Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Trouble with Codewords and Keeping Your Mouth Shut

As an  American Jew, I have long wondered why there are areas related to Judaism or Jewishness that I can't talk about, or at least it feels as though they are not supposed to be talked about.  I've been wondering that for about a decade now--as long as I've been able to think about such things--although I certainly felt it long before I could think about it.  Recently my reading has inspired me to think more systematically about one particular area: that of violence toward Jews.  Before I delve into the specifics of my thinking on that subject, though, I'll go into two background areas, one from which I drew relatively more inspiration, and the other a relatively minor, but still significant, contributor to my endeavor.

Background Analysis--The Jim Crow Era

 I was inspired by a book, an older book: Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing, from 1996, which I've recently read as part of a group study.  My inspiration came from the author's examination of how it happened that that bombing, which happened in 1958, provoked or, at least, preceded change in attitudes toward civil rights in 1950s Atlanta. 

Beforehand, moderates ducked the issue, white supremacists held sway, and the old segregationist way maintained its homeostasis, in spite of the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. There may as well have been no contradiction at all between segregation and what was good and moral.  Afterward, the contradiction stood out in high relief.

Here are some of the highlights:

Before the bombing, Atlantans thought of their city as a bastion of moderation and modernity.  As far as they were concerned, racial hatred didn't exist, at least not here. If you said it did, you were thought to be creating division, not pointing it out.  After the bombing, Atlantans had to admit it did exist. 

In retrospect, preaching about the problem by the rabbi of The Temple was seen as having lured out the racial hatred and exposed it.

In the new view, young men committing violence out of misguided racial solidarity were not, after all, showing their mettle in defense of the system but revealing themselves as dangerous extremists.

The following excerpt from the book contains a quotation from Mayor William Hartsfield in the October 13, 1958, issue of the Atlanta Constitution:

"Looking at this terrible demolition I cannot help but realize it is the end result and payoff of a lot of rabble-rousing in the South.  Whether they like it or not, every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross-burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South.  It is high time that decent people in the South rise up and take charge."

...The mayor's statement was a rallying cry, an attempt to reach the vast proportion who wrongly believed that their silence on the race question was an adequate, even moral response.

Before the bombing, ordinary Atlantans could rationalize their resistance to integration, as though the words of liberalizing newspaper columnists and preachers pointed to an abstraction. They seemed to stand transfixed and paralyzed in the vain belief they could keep to their same old ways.

...(M)oderate people, people of quiet goodwill, civilized people could sidestep it all, as if the race question itself were not quite worthy of their notice, as if the subject of Negro rights was somehow slightly obscene.  

After the bombing, people couldn't linger on the sidelines.  They had to decide whether they were for or against violence as a means of perpetuating the status quo. Now they could see what the choice of anarchy entailed.  In the light of a new day, ordinary, everyday people for the first time began to stand up and speak out on these issues.

Let's say that most power structures, once in existence, strive to maintain themselves.  Once established, most power structures--all the way from Stieg Larsson's spooky fictional counterintelligence unit in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest to the beneficiaries of favoritism within ordinary families--don't call themselves out of existence and go quietly into that dark night.   And maybe the likelihood of violence goes up when that system comes under threat.  Melissa Fay Greene says that the violence at the fringes as Jim Crow came up against the pressure for civil rights served to maintain the white Protestant power structure of the day.

During the Jim Crow period in the American South, the treatment of black people both demonstrated and maintained their lesser status.  As such they existed outside the full protection of the law.  The system enjoined upon them to "stay in their place"--not that that held any guarantees.  Illogical and unpredictable events and all too predictable punitive reactions alike served to keep them in that place and maintain the system.

Other people, too--Jews and Catholics, for example--made their way as best they could in the society of the day.  They served at the pleasure, on one level protected by their white skin but also expected to kowtow to the system to keep it in place and keep their place in it.  Dependent on the system, they experienced social pressure to make obeisance to established social codes.  The conventional response was to keep one's head down and under the line of fire.  There was pressure on insiders and outsiders alike to march in time and in lockstep.  

Such is society: it gives us that without which we social animals cannot live, but at a price.  Change, too, comes at a price.

What penalty did dissenters fear? In a sense what they feared was shunning, that they, too, like people of color, would be placed outside the protection of the law and at the mercy of its self-styled defenders.  Awaiting dissenters was a string of accusations to which Jews were particularly prone, that they were radicals, communists, nigger-lovers, plotters against the Southern way of life.  They would be foreigners among us--outsiders whose designation as such would justify plucking them from the safe haven of legal protection and throwing them upon the tender mercies of vigilantes (or turning a blind eye when that happened).  Heretofore there had been numerous southerners in general and Jews in particular toeing the line and striving to fit in (although that was no guarantee).

After the bombing, though, and after some critical mass had been reached, such that right and wrong finally were illuminated,

"...there came yet another noise, one not heard much of late, one often drowned out.  It was the still quiet voice of the moderate heard once again in the Southland" (Pat Waters, Atlanta Journal, October 24, 1958, as quoted in The Temple Bombing).

There were those who spoke up, finally, and there was the flood of financial contributions, despite that The Temple was insured. And there were the well-wishers.  In this instance, then, that congregation of Jews was not shunned or cut off, but instead was sheltered within the circle of big downtown houses of worship, as one of them, and given soothing reassurance and comfort. In the meantime, segregationist leaders, who, as Melissa Fay Greene puts it, had been sanctioning resistance and violence out of one side of their mouths, had to scramble to deplore such acts out of the other side of their mouths, allowing liberal leaders to seize the moral high ground. 

As liberal columnist Ralph McGill wrote (Atlanta Constitution, October 13, 1958; quoted in The Temple Bombing),

Let us face the facts.  This is a harvest.  It is the crop of things sown. 
It is the harvest of defiance of courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the part of many southern politicians....
It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it.  
To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple....
But let it be understood when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take the law into their own hands....
This, too, is a harvest of those so-called Christian ministers who have chosen to preach hate instead of compassion.  Let them now find pious words and raise their hands in deploring the bombing of a synagogue.
You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field.  It is an old, old story.  It is one repeated over and over again in history.  When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.

Background Analysis--Krugman versus Charen on Republican Presidential Politics

On December 14, 2015, my local newspaper reprinted a matched set of editorials--one left-leaning and one right-leaning--that reminded me of what I'd just been reading in The Temple Bombing.

The first was by Paul Krugman, and the second by Mona Charen.  The topic was the ubiquitous Donald Trump and his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.

Krugman holds that mainstream Republican effort to exploit the racist and xenophobic fears and prejudice of their right-wing base, while simultaneously tamping down reaction and maintaining at least a semblance of control, has heretofore been conducted through innuendo and codewords.  Donald Trump has merely said out loud what the party establishment has been whispering.  Trump has ripped away the veil.

So along comes Donald Trump, saying bluntly the things establishment candidates try to convey in coded, deniable hints, and sounding as if he really means them. And he shoots to the top of the polls. Shocking, yes, but hardly surprising.

If Trump has destroyed Republican establishment camouflage, Charen and others are at pains to restore it.  The problem, they insist, is Trump, who is putting them in a bad light, and not the underlying pattern his words have highlighted.

This week, while we were still burying our dead from San Bernardino, every Republican — rather than explaining why President Obama's refusal to fight the war on terror has led to this moment — instead had to condemn Donald Trump's mindless proposal to keep every single Muslim out of the United States until further notice. Again, he's the perfect bogeyman.

It’s not just that what he says demands condemnation. It’s that it seems to give credence to the Democrats’ narrative.

But can what has once been seen be unseen?  Like the other way of seeing a reversible image, you cannot unknow that it is there.

The Charen article also tries to cover up that conservatives, too, have public intellectuals and elites who are shaping their view--Charen herself, for instance.  Republicans would like to have us think that conservatives somehow maintain a special degree of independence from such forces in order that they might "think for themselves."

Trump, of course, has nothing to offer except personality    — even if its charm eludes me. But his emphasis on “getting the best people” is exactly wrong. That’s the progressive idea — that the best people know better how to run your life than you do. That’s what we’ve had under Obama.

As during the Jim Crow era, there are vested interests in maintaining the illusion of a simpler world, one in which we knew who were the good guys and who were the bad, and one in which the good guys were people "like us."  In this connection see Mike Luckovich's August, 26, 2015, cartoon of  Trump wearing a "Make America White Again" cap.

Whatever your political leanings, my focus here is still on the question of how whatever is right in front of our noses can be, for all intents and purposes, invisible, and in how we maintain that blindness, thus denying responsibility for consequences, adopting, in other words, a "hear no evil, see no evil" posture, even as we sustain the animosity-generating illusion. And, further, I'm interested in how such illusions can collapse, as Paul Krugman claims is happening under Trump's spoken-out-loud hate speech--and as happened in my hometown after The Temple bombing.


Codewords and Silence on the Subject of Violence Against Jews

At present we're in an era where many people consider violence against Jews understandable--dare I even say justifiable?--because of Israel, or so it is said.  I explored that narrative in a previous post.  Internationally, terrorism against Jews gets little attention unless in the context of terrorism against others.

What I was reading in The Temple Bombing on the Jim Crow era in 1950s Atlanta made me think of this current situation vis-à-vis Jews.  In the present day, there's this relative silence when violence or injustice against Jews occurs--except perhaps among Jews, and I'm one of those who has begun speaking out; once I had noticed this pattern, words seemed preferable to befuddled disbelief. Anyway, when Jews come to harm, people mostly shake their heads and avert their eyes.  As Melissa Fay Greene writes on the subject of race relations in the Jim Crow South, it's as though it would be slightly obscene to mention Jews, much less speak up for them.

In 2014, swastikas were painted on the Jewish fraternity house at Emory University. The response was officially supportive, but the student newspaper's report included a complaint (not shared elsewhere) that the incident had received a disproportionate amount of attention.   I wondered whether the complainer's real issue was that it had received any attention at all.

The issue here is not competition over victimization.  I am wondering about the seeming imposition of silence on the subject of violence toward Jews or denigration of them.

In another incident, five years ago now, I was online with friends from a liberal Methodist church I'd been attending with my husband as news broke on the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.   At the time, there had been ongoing criticism of the graphically violent Republican campaign language such as Sarah Palin's placing a target over the Congresswoman's district.  "Words matter" had been a constant refrain.  Then it came out that Giffords was Jewish, and, suddenly, silence ensued on the subject of words mattering. It seems her attacker had to be viewed as completely crazy, his actions thus rendered meaningless.

The Emory swastika was "classic" antisemitism, in other words, a Nazi-style slur.  I thought maybe that was why it required attention.  But ordinarily, violence against Jews is not considered big news here in the U.S..  By that I mean it doesn't seem to make the national news.  For instance, we all saw those Westboro Baptist Church signs denigrating gays, but broadcasting the Jew-hating posters they were also brandishing did not happen and seemed to be a no-no.

Most antisemitic acts if aired at all seem to be buried in the local news.  Unless such incidents are reported in a Jewish news source or posted online, I'd not be likely to hear of them at all. 

We in this country--including Jews--would like to deny that there is antisemitism here, or so it seems. Conventional ideas are that Jews are liked here, safe here; in fact, as one sometimes hears, Jews are "privileged." We assume others have taken their place on the receiving end of hate.  Yet, although thankfully rare, most religious violence in this country occurs against Jews.  Most hate crimes in America are racial, but when it comes to religious violence Jews are the most common target.

It's confusing, and one reason may be that, Anti-Defamation League or no, anti-Judaism is so thoroughly interwoven with the culture.  Sometimes it's hard to tell when anti-Jewish attitudes end and ordinary church begins, given negative preaching and scriptural passages read free of accompanying educational material.  One small example to give an idea of what I'm talking about is the passage about hiding behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19), read around Easter time. (I mention that one, having had occasion to waggle a finger quietly to signal it's too late; I'm already inside.)  I'm not talking about egregious antisemitism but about ordinary church.  I hypothesize that the overlap between anti-Jewish attitudes and normative values enhances an attitude of denial.

In some leftist circles here, including some liberal Christian and Unitarian circles, the idea that the U.S. has been too receptive to Jews is conducive to what I call Holocaust, not denial, but minimization.  It happened, but it's over, so the story goes, and Jews are using guilt over the Holocaust to deflect condemnation of Israel.

Israel!  People do talk about Israel; in the public square we are allowed to talk and argue about Israel.

Beyond that, the veil of silence falls and we enter the arena of innuendo.  Jews in France are murdered.  They aren't Israeli, but somehow, for more and more people, the subject of Israel makes the violence make sense, makes it reasonable, makes it, if not exactly okay, something they can understand and to which they could, under some circumstances, even subscribe.  The fact it happens to other Jews (Israelis being used as though synonymous with Jews) may be unfortunate but is understandable.  And, since understandable, not a big story, not news.  Not a subject of concern.

With Israel as the cover story, those telling that story have their excuses: "It's Israel.  We're just criticizing Israel.  Israel causes antisemitism."

But rationalizing, even tolerating violence, then using words to camouflage it--that's plausible deniability.

Just as, around the turn of the twentieth century, the racial pseudoscience of the day gave the disenfranchising of Jews its scientific gloss, the cover story of Israel disguises the focus on Jews as being a social justice issue about Israel.  The effect is arguably a narrative in which Jews are, for some people, back in their place as "the other," and without a word of it spoken. 

I'm arguing that there is a purposeful silence on the issue of violence toward or denigration of Jews, analogous to the silence Melissa Fay Greene says prevailed regarding race relations in the Jim Crow South.

If that's the case, we would expect energy expended to maintain the silence, that is, to keep the lid on, as Paul Krugman delineated regarding Republican political strategy.  And there are such efforts.

First may come an accusation of over-sensitivity, "Jewish paranoia," or the like; to say, in other words, "You're exaggerating" or "You're just imagining things," and thus to deflect comment--a dynamic similar to telling black people that voicing their concerns amounts to "playing the race card." "It's all your problem," in other words.

If deflection fails, one might hear ever-bolder condemnation of Israel, with any effort to widen the outlook portrayed as an opportunistic diversion from the matter at hand, Israel. 

Continued failure to fall into line can result in the charge of a blatant deficit of empathy for Palestinians.

Then may come the accusation of conflating Jews with Israel, all the while the accuser is doing just that: the best defense is a good offense in which one accuse the other party of doing what you yourself are doing.

And the volume increases.  At all costs, keep the focus on Israel and off of the accuser.  Distraction is the name of the game, and, loud though it may be, it functions to maintain the silence.

This is the system maintaining itself.

Melissa Fay Greene also wrote that the dynamic of silence and tolerating violence at the fringes of society served the prevailing white Protestant power structure.  Does the silence regarding Jews, and the pattern of looking the other way and rationalizing violence against them, have a corresponding function?  What "power structure" would that serve?

Here are two columns from 2010 that say, no, the traditional power structure is not seeking to maintain itself.  Both articles appeared on the heels of the appointment of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving a Court devoid of Protestants.  Max Fisher wonders whether Jews are the new WASPs.  And Noah Feldman goes so far as to hypothesize that WASPs are phasing themselves out.

Is that what has happened?  Do groups willingly divest themselves of power?  That's not the picture we would expect to see.

In a mainline liberal Protestant Sunday school class, after the last two appointees gave us the Court we have now, a friend made what was for me a memorable slip of her tongue: she referred to a Supreme Court without any Christians.  She was neither magnanimous nor pleased.

Those two articles from 2010 allude to something else that has transpired over the last sixty or seventy years, something other than the emergence of the state of Israel yet something that has emerged during the same time frame: economic competition for the positions that Protestants could previously take for granted.  Prior to that time, the universities and professions and the airwaves and the ranks of public intellectuals--and the Supreme Court--weren't full of Jews as they are at present.

We should not underestimate the impact of economic competition.

Lastly, Paul Krugman in his column pointed to the political aims of silence. According to him in his discussion of Republican presidential politics, Trump's playing openly on fears and prejudices is confounding the Republican establishment's plausible deniability. Trump outed the dynamic of targeting immigrants, people of color, and Muslims in particular as "other," as common enemy.

Correspondingly, the political aim regarding Jews could be to use them as the common enemy.  When times are difficult, there's nothing like a common enemy to build your base and rally people to your cause.  Moreover, this has been a traditional role for Jews, and, in fact, one in particular that can't be said out loud.  A cover story is needed.

As it used to be rationalized, violence against "Negroes" was understandable or to be expected.  It was "normal."  You might say the story implied they required special measures.  What else could you expect?  For a very long time such special measures weren't news, either.

But can violence be targeted exclusively toward those you may not like or approve of?  Is hate divisible?  Or, might the earlier quotation apply again in the present day?

"...It is an old, old story.  It is one repeated over and over again in history.  When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe."

Talking about what can't be talked about isn't easy, but I decided it's worth trying. I don't want it to be said, "...they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out..."


Readers have reported difficulty with commenting on my blog. You should be able to leave a comment if you log in via Google.  But in any case, copy your comment before trying to post it, so whatever happens it won't be lost.


  1. I don't think you are being paranoid about racism against Jews, although I would be the first to admit I never knew the extent of it throughout the past century in the U.S. I don't think it is all to do with Israel since discrimination and distrust was evident both before and after Israel was established.

    However, with every other oppressed group getting their time in the sun, so to speak, and being accepted for their differentness, Jews of every nationality are going to have to speak up for who they are and what they believe, whether or not it agrees with the cant coming out of Israel at the moment, because that situation is affecting every other country's relationships with Arab countries. You understand, we recognize the right of Israel to exist if they want, but we don't support their right to be oppressors themselves. It seems pretty clear to us. We wonder why it is not as clear to them.

    If American Jewish society could just get a handle on, or influence over, its influence-peddling radical arm, perhaps we'd have place more trust in them. Of course, it is a similar situation all Americans have when facing citizens of other countries. It is why Americans are called "ugly," whether or not we as individuals deserve that label. We can't seem to get a handle on our uglier representatives. So I sympathize, but do not excuse.

    If I were to posit that Jewish people are not universally liked around the world because they hold themselves aloof from gentiles, etc. this would only explain a tiny proportion of the dislike, and it would have to be dismissed as causal. After all, any society will reject newcomers who do not embrace the features of society, whether or not those features could be improved upon. But there is a bit of that there.

    Anyway, nice to see an articulate person bvravely wade into these storm-tossed waters with good intentions in mind.

    1. Hi, Trish, nice to meet you and thanks for reading and commenting. I'm wondering if you had any trouble commenting. And I notice your Goodreads profile popped up with your comment. I'd like to hear about the process. If you let me know via a Goodreads PM I'd appreciate it.

      Trish, my previous post on the question of whether Israel "causes" antisemitism is pertinent to some points you make here. Did you see it? People say yes, it does, but then if a black person gets shot they say it's because he was a criminal or something, and that's wrong. People do not "cause" prejudice, but prejudiced people look for narratives that justify hate. So if people are going to learn not to justify their racism, they need to do so universally, not justify it when it fits some well-worn narrative and/or they can get away with it.

      Perhaps, too, it would help if we could get away from zero-sum thinking. Because Americans--or Israelis--have established themselves doesn't mean others can't do so as well.

      Some aspects of Israeli politics are regrettable, yet I can understand how violence toward them and condemning attitudes strengthen the right wing. Like if 9/11 were going on 24/7.

      Also I feel very sorry that Palestinians are being used as though in a dog fight or cock fight. They are enjoined from "normalizing"--I don't mean by Israelis--and there is a seductive narrative that many would be hard-pressed to do without. That no doubt could sound surprising to you.

      Yes, I'm familiar with that meme about setting themselves apart. That's what people say. But it's more nearly the opposite. It's when something is too much *like* (not different) that reaction occurs, for now it must be demonstrated how different and bad they are and why reaction to keep them "in their place" is justified. Lots of examples there, but I'll just mention Carol Anderson's new book White Rage (a misnomer of a title) about how at every juncture of American history when African Americans did right that it was necessary to kick them back down.

      Well, will content myself with that for tonight, and will continue to keep my thinking cap on and my heart in the right place. Thanks again for speaking up, Trish.