A Call to Arms

I recently heard from a mutual acquaintance that an old friend whom I’ve lost touch with plans to leave the country.  This soon-to-be emigrant is an immigrant with brown skin, and has quite understandably decided that he does not want to live in Donald Trump’s America.    He is also a British  citizen with a way out.

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.

9 thoughts on “A Call to Arms

    1. Kurt:
      1. I’m talking about me and my family. I’ll call us whatever I like, thank you very much.
      2. Not that I really care what you think, but I’m not using “redneck” as an insult. I’m using it as an ethnic label, meaning white, Southern working class. I’m half-redneck and proud of it. If I wanted to use an insult, I’d say White Trash. But I didn’t.
      3. Little? Eh, I”m 5-9. Let’s go with average.
      4. Yes, I do hate some things, such as the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that Donald Trump peddles. Won’t apologize for hating that.
      5. I welcome a response, but think carefully. I won’t tolerate anymore cursing at people or name calling. If that happens I’ll just delete your comments.

  1. An insightful, intelligent view of the true nature of the mess we’re in,
    and the illusory, fallacious underpinnings of racial/ethnic warfare
    weather implicit or explicit in our dealings with others.

    We all are visiting, no one owns it and everyone belongs. And this is
    not 1939, a recent and much misused, false analogy undermining the
    historical significance of the Holocaust and all lives lost to WWII.
    Such an erroneous comparison as you point out also gives too much credit
    to the political heft of our current elected leader.

    Like many of us, my immediate reaction to the new not normal
    was shock, then disbelief. Eventually, as in all grieving processes,
    I resorted to bargaining.

    Maybe, just maybe. . . it would not be so bad,
    but this was not going to be a five step process after all,
    because it was a tad worse than death; in essence, like that famed
    line from the mid-century sci fi classic “The Thing,” it’ alive!!!
    And all this in just a coupla’ weeks. . . .

    We cannot therefore come to accept it as inevitable, nor can we run
    and hide. We can fight. But we also have the option of
    fantasizing if we get weary, like picturing some silly but
    wonderful fairy tale ending where the monster or crone or
    other baddie is finally self revealed through pure idiocy,
    and in the end the people prevail!

    So, you know, let him keep talking. . .

  2. This is a terrific essay. Many of us with starkly different backgrounds are coming to the same conclusion about the state of this great nation of ours. As a child of immigrants myself I want to ensure our great country doesn’t let the selfish lies of the power hungry distroy what makes this nation great.

  3. Very interesting article which is both thought provoking and comes from your unique vantage point of having both John Wayne and Mel Brooks as role models. So I can appreciate fully the internal conflict you must have gone through over the years and your decision to “come out” so to speak.

    As for me, I was one of those second generation West Bronx Jews who by the age of 12 saw the contradictions in organized religion and tentatively rejected its orthodoxy. But I was also aware of antisemitism even before the full horror of the Holocaust broke into my consciousness. Our vulnerability as a people apart seems to be imprinted on our DNA.

    As you pointed out, Jews have been wanderers in the diaspora who were ever searching to escape persecution and death from countries that first welcomed them and then turned against them. For my ancestors this was the case with the Kingdom of Poland. My grandfather was born in Lodz Poland in 1892. Lodz was a thriving textile center during the 19th century which was second only to Manchester England and my grandfather would eventually learn to use his knowledge to start his garment business in NYC.

    Things turned bad for the Jews of Poland when it came under the domination of the Russian Empire in 1795. This marked a time of discriminatory laws against the Jews but more often they were used as scapegoats and blamed for bad economic times and of course the ongoing “blood libel”was always a good excuse to kill some Jews.. Pogroms were common where men women and children were dragged out of their homes and killed. This was remindful perhaps of the African American experience during the Jim Crow era of our own history. With the run up to the 1905 revolution in the Russian Empire and after it, there was an increase of violence towards Jews. My grandfather escaped to America and arrived here in 1910.

    As you mentioned ,Jews because of their history ” never feel that they quite belong” and always are aware that the” party” may end. So yes, Israels existence is a “life raft” for when things go wrong. But more than that, I believe it has changed the very character of the Jewish persona. Because there is the State, Jews can have the internal psychological strength to forcefully reject those that have always stereotyped them through out the diaspora.

    Again really excellent and enjoyable piece.

  4. Jews for the last 500 years when given the chance have tried all kinds of “isms”. First was allegiance to a King followed over the years with Socialism,Communism, Anarchism, Atheism” and more isms then you can shake a stick at. In all cases they were rejected because they were seen as a “foreign” element no matter how long they lived in the country or what group they latched on to. In some cases they were there longer then the ruling population.it made no difference. A religion without a standing army or a land base to operate out of were little more then a group of people who were Nomads with a portable religion.

    Israel represents to Jews not only a life raft as you explained but also a sense of pride that we are no longer victims of other peoples insane policies when it comes to Jews.We can fight and we can win. Many anti-Semites cannot wrap their heads around this new reality. So they hold up Jews and Israel to a moral code no other group of civilized people or countries have ever met. And then use the shortcomings of humans and the Israeli government as “proof” that we are evil.

    Your logic cannot overcome hate based on emotion. You are not “half Jewish” in the eyes of the haters or even the Jewish religion. You are as Jewish as the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem because under the definition of “who is a Jew” under Jewish religious law you are fully Jewish. As for the haters you are also fully Jewish because you are “tainted” by having a Jewish Mother or in some cases even a Jewish Grand Parent.

    How you determine your identity is of course entirely up to you. But how the world sees you is out of your hands. In my case I see a value in following the moral code of a people and culture that was set down over 3,000 years ago that has stood the test of time and has survived four world wide civilizations. The Jews are a living breathing group entity while the cultures and power of their past oppressors are dust in the wind.

    As for the American Natives, the Jews have against all odds maintained their group as a living entity that overcame whatever they came up against. Not so the American natives . They have been marginalized to reservations and cultural death and many of their customs incorporated into “American” mythology.

    As for the Protestants who founded this country they are coming to the slow realization that their grip on the reins of power is being pried loose by people who two generations ago would have been wiping their children’s asses and doing their gardening. This is very unsettling to people who thought things were never going to change. Its effect raises more hate in the fringe elements of that group.

    As for me I think that each group has something to offer America. But I will do it in a Jewish context because I see a value in being Jewish.

  5. Confessions of a Refugee Child in What Has Become a Very Weird World

    My brother received traditional bar-mitzvah training at an imposing orthodox synagogue in our south Bronx neighborhood known familiarly as the “KI,” a phonetic abbreviation which I believe in local slang stood for Congregation Israel. It was a rather large, once impressive, now old, architecturally interesting and ornately carved building with a swirling though somewhat dark gallery upstairs for the women and girls; downstairs was a large and lighter space near the ark for a serious mess of dahvening alternating with schmoozing for the securely tallised, the men and boys. On Yom Kippur there also occurred the occasional wail of an ambulance coming to retrieve one of the elderly, wizened, frail little die hard fasters who refused not to pass out.

    But I was a girl, so I was relegated to the upper, circular chamber, which at times could be a bit lonely and distant as we gazed out on the men and boys below, even on the high holidays when it was more crowded with attendees. Many of the families in the area were of refugee origin and se habla Yiddish just about everywhere, alternating with the sounds of Espanol in the streets. Up the corner from the shul was a Baptist church frequented by local African Americans, called Negroes at the time. As I observed elsewhere in my writings, Grovers Corners it was not.

    Bat mitzvahs were not very common for girls at the time, and so I was educated instead at the David Pinsky folkshul, which I attended four afternoons a week for several years. The school was named after the esteemed Yiddish writer, playwright and poet David Pinsky, sometimes spelled Pinski, and associated with the progressive labor Zionist movement, whose followers were instrumental in founding the state of Israel and whose ideological heirs now mainly form the two-state, peace movement.

    There were no classes on Friday afternoons in deference to Shabbat, but the other days were devoted to knowledge, and divided as follows: study of Yiddish lit (Mondays, my very favorite!), Modern Hebrew (Tuesdays and a time of rebellion against those compact letters and hard sounds, so unlike Yiddish), Jewish History (Wednesdays with their mythical stories of prophets and kings) and finally the study of the scriptures in the ancient tongue on Thursdays, my least favorite (really, it was quite impossible, as we never got past the first few words of Genesis because of the deep symbolism and archaic meanings inherent in the mystical letters themselves, to say nothing of the attendant waves of commentary that made it all so unbelievably dense; in other words, not enough time to decipher and so pure torture).

    However Genesis Thursdays turned into a sort of rebirth or recreating as it turned out, we students being saved from the decoding of the scriptures on that most challenging day by Mrs. Hirschberg, a survivor herself like other Yiddish speaking WWII refugees in the neighborhood, with the telling, ominous blue tattoo on her arm; she took pity on us biblical stragglers, often spending this fourth day singing the praises of Zion rather than delving into the creation. She was fond of recounting the social and political modern day miracles and inspirations that poured forth from the land of milk and honey, assuring us along the way that we would always have a home in the Promised Land. She sent us out into those mean streets on wintry afternoons with those little cards that had the neat slots for quarter donations to ensure the planting of trees in Zion, and we heeded the call, knocking on strange doors, catching unsuspecting relatives in a moment of weakness, putting them on the spot. This is why most probably and eventually I thought nothing of doing a stint on a border kibbutz at the near end of the “halutzik” or pioneering era, though this decision happened quite randomly as it turned out, but that’s another story. In the end, I chose not to live there, but I too am aware that Israel’s very existence as a sovereign state lessens the angst.

    Back at this co-ed “heder” or school for Yiddish culture, Mondays and Wednesdays clearly were my favorites among a carefully planned weekly schedule, as Yiddish was front and center then. And it was here that I honed my love of literature to the level of obsession as we read through the great Yiddish poets and storytellers in the original- most of us being able to zip through Sholem Aleicham as if gobbling up Grimm’s fairly tales. The classes were conducted solely in Yiddish, most of the children, my classmates, being of immigrant/refugee parents and subsequently more or less fluent in the language; but with each other we conversed only in English because of the dread inherent in being tagged “mockies” or “green horns;” we just so wanted to be cool. We too sought to become wholly American, non-totally “white” as we were sometimes perceived notwithstanding, even by other, more assimilated Jews who had forgotten by a generation or two that they too were still on the outside.

    We were such a feisty, hearty, rag tag bunch, smart and mischievous, confused and rebellious little partisans often still fighting the battles of WWII at home while learning to assimilate and out-Amerikanize even the native born with their strange, non-European customs, flat accents, pink bubble gum, odd though weirdly appealing Disney characters and a profusion of superheros, these somewhat culturally alien comics entrenched strangers in whose own strange land we had landed; through the vagaries of political fate, chance and luck we had been born to continue the story of a people while learning to eat cheeseburgers and bacon.

    My father, a fierce labor Zionist Eisenhower republican (not as unusual a political stance at the time as it now sounds), when he began to get the alarming gist of what indeed would ensue with the raising of a child in America, was convinced at some point I should attend a girls’ yeshiva, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it. I remember the arguments. Her slightly pagan Hungarian background left her contemptuous toward the ultra religious folk, whom she snidely referred to as “Yekkes,” which Wikipedia now tells me is “a Jew of German speaking origin,” so I don’t quite get the connection, but obviously this term became synonymous at some point with orthodoxy or some sort of perceived, sanctimonious piety perhaps and all she hated about it; the notion of “Modern Orthodoxy” was not even a blip on the horizon.

    In any event, the main thing was not even that, the hatred of Yekkes and anything smacking of fundamentalism- it was simply that my mother did not wish to pay for this- we were poor by middle class standards, leading to the wearing of my own working class pedigree with pride much later when it became more fashionable. In the end of course I went to public school and eventually did wind up marrying a goy, which was ironic since my mother hated and mistrusted goyim even more than Yekkes, though who knows if this would not have happened anyway- it’s so hard to predict things. Who ever thought Trump would win? Not even the man himself believed this, no doubt.

    The majority of the population is/was/always will strive to be solidly working class in their souls, rugged, hard scrabble, individualistic dreamers of the American sort with a paid up mortgage, and that only if they’re lucky enough to have a decent job. And yes, people will stand by, and in some cases cherish, their ethnic, racial and religious identities and there will always be divisions.

    But we were all new to the land at one time, no matter how far back.
    This is not fake news.

Let it Rip