Tag : anti-semitism

October 23, 2020 by

Did Alzheimer’s Turn My Husband Into An anti-Semite?

Plenty of Jews who “marry out” ask their new partners to convert. I wasn’t one of them. Yet I’m deep-in-the-bone and dyed-in-the-wool Jewish. My parents were card carrying Zionists from the Midwest who’d met at Habonim, a Zionist youth group. My father dropped out of the University of Michigan in 1949 to go to the newly formed state of Israel.

“Israel?” said his mother, clearly not keen on the idea. “What’s in Israel? Sand, s—- and flies.”

My mother disagreed. Barely 17, and as starry-eyed with the dream as he was, she followed him there. They lived first in a kibbutz and later on a moshav; my brother was born in the first and I in the second, making me a sabra, with a Hebrew name and Israeli birth certificate. My parents left Israel when I was a year old, but the country loomed large, almost mythical, throughout my childhood, even though I didn’t return until I was 18. When I did, it felt like a homecoming.

But when I fell in love with my husband, it was his very non-Jewishness that made my Jewish girl’s heart flutter. Born and raised in Portsmouth, NH, he was a Yankee through and through, part of a big, extended Catholic family, most of them
still in the area.

The first Christmas we knew each other, he brought me to his boyhood home, a charming white house. He raved about how the backyard had been filled with lilacs in the spring; I could almost imagine their scent. We passed his Nana’s house on State Street, where he’d stop by; together, they did the Jumble in the newspaper while he ate a generous slice of the incomparable apple pie she’d baked. Then there was the Whipple Elementary School, the pond where he’d learned to skate, his father’s sporting goods store on Market Street, where it had been his job to string the tennis racquets and dust the stacked boxes of model airplanes. Molson’s, the drugstore/ luncheonette, was gone, but he wished I’d been able to taste the ice cream Mr. Molson churned in the basement—vanilla, chocolate, peach, and his favorite, coffee.

We drove along the coastline—all 18 miles of it—and he introduced me to his cousin Bobby, who had a lobstering business. As a teenager, he’d worked for Bobby during the summers, and in the years before sunscreen was as much a requisite as toothpaste, he told me his skin burnt as red as those poor lobsters when thrown into pots of boiling water. Further up the coast was where his family would rent a cottage for a few weeks in August; he and his siblings dug for clams along the shore and his mother cooked them in a pot right on the beach. A few years later, as a budding artist, he went there on his own, setting up shop on the boardwalk and drawing portraits of passers-by. We visited the cemetery where his relatives were laid to rest: grandparents, uncles and aunts—most memorably to me the one called Elspeth.

I came back from that visit in love with Portsmouth—and with him. His New England upbringing seemed to have been lifted straight from a Norman Rockwell illustration. Its wholesomeness and its divergence from my own spoke to me. I didn’t need or even want him to be Jewish—I wanted him to be just who and what he was.

The attraction of opposites was reciprocal. If there had been any Jews during the years he lived in Portsmouth, they must have stayed on the sidelines, for he didn’t know them. So, to him, I was an exotic creature—dark-haired, fast-talking, hands
always moving. If his R.P.M. was 16, mine was 78—on a slow day. He loved the Yiddish words I tossed lightly in his direction—gatkes was a particular favorite—and the world they conjured. He could listen to my grandmother’s endless (and endlessly
repeated) stories about the “old country” with true and rapt interest; basking in his attention, she dubbed him “a prince.”

We each fell in love with the way the other was not like us—vive la difference. And it was those differences that carried us happily through our life together. When we married, it was—by mutual agreement—in a civil ceremony, but we celebrated
Pesach and Rosh Hashana with my mother. When our son was born, it was he who urged the bris rather than the purely medical circumcision offered by the obstetrician. I took to his holidays, Easter and most especially Christmas, which I celebrated with all the suppressed longing that only a Jewish girl can have.

We raised our children with a sense of respect for each of our backgrounds; for them, there was no sense of “other” but a strong sense of “both.” I occasionally experienced flack from other Jews who criticized my decision to intermarry, and
especially for not giving our children a more tangible Jewish education. I brushed them off. We were happy. Case closed.

And then, in his seventies, my husband received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, a development that changed his life—and mine. As a spouse-turned-caretaker, I struggled with my new role, trying to frame it within the positive. He still knew me, and he still knew the kids. He was still moved—transported even—by the kind of art
he’d always loved. He still took photographs, his life’s work, although he no longer used the Leica that had practically been another limb, or spent hours in the darkroom developing them. He still loved coffee ice cream.

Between my reading and my discussion with his doctors, I knew what to expect: the repetition, the disorientation, the agitation, the sun-downing. I steeled myself against his occasional outbursts, the paranoia and delusions—I was having an affair with the contractor who redid our kitchen, I had tried to poison him, I was stealing his money, I was planning to leave him.

None of this was even remotely true, but reason didn’t have any purchase against the erosion taking place in his mind. I found I could either try to distract him—a phone call to one of our children might help—or wait it out. The moods always
passed, as did his memory of them. “I said that?” he’d ask incredulously. “I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry.”

But then there was a night on which, in the middle of such an episode, he uttered these words: “You know what the problem is? It’s that you’re a Jew and Jews are a vile people—you’re from a vile race.”

It was the most shocking thing I’d ever heard him say, and for a moment, it seemed to upend everything I thought I knew about him. About us. It was also, in a strange, dark way, kind of…funny. After all, it was a little late to be bringing it up now; the Jewish card had been played early on—from the beginning, in fact.

He went on in this vein for a while and then something in his mood turned; his anger lifted, forgotten. But I couldn’t forget. The other insults, the accusations had been easier to disregard. These words were insidious, heat-seeking missiles aimed right at my heart. What if on some inchoate level, he’d always felt this way? Wasn’t that the old warning? He says he loves you now, but the first time you have a fight, it’ll be dirty Jew. That won’t be us, I had smugly thought. Well, now it seemed that it was.

And that wasn’t the last of it either. On several other occasions, he’d start in on those same accusations, using the same or similar language. Of course I knew that though it was his voice I was hearing, those weren’t his words. They were lines from
a script deeply embedded in our culture and written by the disease, the one that had taken up residence in his brain and was inexorably reshaping it.

But knowing that didn’t entirely diminish their power to wound. Instead, they dredged up every anti-Semitic taunt I’d ever heard: Christ-killer, big nosed, greasy, greedy, money-loving, money-grubbing. Their venom made me question my faith in who we’d been together, and the life we’d made. What if I’d been wrong about all of it, and that there was—and always had been—some deep and yawning chasm between us? What if, as Tom Lehrer had sung back in the 1960’s, “…the Catholics hate the Protestants/the Protestants hate the Catholics/the Hindus hate the Muslims/and everyone hates the Jews”?

Then, for reasons not readily understood, the attacks—at least the anti-Semitic ones—stopped. At the recommendation of his neurologist, his medication was increased, and his moods became less volatile. I learned to see some of the triggers—a touch of impatience in my voice, for instance—and to control them.

We are, for the moment, on safe ground. Or safe enough. He can still laugh at a Yiddish phrase; I’m still the Queen of Christmas. But as has been made clear to me, this disease has only one direction, and that direction is down. I can only hope I’m strong and resilient enough to be remain the loving wife I’ve always tried to be, and the loving caretaker I’ve had to become. Part of that will mean stopping my own ears to the hateful words that can threaten to undo it all.


Yona Zeldis McDonough’s most recent novel is Not Our Kind,
written under the pen name Kitty Zeldis. She’s been Lilith’s
Fiction Editor since 2000.

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May 21, 2019 by

Mel Gibson’s ‘Rothchild’ Film Ditches the ‘S’ But Keeps the Anti-Semitism

As the endless reboots, remakes, and superhero movies show, no Hollywood exec is seriously asking if we need another movie about a given topic. Movies aren’t about need. They are about want. Desire. Wish fulfillment and fantasy. Movies are where we go to imagine other worlds, and be transported from ours.

So what does it say about our world that Hollywood has greenlit a major film that uses an almost identical name to Rothschild, a name almost synonymous with anti-Semitic tropes? Whose subject is a wealthy and corrupt family who will stop at nothing in pursuit of the almighty dollar? What does it say that the film stars one of the most notoriously anti-Semitic actors of our time—you know, who I mean? If you’re not aware, google Mel Gibson and his vile comments.

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October 29, 2018 by

Carrying the Torah for Those We Lost in Pittsburgh

Scroll_2_(PSF)On Saturday, as I was sitting in synagogue during Shabbat services, someone began locking the doors of our shul. The shootings had just happened in Pittsburgh, and there was reason to fear that it could happen anywhere.

I have had mixed feelings about my relationship to Judaism and my specific relationship to worship, but Saturday’s events strengthened my resolve. As I heard the news of the eleven people who lost their lives, I thought about those people worshipping as I was before being gunned down.

Beyond the communal and cultural aspects of being Jewish, which I have always been proud of, I have been thinking about the meaning of Jews reading Torah—for the eleven that died, for Jews around the world on that same Saturday morning, and for me and my fellow Jews in a small synagogue outside of Washington, DC.

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October 29, 2018 by

To My Friend, Whose Celebration Was the Day of a Massacre

We were at the mikveh on Friday, nine of us, seven celebrants and two attendants who witnessed our joy as you marked your birthday and a moment of pause in your high profile, high impact job. It was a soul-filled morning, saturated with reflections on some relationships that spanned decades, and some that were bright and new but still profound. 

You had never been to the mikveh, the ritual bath that cleanses and prepares Jews for many roles – that of sexual preparedness and procreation, that of convert, that of celebrant. Preparing for immersion strips you down to your barest place, with not a spot that can come between you and the waters. The waters which are rain waters, waters that have been a part of this earth for millennia, touching your skin, soothing your heart, marking your passage.

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October 3, 2018 by

I Say, “I’m Jewish.”

We Ate Wonder Bread

Hollander, beloved creator of the “Sylvia” cartoon strip, tells her own story in this new book (above). Her irony-laden, cigarette-smoking Sylvia is replaced here with autobiographical vignettes and pungent images from the cartoonist’s Jewish girlhood in Chicago.

Nicole Hollander

I remember going to the corner store for Wonder Bread. We were always admonished by our mothers not to squeeze the bread. If you squeezed it, it became a tiny wad and could not be used to make sandwiches or anything but spitballs.

A boy I recognize vaguely from school stands very close to me and hisses: “You killed Jesus.” I was of course frightened of him, his size and intensity, but I had been raised by an atheist and felt no guilt about something I didn’t think existed, like God. I was too young to say: “Really, the Jews killed Jesus, all of us? Did you ever see us in a room together trying to agree on anything?”

My experience of anti-Semitism was very limited as a child. We lived in a mainly Italian neighborhood, but the building we lived in was completely Jewish.

But I did hear slurs at neighborhood parties. I was a kid. I looked like all the other dark-haired kids and occasionally someone in the group would say someone “jewed” him down. “Jews have all the money, there are no poor Jews, Jews stick together.” I could feel the remark coming. I was on the alert. Here is a group of people who are among their own kind. Why should they be careful about what they say? Suddenly the remark is made and I feel the spotlight on me. I am frozen and yet highly alert, my mind is working at top speed.

The idea that I might let the remark pass is certainly tempting, but not an option. I have a duty to all those Jews who died in the camps.

I say: “I’m Jewish.” There is a terrible silence. These are nice

people. I know them all. They are ashamed. They apologize. They say they didn’t know. They didn’t mean it.

I feel the urge to reassure them that I will forgive them and that I am not permanently injured.

The moment passes, everyone starts laughing and talking again, but I could ruin it all in a minute.

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September 12, 2018 by

Anti-Semitism Among the WASP Elite

The idea for my novel Not Our Kind was born at Vassar College, where I was a student in the 1970s, where there was enough visible diversity to make a Jewish girl feel she was not alone. I encountered plenty of Jews, both students and faculty. Yet while I didn’t experience much overt anti-Semitism, I felt keenly aware that Vassar had historically excluded people like me—I was the “not our kindof my eventual novel’s title. 

I could feel it in the manners, the mores, the very air around me. Vassar was a WASP institution and bastion, and I knew I didn’t entirely belong. In fact, it was at Vassar that I acquired the nickname that became my pen name. I had commented to a friend that my Hebrew first name and Polish surname felt all wrong and that I should have been called Katherine Anne Worthington; he jokingly responded by calling me Kitty. It’s a name that stuck. 

The anti-Semitism at Vassar was occasionally overt—y648my freshman roommate casually noted, “Well, your people did murder our Lord,” a remark for which I then had no ready reply. But it was the more passive, almost nonchalant anti-Semitism that stung most. I remember an English lit class in which we’d been reading Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and I said that I found the stereotypical characterizations of Jews in their poetry—greedy, money-grubbing, hook nosed and so forth— upsetting. A fellow student raised his hand and said, “Oh, well, that’s what everyone was like back then,” as if that should have cancelled out my discomfort, and made it, somehow, all right. And then there was the memorable evening that I went to hear a lecture on 18th century Rococo painting that was to be given by a well-regarded scholar visiting from Germany. Before he came to the lectern, someone from the Art History department read a short bio by way of introduction. I don’t know what I expected to hear, but it surely wasn’t that during World War II, this man had been a high ranking official—a commander, a general, I don’t recall which—in the military.  A Nazi, in other words, though the word was not actually said.

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April 12, 2018 by

Jewish Lesbian Feminist Goes Undercover to Report on the Alt-Right

When award-winning journalist Donna Minkowitz attended a conference sponsored by the innocuously-named American Renaissance organization last summer, she knew she would be rubbing elbows with leaders of the alt-right.

Minkowitz, a self-described “secular, Jewish, lesbian feminist and leftist,” told Eleanor J. Bader about covering the event for Political Research Associates, an independently-funded social justice think tank based in Somerville, Massachusetts. She also spoke about her earlier interactions with conservative organizations.

Eleanor J. Bader: You began reporting on the right-wing back in the 1990s. How and why did you get started on this beat?

Donna Minkowitz: I was the Village Voice’s reporter on LGBT issues, and when the anti-gay Christian right started to become active again in the 1990s, I found myself becoming increasingly terrified… I decided to cover it for Out Magazine. I was in my late 20s at the time and went completely undercover—I wore conservative, feminine dresses and a very femme-y wig. It was a really intense few days.

EJB: Did this year’s AmRen conference have a particular theme?

DM: The main message was that white people are smarter and better than everyone else and if only these “inferior” people of color were not around to drag them down, they could achieve the great things they imagine. AmRen says it welcomes Jews, but anti-Semitism was at the conference—it was hiding in plain sight. Eli Mosley, the head of the virulently anti-Semitic Identity Evropa, was at the conference and he and other attendees continually tweeted anti-Semitic messages; there were also loads of anti-Semitic books for sale, including The Turner Diaries, which advocates Jewish extermination…

EJB: Were you surprised by anything that you saw or heard?

DM: I was pretty stunned by how Handmaid’s Tale-ish their plans for women in the “white ethnostate” were.

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July 2, 2014 by

Can a Non-Jewish Spouse “Step Away” From Jewish Fears?

 << I’m lucky that I could step away from it if I wanted to. It’s no secret that Jews are still subject to racial prejudices and abuse – something that will never be directed at me – only to the people I love.>>

  “Mummy…MUMMY…I’m Jewish!”  My four-year-old daughter has just returned from nursery and is prancing around the kitchen looking for something to do, expertly avoiding her younger brother, who is trying to get her to ‘read’ him a story.

  “Yes darling. You are.”

  “And my brother’s Jewish.  And Daddy’s Jewish.  And you’re Jewish.” 

  “No, I’m not Jewish.  Daddy is, but I’m not.” 

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December 10, 1991 by

Connecting with Black Women

It was a summer evening in 1984, the day after the Democratic National Convention nominated Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate. A woman vice president! In our lifetime! I couldn’t have been happier if my mother had been commemorated on a postage stamp. After work, I bounded up to the apartment for a get-together of our Black-Jewish women’s group. I could hardly wait to share my ecstasy with my pals.

In the six-woman Black-Jewish dialogue group that Harriet Michel and I had founded, we discussed Geraldine Ferraro’s brand-new nomination.

Besides Harriet, who was then director of the New York Urban League, two other African-American women were in our group — Bernice Powell, then president of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women (now executive associate to the president of the United Church of Christ); and Marguerite Ross Barnett, then vice-chancellor of the City University of New York (now chancellor of the University of Houston). Besides myself, the two other Jewish women with the dialogue were Marilyn Braveman, then director of education and women’s issues for the American Jewish Committee, and Jacqueline Levine, past president of the National Jewish Community Relations Council and vice president of the American Jewish Congress.

Our group had originated as a spin-off of a larger, coed Black-Jewish coalition composed of New York City movers and shakers. Because the male members seemed incapable of talking personally, of exposing their vulnerabilities, or of making real human connection, the group had degenerated into power-posturing and speech-making. Finally Harriet and I, who had been grimacing to each other across the room for months, decided to convene a small, all-women’s group. So here the six of us were, toasting Geraldine Ferraro, bubbling with enthusiasm as we reviewed our impressions of her acceptance speech and the prospects for the Democratic ticket.

After a few minutes, however, I noticed that the three Black women in the group were not bubbling quite as effervescently as the three Jewish women.

“How come you guys aren’t so excited?” I asked the Blacks. “Is there something wrong with Ferraro?”

I wasn’t being rude: directness is one of our ground rules.

“She’s white,” answered all three Blacks, almost simultaneously.

“But she’s a woman, like you, like us” said one of the Jews.

“But she’s white.”

“Yeah, she’s also Catholic and not a Jew but I still feel her achievement as my own” said a Jewish woman. “I think to myself if an Italian Catholic woman can do it, maybe someday a Jewish woman can be in the White House.”

“It’s a big leap from a white Catholic to a Black of any kind,” said another Black member.

“But this is a tremendous breakthrough for the American political system. If Gerry can be the candidate of a major party, you could be too” said a Jewish woman, gesturing toward the Blacks, all of whom are prominent enough in public life to run for office.

“Not so!” was the reply. “And that’s the point. The woman in me is glad for Gerry but the Black in me has no greater political possibilities today than last week. Gerry’s success won’t help my people one bit.”

In the midst of my celebratory raptures my African-American friends forced me to change my angle of vision, to alter my strictly feminist orientation and acknowledge a critical difference between Black women’s marginalization and mine. Whereas it depends on the political and social climate of the moment as to whether I feel more vulnerable as a Jew or a woman, the oppression of color and class always outweighs the oppression of gender or religion. In a white-run society, racism is the overriding injustice; it does not allow invisibility, or passing.

I turned the situation around and saw their point even more clearly. If a Jewish man had been nominated as Walter Mondale’s running mate, I would have felt pleased and proud but I would not have been popping my cork. Jew or not, I would have seen it as a man’s triumph and thus familiar. His victory would not have greased the track for a Jewish woman or any woman. Likewise, Ferraro would not ease the way for any Black, male or female.

If our women’s group works harder at decoding causes and goes deeper into the realm of feelings than the other dialogue groups I’m familiar with, it’s because we all consider ourselves feminists as well as advocates of our own communities. We are interested in one another not just as Blacks or Jews, but as women. While we are not afraid of male-style confrontation, we are more devoted to female-style communication, down-and-dirty mutual self-disclosure and emotional honesty.

I have learned that although I see myself as a Jewish woman, Blacks see me as a white woman. I have had to admit that I see Blacks as Black before I think of them as Christian. I have bounced back after hearing some of the infuriating opinions Blacks have of Jews, and I have gotten off my chest some racial hostility I wouldn’t have dared to confess anywhere else.


At the victory rally the night David Dinkins won the New York City Mayoral primary, Jesse Jackson made a speech that contained a number of gratuitous Christian religious references. The next day, I asked a Black friend, “Since Jews supported Dinkins in greater proportions than any other group of whites, don’t you think all that Jesus talk was pretty insensitive of Jackson?”

The Black woman’s face closed tight as a fist. “You’re not gonna get me to speak against Jesse” she said flatly. “Jesse Jackson is our Israel. Even if he embarrasses us or says the wrong thing, he’s the best we’ve got and I’m not going to bad mouth him — just like you’re not going to bad mouth the Jewish State.”

Her analogy made so much sense that I took it a step further in my own thinking. I’ve been saying that uncritical support of Israel threatens the integrity of Israeli democracy and the Jewish ethic. Following my friend’s analogy I want to insist that Blacks’ uncritical support of Black leaders who are insensitive to Jews or to outright anti-Semitism can be just as corrosive to black ethics. Cumulative insults from men like Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim extremist, plus polls showing rising Black anti-Semitism, plus Black criticism of Israel, have coalesced for some Jews into an irrational fear of Jesse Jackson, simply because he is the most prominent representative of Black sentiment.

I agree that at times Jackson has been insensitive to Jews, but I do not believe he has demonstrated disregard for Jewish interests. On the contrary, I think we have reason to take heart from many of his gestures of support: his appearance in the pulpit of the Skokie synagogue prior to the announced Nazi march, his public apology at the 1984 Democratic convention, his stirring remarks at a Holocaust memorial service, his interceding with Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of Soviet Jews, and his participation in a Kristallnacht remembrance. Such actions have persuaded me that Jesse Jackson is capable of sensitization and change. I take his overtures toward Jews as a sign of his potential for empathy and self-education. Unless he shows signs of backsliding, I see no purpose in the continued attacks on him, especially as long as he remains a strong advocate for women.

Using the Jackson/Israel analogy of my Black friend on post-election day, I believe that Jews, who want the world to give Israel the benefit of the doubt despite her errors and flaws, can work harder to understand the gigantic significance of this African-American leader, flaws and all, and should give him the benefit of the doubt as well.


On the issue of Louis Farrakhan, the women in our small Black-Jewish group battled for months to change each other’s minds. The argument sounded something like this:

Black Woman: “Since we have so few spokesmen who can engage the attention of the whole community, we have to protect our leaders, not censure them. I’m not going to attack any African-American just to make Jews feel better, especially someone like Farrakhan who has been such a positive influence on our, youth. We’re trying to develop living symbols of Black aspiration.”

Jewish Woman: “But Farrakhan’s hate message should invalidate his hero potential. Real leaders send the message to their followers that bigotry is unacceptable. Real leaders aren’t afraid of denouncing injustice whoever its targets or perpetrators.”

Black Woman: “Maybe Jews feel strong enough to go around undermining other Jews, but we have to worry about exacerbating the tensions that already divide the African-American community. If Jews really were there for us, you’d stop harping on Farrakhan. Only one percent of American Blacks are members of the Nation of Islam. There are millions of white anti-Semites. Isn’t it hypocritical to keep throwing Farrakhan in our faces? Farrakhan’s main message is one about economic independence, self-help and mutual support. What you do for your community is what Farrakhan .wants Blacks to do for Blacks. But whenever he speaks about self-help, the press reports only what he says about Jews.

Jewish Woman: “Why not point that out to him? Maybe if he edits out the Jew-hating, the press will notice his economic program. No one’s going to pay attention to the main ‘message’ as long as it’s surrounded by malice. And how can you be sure that his anti-Semitism is rhetorical? Maybe he consciously uses it to gain attention. Anyway, Jews have learned from experience that no expression of anti-Semitism is just rhetorical. Every pogrom starts with a hate campaign. Why not just admit it’s wrong?”

Black woman: “Our position as middle-class, moderate Black leaders is too precarious for us to look weak.”

And so it goes. Even in our intimate group where there is a will to understand, we spent five or six sessions on Louis Farrakhan and finally declared an impasse.


At about the same time that Harriet Michel and I started our small dialogue group, I helped to found a larger Black-Jewish women’s group that was to prepare us for the Nairobi U.N. Conference; this group petered out within two years. At first, I attributed its failure to waning Black interest.

“Why do you think so many Black women stopped coming to meetings even though we started out with an equal representation?” I asked a Black friend who had been part of the group.

“You Jews have to stop acting like God’s chosen people,” she barked, her eyes shooting sparks. “The world doesn’t revolve around you. Relations with Jews are not a priority for most Black people; our main concern is survival.”

Blacks worry about their actual conditions and fear for the present; Jews worry about their history and fear for the future.

My friend’s point about Black priorities was well taken, but her words hurt; inter-group dialogue is the Jewish response to our deep-seated insecurity. We invest in dialogue as a form of insurance against anti-Semitism. Although safe and relatively prosperous right now, Jews are a people whose vulnerability is seared indelibly into our collective unconscious.

“A Jew needs dialogue the way anyone, even if never personally threatened, would need constant reassurance had one-third of her relatives been murdered,” I tell my friend.

My friend listens but she still doesn’t get it. She grew up in a neighborhood where Jews collected the rent, ran the shops, employed Black domestic workers, checked up on welfare clients, and taught Black children. She works now in New York City where every Jew she sees is thriving. She points out that 30 million American Blacks have only 24 Congressional representatives and no Black Senators, while six million American Jews have 31 Jewish members of the House and seven Jewish Senators.

Blacks worry that their (bad) situation will never improve — therefore their issues are affordable housing, better education, and affirmative action. Jews worry that our (good) situation will never last — therefore our issues are freedom of religion (separation of church and state), freedom of emigration (Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews) and a secure Israel. Blacks need relief in the form of practical economic assistance. Jews need relief in the form of continued acceptance.

Assistance. Acceptance. Clearly, these needs are not comparable, but they can be experienced with comparable intensity and they can lead people to the same place. Thus Blacks enter into dialogue in the hope it will result in action to address their needs, while for Jews, dialogue is the need; if Blacks are still talking to us, we think, maybe the liberal alliance is not dead, maybe we don’t have to fear Black Christians as much as white Christians, maybe everyone will promise not to hurt us.

While I had been hurt by my friend’s angry words, talking together clarified that I was the one who had not understood. I had suggested there was something wrong with Blacks for dropping out of the dialogue when in fact there was something wrong with the dialogue for failing to serve the needs of its Black participants. Because the Jewish agenda — creating alliances — was being fulfilled, Jews kept showing up at the meetings. But the Black agenda — cooperative activism — had stalled, so some Black women had stopped coming.


I have been trying to persuade Black friends that Zionism — the commitment to keep Israel alive as a Jewish state with a Law of Return that gives Jews automatic citizenship — is not racism any more than goals and timetables for Black hiring is reverse racism. I believe that anyone who can understand why history entitles minorities and women to affirmative action ought to understand why history entitles Jews to safe space and preferential immigration policies. Just as legal remedies are justified in reparation for racism and sexism, the Law of Return is justified by worldwide persecution and anti-Semitic bigotry.

Why, ask my Black friends, should Israel’s relatively well-off four-and-a-half million people get three billion dollars in aid (much of it military) when all of Black Africa, with its half billion poor people, gets less than one billion dollars? Given the U.S. budget crisis, they say, some of the money earmarked for Israel might be redirected to developing African nations, Black Caribbean islands and the Third World within our own borders: Harlem, the South Bronx, Detroit, Watts,-and the South Side of Chicago.

Despite growing antagonism between Blacks and Jews, I draw hope from surveys that show our two communities still are the most politically compatible groups in America. Our voting patterns are more alike than any other racial or religious categories. We share a common vision of justice. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Jewish members of Congress vote together on most issues including those affecting Israel, Soviet Jews and South Africa. In our electoral habits, we are similarly perverse. Although Jews have experienced great economic success, we still vote our consciences, not our pocket-books. Although Blacks have experienced great economic stress, they still vote their consciences not their rage. It’s up to us to build on this compatibility, bring it out of the statistics books and make it work for us.

Where Black-Jewish relations are concerned, I find my women’s movement experience instructive. In the early years of feminism’s Second Wave, millions of disparate women accentuated female commonalities in order to create a unified women’s movement. This period was analogous to the time when Blacks and Jews accentuated their common dream of justice in order to create a unified civil rights movement.

Now, however, feminists are acknowledging that each woman comes from a different place and has different needs, and likewise, instead of saying Blacks and Jews are the same under the skin, most of us are trying to respond to each groups’s special needs while keeping alive that common dream of justice.

My first reaction was to regret that identity politics — the ideology of distinctiveness — have replaced the politics of commonality. But taking the lead from women of color, I have seen the virtue of group cohesion, self-affirmation, and unashamed advocacy of their special interests. Today Blacks and Jews and other Outsiders insist on being let “In” (wherever that is) without having to pay the price of conformity.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor Ms. magazine. This material will appear in somewhat different form in her forthcoming book Deborah, Golda and Me: Being Jewish and Female in America to be published by Crown Publishers in 1991.


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