Friday Takeaway: Anti-Semite and Jew

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture.

Published: 11/29/2018 4:51:53 PM


The Pittsburgh massacre a month ago at the L’Simcha Congregation during Shabbat morning services was the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in history. The attack — by a killer who wanted “all the Jews to die” — left 11 people killed and seven injured.

Among the numerous worrisome aspects of Trump’s ascendance to the presidency is the resurgence of anti-Semitism. I’m not sure he is an anti-Semite — how could he be, with orthodox grandchildren? Yet he has unleashed, advertently or otherwise, forces of hatred in the nation. Or, to put it another way, he has failed to quiet them.

Anti-Semitism is a favorite pastime of haters. It is as old at the three Abrahamic religions. Like a virus with impeccable survival mechanisms, it mutates according to the circumstance. At times it might be sponsored by the Catholic Church, or be connected with capitalists like Henry Ford and take the form of a capitalist plot such as the one expounded in The Protocols of the Wise of Sion (1903).

It can take the form of anti-immigrant sentiment, or metamorphose into anti-Zionism and be supported by left-leaning activists. And, of course, as in the case of the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi genocidal machinery, it could be infused with eugenics, setting its target through biological pseudo-reasoning.

Give the cesspool of odium Trump has nurtured, it should surprise no one that anti-Semitism is back with a vengeance. A friend of mine whose sharp intellect I admire said to me not long ago that he was sure xenophobia had been defeated in the United States. Well, even intelligent people are foolish. Racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other forms of abhorrence always lurk in the background, waiting for the moment to show their ugly face.

After the German occupation of Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, wrote an essay called Réflexions sur la question juive (1944). It came out in English in book form a couple of years later as Anti-Semite and Jew. Sartre’s argument is that anti-Semites and Jews need each other, otherwise they will cease to exist. The idea is dangerous, yet it also hints at the Jewish survival strategies.

The question after Pittsburgh is how Jewish communities should act from now on. As a Mexican Jew, I have a few suggestions. They aren’t happy, but they are needed. They come from personal experience. The Jews in Latin America, for a variety of reasons, have always been vulnerable. A pogrom, or organized massacre, in 1919 in Argentina led by anarchists, communists and other labor-oriented groups resulted in the Semana trágica, Tragic Week, a series of riots culminating in the death of 700 people, Jews and non-Jews. And in 1994, an Iran-sponsored terrorist left in ruins the AMIA, as the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires was known in Spanish.

Consequently, as years go by, the majority of synagogues and other Jewish buildings across Latin America function under tight security. To participate in a ritual, guests have to submit paperwork in advance. Armed guards are in constant watch.

As an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, I am adamantly against the Constitution’s Second Amendment. While I understand its logic (individuals should have the right to bear arms in order to defend themselves, even against their government), like millions of others I am pained by the spread of senseless violence destroying the texture of American society. My instinctual reaction is to take weapons out of the public.

It won’t happen, obviously, not anytime soon. That’s why I believe in pragmatism. I believe American Jews should arm ourselves. The lessons of the Holocaust bring about such conclusion. Education, I have no doubt, is the best antidote against bigotry; I have dedicated my whole life to such endeavors. But in the face of clear and present danger, a blackboard with chalk and eraser doesn’t provide security. Synagogues must remain welcoming spaces while also making sure they are protected.

I hate to think this way, knowing as I do that violence begets violence. I am also aware that Trump, for whom I have no sympathy, is a proponent of weapons in schools and other facilities. It is nutty to opt for such an alternative. But one must remember that among German and other European Jews in the 1930s, the pessimists were wise enough to seek exile, whereas the optimists ended up in gas chambers.

I will go a step further: I believe in the idea of Jewish defense leagues. Again, some of the most right-wing ideologues, such as Rabbi Meir Kahane, an ultra-nationalist orthodox rabbi who believed in the work of medieval exegete Maimonides, have been behind such proposal. Kahane was gunned down by an Arab in a Manhattan hotel in 1990. I didn’t miss him for a second. In fact, I was convinced he was a lunatic. Yet while my opinion hasn’t changed, ideas have a way of circling back, at least those that have merit.

The worse reaction to the Pittsburgh slaughter is to let it slip into memory.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.

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