Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Flashback 1999: Jews' history as victims doomed to repeat itself

    Anti-semitism. In the news. Again. God, do I have to pinch my nose with one hand, reach WAY down into the gutter with the other, and drag that wriggling thing up and look at it? Again? Do you know how many years I've been dissecting this thing? Cutting it up into little chunks, bottling those bits in formaldehyde. Affixing educational labels. Only to wake up the next day and find it intact and squirming on the tray, ready to be vivesected again.  I'm going to pass, this time, and dig up a chestnut on this topic which, unsurprisingly, is as relevant now as it was 23 years ago.


     "What we have heard about the suspect and his motives is deeply disturbing." 
                 — President Bill Clinton
     The moment I heard the TV people speculating on the reason for Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr.'s gunning down a bunch of kids and an elderly lady in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, I asked myself, "Who cares?"
     What would be the non-disturbing motive for bursting into a community center and spraying it with machine gun fire? Altruism? Concern for the whales?
     What does it matter if he did it out of hatred for Jews — the old standby — or voices in his head or because his dog told him to?
     Chicago Jews interviewed before Furrow turned himself in expressed the pathetic hope that anti-semitism wouldn't be the motive. As if everything would be all right then.
     As if, so long as the crazed assault came from nondenominational madness, we could all wipe our brows and relax.
     Naive. And deserving to be rewarded with Furrow's comment that his act was "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews."
     Now, there's a sentiment that kicks you in the gut. And you know what? He didn't invent it. It's out there. If Furrow had told the FBI that the aliens made him do it, that wouldn't change a thing. Anti-semitism would still be out there, under the surface. The Holocaust only made expressing one's disdain for Jews impolite, made it hidden, except in cases such as this. It didn't root out the disdain itself.
     This isn't going to change. Know why?
     The Egyptians hated the Jews. The Babylonians hated the Jews. The Turks, Greeks and Romans hated the Jews. As soon as they shed their own Judaism and evolved from a fringe cult to a powerful religion, the Christians hated the Jews, as policy, for about 1800 years. Every nation from Iran to England had all sorts of laws, expelling or restricting or somehow dampening down Jews. Some still do.
     Notice a pattern here?
     Sometimes I wonder, to quote the classic question: Why the Jews? I have a theory. The reason isn't the old Christ-killers chestnut. A guy isn't motivated to gun down random children because he's upset about the passion of the savior.
     Rather, my theory — and I'm sure this is glommed from some college textbook I can't recall — is that Jews are hated because we are both successful as a group and something different. Difference alone can be shrugged off, as long as it keeps its place among the downtrodden and the underclass. But do well, and do well generally, and suddenly somebody whiffs a conspiracy, and the difference becomes intolerable. To be different, in the eyes of certain, insecure people means criticism.
     If I could ask Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr. a question, I'd want to know what sort of world he thinks he'd get without the Jews. Would that suddenly make him king? Fix Social Security? End the nation's problems? Apparently he thinks so.
     Wouldn't happen. Look at Poland. People there used to think the Jews were causing all their problems. Then they got rid of their Jews. And guess what? Poland still has problems, and many there still blame the mostly absent Jews. Not all. The really odd thing is, among a certain segment of Poles, being Jewish is sort of hip. The tiny shred they have left has developed a certain fashionability. Which would be funny if it weren't so sad.
     The TV mentality likes to learn little lessons from tragedies. So here's one I don't think you'll get from TV: Hate is eternal. If you're different and you're successful, people will hate you. Whether Jewish, black, Hispanic, Asian, gay or, in about 40 years the way demographics are going, white Anglo-Saxon, there will be people who loathe you sight unseen because, in their poisoned little minds, everything is your fault.
     Better to be aware of this. To foster a healthy pessimism, an attitude I have long thought as "Keeping a bag packed." You fall into a false sense of security, you tell yourself that because you don't wear a beard and a long black coat that you're just like everybody else, and the next thing you know you end up face down in a slit trench.
     That might seem negative, a downer on a Sunday. But I believe it; it's in my blood. My grandfather was a pessimist, or at least dissatisfied with his future prospects on the farm in Poland. So he quit, gave up, blew town. He headed for the paradise of Cleveland, Ohio, America. His entire family — and it was a big family — was more complacent and stayed put in Poland. They were optimists. They hoped for a brighter future. They're all still in Poland, somewhere, in the form of white ash. That's the ugly lesson behind Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr.'s timeless message.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 15, 1999


  1. My grandmother left her family behind and emigrated at 17, from the town where "Fiddler on the Roof" was set. Twenty-five years later, they all became soap and lampshades. The letters stopped coming to East Garfield Park. The Germans told the rest of the world that Europe's Jewish population had been shipped to "resettlement" or "labor" camps...mandatory extended vacations in the East. She knew better.

    My grandmother never spoke about it while I was growing up. Almost nobody did. The word "holocaust" (no capitalization until later) still meant only a disastrous fire, with many deaths...like the one at Our Lady of Angels. But years afterward, when she was already past eighty, and I was already past thirty, something on TV (probably the news) prompted her to mention her big family in Russia, and how they all "went up the chimney."

    That was the phrase that my uncle and I heard, the same one that those in the camps had used. Spoken in an unemotional, and even a casual, tone of voice. Like someone saying: "Yeah, they all went up to their cottage in Michigan for the summer."

    She lived another six years, but I never heard her mention her lost family again. Like a neighbor's silent dog that suddenly lets out a single bark in the middle of the night, it was as startling as it was unforgettable. My grandmother and my uncle are long gone, and it's almost 45 years since that moment. But remembering it still gives me the chills.

  2. Well, you could write a column about this every year (perhaps you have), but I don't see how this one could be much improved upon.

    The "Christ-killer" pretext has always baffled me. Largely because I was raised Catholic and it was never even something I was aware of. I always thought there was a fair amount of focus on the faith being Judeo-Christian.

    Obviously, Christ, Mary and Joseph, the apostles, Paul -- all the folks at the beginning -- were Jewish, and the New Testament relies heavily on the theology and prophecy of the Tanach. It's just not logical to hate all Jews because of the ones who sought the crucifixion. (What, logic doesn't matter, you say?) It's like hating all white people because so many serial killers have been white.

  3. Certainly there is no logic as to why the Jews are hated by some but your theory makes sense. I would add that it is also because the Jews were always hated. There are other groups, maybe newer on the radar, that are successful and different but don't suffer quite the same.
    Asians for one and of course the billionaires.
    My first exposure to bigotry was soon after we moved to Miami in 1956 and a schoolmate called me a Jew as if it were a bad thing. Only seven years old at the time I could only question why he thought I was a bad person because of my heritage. He didn't have an answer.


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