apart­ment, or in any of the oth­er aspects of life that are made dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble for peo­ple who are struc­tural­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed against in this coun­try. (And, I should add, this does not mean there aren’t oth­er Jews in the Unit­ed States who have had those expe­ri­ences.)

I am no longer afraid when I walk down the street that some­one, because of who I am, will decide to call me out in some way or attack me outright—though it’s also impor­tant to acknowl­edge that I live in New York City, prob­a­bly one of the safest places to be Jew­ish in the US, and that there are places in this coun­try where it would be fool­ish of me not to feel that fear at least a lit­tle bit. I live, in oth­er words, a rel­a­tive­ly com­fort­able like—though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that every sin­gle one of the sto­ries I told above took place in a town on Long Island just over the bor­der divid­ing Queens from Nas­sau Coun­ty; for all intents and pur­pos­es, in oth­er words, in New York City.

So, on the one hand, anti­semitism was a cen­tral expe­ri­ence of my grow­ing up a Jew in the Unit­ed States; on the oth­er hand, as I have grown old­er, it has reced­ed in promi­nence, par­tial­ly because of where I live and par­tial­ly because its struc­tur­al man­i­fes­ta­tions have been almost, if not entire­ly, eliminated–to the point where I can some­times pre­tend it does not exist.

Until now. Whether or not Don­ald Trump is him­self an anti­semite is irrel­e­vant, though I think his over­all silence on the anti­semitism that has emerged since his elec­tion has, de fac­to, earned him the title. The fact is that anti­semites in many parts of this coun­try were embold­ened by his cam­paign and have been even more so since he was sworn in as pres­i­dent. So I do not want to make this about Trump him­self, or the rel­a­tive silence on this issue of his Jew­ish son-in-law, or even about Steve Ban­non. Some­thing is hap­pen­ing and it is not new, and I’m not refer­ring to the echoes of 1930s Ger­many that so many peo­ple are hear­ing, and which we need, all of us, not just Jews, to pay atten­tion to. I’m refer­ring to what hap­pened to me in the 1970s, not even fifty years ago. I know I am not the only Jew­ish Amer­i­can of my gen­er­a­tion or younger who has had these expe­ri­ences. We need to start telling our sto­ries.

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