I don’t begrudge my old friend for wanting to move back to Great Britain now that Trump and his cavalcade of cronies have infested the White House. For at least the next two years, the United States, and sadly much of the rest of the world given the United States’ size, power, and influence, will endure a stunning string of short and long term setbacks that, while difficult to predict the specifics of, will almost certainly range from the ridiculous to the serious and even the frightful.
Why sit in the center of the storm when you can reasonably take shelter elsewhere? Especially as a person of color with a British passport, why endure the absurdities and horrors of America’s Trumpist turn?
No, I don’t blame him one bit for wanting to get out.
But me? I’m gong to stay here and fight. And this is not a decision I have reached recently. It’s a conclusion I drew 25 years ago.
I am not a person of color. According the American racial palette, I am white. But I am a half-breed of sorts. My mother is Jewish, the daughter of Eastern European refugees who arrived not long before World War II. My father is a redneck from rural North Carolina whose family, at least according to the amateur genealogy assembled by my great aunt, has been in America for close to 300 years.
Racial whitness is a mutable concept, drizzling like water colors. A hundred years ago, even less in some quarters, my mother’s family would not have been considered white, despite my grandfather’s red hair and blue eyes. Jews simply weren’t in the club. That all changed with America’s transformative WWII experience. Afterwards Jews, Italians, and other eastern and southern Europeans were “in.”
So I’m white and have been my whole life. I have all the perks and privileges of American whiteness. And maleness. And middle classness.
Basically, I hit it big in the global lottery.
I wonder if that explains why I like to gamble. I mean, how can I possibly lose? I’m just playing with house money.
Anyway, despite my whiteness, I am not ethnically homogenous. My identity is somewhat riven by disparate parentage.
If you are not descended from a family that claims residence back before the French-Indian War (1754-63), then allow me to explain the sense of belonging and entitlement that can stem from it. It’s a lot like that one scene in The Good Shepherd, a mediocre movie about the early years of the CIA starring Matt Damon and directed by Robert Deniro.
Damon plays a well to do WASP, Yale-educated, CIA official meeting with a mob boss played by Joe Pesci. After the two strike a corrupt bargain, Pesci poses a question Damon. Let me ask you something, he says.
“We Italians, we got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their traditions. Even the Niggers, they got their music. What about you people Mr. Carlson, what do you have?”
“The United States of America,” Damon calmly responds. “The rest of you are just visiting.”
That’s what it can feel like to have deep and enduring American whiteness.
Even if you’re not a racist prick, even if you’re a decent, warm, welcoming person who doesn’t think everyone else is just visiting and that they’re Americans too, you can still come away with a sense that you’re just a bit more American than them. That your roots are deeper and stronger. That you help form the ownership class of this nation, if not materially (you might be poor after all), then spiritually.
What does it mean to be American? You’re what it means to be American.
Like a lot of things, that sensation can be quite seductive despite its ugliness.
I was never seduced by that feeling, thankfully. But I’m not going to toot my horn and claim it’s because I’m so smart and insightful or morally superior. Quite to the contrary, under different circumstances I might have fallen into that identity trap. And I know exactly why I didn’t.
It’s because I’m half-Jewish.
Being Jewish, like being anything else, can mean a lot of things. For centuries, one thing it has meant is that you don’t feel like you fully belong. There are too many expulsions across Europe and north Africa to keep track of. There are the pogroms and the blood libel, the inquisitions and the scapegoating. And there is of course, above all else, the Holocaust that my grandfather’s family escaped by not much, and in my grandmother’s family’s case, mostly not at all.
Lots of Jews living in the aftermath of expulsions and the Holocaust were (are) plagued by a uncertainty. No matter how good it got here in America, there was always a caveat.
They’ve thrown us out before; they might throw us out again.
Most Jews don’t consciously think about this all that much. Rather, it’s a fear that exists deep down inside for many of us. You don’t belong. You’ll never fully fit in. It can all go very wrong at any moment.
This insecurity does not afflict all Jews of course. Many integrate quite easily and feel quite at home in America. And the sense of belonging can increase as the generations pass. But for many Jews, the tension of an uncertain future never really goes away. And if you want to understand why so many American Jews support Israel no matter how badly it behaves towards the Palestinians, then you need to understand that.
Outsiders are occasionally perplexed. How could some Jews, who are otherwise secular and progressive, display what seems to be such an irrational support of Israel even as its right wing government continues building a program of colonial rule over the indigenous Palestinian people?
The answer does not lie solely in some tribal kinship towards other Jews, in bigotry towards Muslims, or even in the old notion of Israel as charming, upstart underdog, a premise that now seems quite ludicrous. Rather, for some Jews, loyalty to Israel is connected to what that little nation represents: a life raft. A way out. A safe exit strategy for when things go wrong again.
These fears are fading generationally, which is on reason why American Jews are split over Israeli policies towards Palestinians in a way that seemed inconceivable when I was a child. Polling from three years ago shows that only 40% of Jews still believe God gave them Israel (while 64% of Protestant Christians do, which in a way is much more frightening). Among orthodox Jews, that figure is 84% (and 82% among Evangelical Protestants), but among secular Jews it’s a mere 16%.
Many American Jews also display a healthy skepticism over Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. Only a fifth of secular Jews believe Israel is making a good faith effort to find a two state solution. Even among all Jews, that figure is just 38%. Meanwhile, a firm majority of Jews believe the ongoing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories do not help Israeli security, with 44% recognizing that it actually hurts it.
Yet the emotional attachment to Israel remains. Thirty percent of American Jews said they felt very emotionally attached to Israel. Another 39% categorized themselves as somewhat attached. Despite the growth of secularism among American Jews, and even increased criticism of Israel’s behavior, only 9% of them said they felt no emotional attachment whatsoever to the Jewish state. And nearly half of all American Jews have found the wherewithal to visit Israel.
Living in the shadow of the Holocaust, overcoming such insecurities is a generations-long process for American Jews that will continue to unfold during the 21st century.
I earnestly struggled with these issues for the first time during the early 1990s. After finishing my bachelor’s degree in East Asian History and eventually returning to the Bronx, my early 20s were given to an autodidactic pursuit of books. I read a lot of American Indian history, which eventually led me to pursue graduate studies in that field. It also forced me to begin thinking seriously about issues of indigeneity. During this period, I also read a fair amount of modern literature by great African American writers, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
I found myself deeply contemplating my own identity for the first time. Swimming in ideas, I asked myself one day, what would I do if the weather turned stormy and the tide brought fierce waves crashing upon me?
If it got really bad here in the United States, would I stay or would I go?
My mother was Jewish, I had had a bris and a bar mitzvah. Israel would take me. My mother, the daughter of Jewish refugees, had taken care to keep the appropriate documents for me and my sister to apply through the Law of Return and escape to Israel if we ever needed or wanted to. She made sure we had an out.
On the other hand, I could probably pass for non-Jewish. Having a last name like Reinhardt was a big help. So were my blue eyes and my ability to channel my father’s speech patterns and persona. Back in Michigan where I went to college, I’d had the experience of listening to people who didn’t realize I was Jewish tell me Jew jokes. I could play it off if I needed to.
But in the end, neither of those options appealed to me.
I realized that I, like the 9% of American Jews mentioned above, don’t have any real attachment to Israel. As an atheist, the overt religiosity of the place unnerves me, and I obviously put no stock in the fantasy that some omnipotent God has decreed it to be my special place. As someone who thinks ethnic nationalism is a blight on humanity (the fact that modern Israel exists largely as a reaction to the horrors ethnic nationalism only adds deep irony to the situation), the idea of a Jewish state did not appeal to me; I still hope Israel finds the wherewithal to become a genuine and earnest multi-ethnic democracy in the truest sense. And as someone who has never been to the Middle East (or anywhere in the Mediterranean for that matter), the physical land had no hold on me. Yes, my mother spent two years on a kibbutz during the early 1960s, and some of her father’s family moved to Palestine in the early 20th century and their descendants remain there. But that’s them, not me.
At the same time, I find the idea of consciously passing to be fairly repugnant. In no way do I judge people of color who choose to pass for white when possible, or Latinx who pass for Anglo. That’s their choice and I absolutely respect it. Passing is an intensely personal decision. However, it simply has zero appeal for me. As God said to Moses, I am who I am.
What then was left for me in the event of the United States turning sour and completely giving itself over to brutal racism and anti-Semitism?
A young and vigorous man, I decided that I would stay and fight should that day ever come. That despite my divergent family backgrounds, the common thread was indeed America, a place born in the blood of dispossessed Indigenous peoples, African slaves, and poor whites, and also a place of relative opportunity and freedom, which allowed my mother’s parents to come here when there were precious few places to escape to.
When it all goes down, this is where I will make my stand. This is where I will give my all to beat down the final convulsions of our bloody, hateful legacies, and to nurture the still growing promise of what America can be, and sometimes has even been.
Thus, I do not begrudge my former friend who seeks to high tail it back to Great Britain amid the fatuous roars of Donald Trump. Not in the least. We all must make the decision that seems right for us.
He will leave if he can. And I will stay here and fight, as I swore to do a quarter-century ago.
This is not 1939. The dangers facing us are nowhere near as great. And I absolutely do not think Donald Trump is the next Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini. I don’t even think he’s a fascist; he’s too artless and unlearned to adopt a coherent and complex dogma.
But I do think he’s a racist, sexist piece of shit. I do think he’s an impetuous, ignorant, greedy, bully given to fits of rage. I do think he’s a narcissist, a chronic liar, and a con man who cares about absolutely no one but himself. I do think he is authoritarian by nature, has no real understanding of or respect for our democratic republic, and has surrounded himself with petty villains and incompetent cronies. I do think in his shameful and infuriating charge to the White House he has stirred up angry and hateful passions among some of his supporters. And I do think he’s very, very dangerous.
This is my home. This is my nation. And it is every bit as much yours. It is ours.
Let us make union and defend it. Let us join together and fight. Let us beat him back at every turn until we have vanquished this abominable cancer from our body politic and the corpus of our society.
We, Americans all.