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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002 / 6 Tishrei, 5763

Julia Gorin

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No better time to
be a Jew in America | A mere Gen-Xer, I have lived to see the day when Islamic militants attack the World Trade Center, and fingers point at Israel. I have lived to know a world where an Israeli prime minister is indicted for war crimes because Christians killed Muslims in Lebanon. I have lived to see an era that has Palestinians genocide-bombing Israelis up to four times a week and people blaming Israelis. I've made it to a place in time where Muslims storm a Christian church in Bethlehem, and a priest inside scolds the Israeli military for the ensuing destruction. I'm living in a time when people can drop the word "Israelis" altogether to openly ask, "How many times are we going to fight for the Jews?" I have made it to a time in which there is civil debate on TV over whether terrorism against Jews counts as terrorism.

A Jew couldn't be happier.

You see, prior to September 11, 2001, the word "Jew" wouldn't come up very often in polite conversation. As a lifelong fan of Borscht Belt-style bluntness, however, I'd throw the word into conversation often enough, mixed company or not. On cue, my very chic cousin Olga, if she was present, would preempt any discomfort (not least her own) by explaining, "My cousin is a comedian." But if she wasn't around, the conversation generally would turn quickly quiet until someone changed the subject, much to everyone's relief.

Except mine: I worried what it was that people weren't saying. Especially since it was, after all, New York that they weren't saying it in. I would get similar vibes on days that I was wearing my Star of David pendant, when more glances than usual would come my way. No one said anything, except for the people who delivered hurried compliments after noticing that they were caught looking--though the looks had been less than complimentary. "Was it just my imagination?" I wondered, and worried that I'd somehow managed to inherit the Jewish paranoia of generations far removed from X.

But since September 11th I no longer worry. Because they are saying it. Because the things people didn't allow themselves to ponder, much less permit to escape on their breath, are finally audible. Somehow that event has opened the floodgates and given voice to all the unspoken feelings and opinions I could only suspect before. So that today--even as college students at San Francisco State shout, "Hitler didn't finish the job!" and kids at a Gettysburg, PA, high school come home telling their parents that what's happening to our country is because of the Jews--I've never felt safer. The self-censorship that I had for so long sensed suppressing a tension beneath the surface has come undone, and I can finally know what I've been craving to know all along: where I stand. And who stands with me.

Here's where one finds out who one's friends are from among the people whose company one has enjoyed at soirees or at more intimate lunch dates, where everything under the sun was discussed--except the Middle East, of course. I remember when I unsettled my non-Jewish liberal friend Gael in 1997, at lunch at the Museum of Natural History, by telling her that the Mideast conflict would ultimately have to come down to the survival of one population over the other-and that I feared I knew which the world would pick, given the choice. Until our conversation, it was a subject that Gael, like any good museum patron, had gone through life tastefully avoiding. Yet her instinctive sympathies went to the more visibly pathetic group--the Palestinians.

But avoidance of a subject can lead to ill-informed opinions and misplaced sympathies. I don't say this because my own view of the Middle East is a "Jewish" one, as I've on occasion been accused of having (and yes, it seems it's ok to say things like "Jewish view" and "Jewish ego" these days). However, there is no such thing as a "Jewish view," or where would the saying "Ask two Jews and you'll get three opinions" come from?

As a member of a tribe where self-examination, self-sacrifice, self-deprecation, self-loathing, self-sabotage and self-neglect are signature, I was not born into my views on the Middle East. Few Jews are. More often, we think of others first-to our own detriment. Indeed, so many Jews, within Israel and without, continue to be critical of the Israeli government, are pro-Palestinian and, along with the rest of the world, place the onus for peace on the tiny, besieged state. In contrast, count the number of pro-Israeli Arabs.

Although Gael gradually released some of her coveted ideals about humanity to accept at least part of what I was saying, I knew that her views were representative of the vast majority of the cultural elite-both Jewish and non (at the time). It was a battle I couldn't fight and, despite our candid talk, I didn't feel much better. Since then, my purpose in broaching the issue outside of the choir has not been to convert anyone, but simply to know where I stand with a person. Over the past year, however, I've had to broach it less and less, as the world voluntarily lays itself bare without any prodding from me. So that I now have the luxury of being able to take everything in as a spectator.

Predictably, Europe has stepped up to the plate to serve as the most illuminating arena. The mask of anti-Zionism which camouflaged much of the international community's anti-Israel sentiment and discussion, and which culminated in the UN Conference on Racism the very week before last September 11, has slipped. Since then, traveling Israelis have been barred from some European hotels and youth hostels, Jewish students have gotten beat up on European college campuses (not Israeli students--Jewish students), an issue of the English publication "New Statesman" focused on the "Kosher Conspiracy," two Israeli scholars were dismissed from a British scientific journal, an unnamed House of Lords member was quoted as saying, "Well, the Jews have been asking for it and now, thank Heaven, we can say what we think at last," and I don't think I need to mention the French.

Within months of 9/11, that menacing six-cornered star took center stage. Whatever baggage it's loaded with, it played a major role in the forced resignation of former American Red Cross President Bernadine Healy, who had been pushing for the inclusion into the International Red Cross of Israel's Magen David Adom relief service, whose emblem is the star in question. Meanwhile, former International Committee of the Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga has compared the symbol to a swastika, and Europeans are trying to hijack and resurrect the shape as the old "Q" star symbol of spiritual energy and power.

Another recent development is that accusing someone of being anti-Semitic is no longer a smear from which the accused feels compelled to reflexively exculpate himself. These days the reaction one encounters will more likely imply: "And your point is?"

Here I'm again reminded of the bright side of the post-September world: Last century, by the time writing like this was on the wall, concentration camps were already built. Who says we haven't come a long way?

Additionally, I no longer have to fight with my fellow Jews, trying like a broken record to convince them that the ill wind won't be blowing from the rural reaches of this great country, as has been a long-held but unjustified American Jewish paranoia. As my philo-Semitic Christian friend Nickolas confided to me long before September 11th, the Isreali flag hanging from his car window seldom met with warm responses in the Northeast, whereas in Texas "the entirely Goyim population," as he put it, "found it quite cool."

The words of another friend, Jack from Emmitsburg, Md, have also been ringing in my ears: "My nephew (15) came home from school bad mouthing Jews the other day. Sister-in-law was surprised and jumped on him about it. The boy replied that everyone at school was 'slamming the Jews.' I guess the media has gotten its point across as to who is at fault for the September deaths in New York and the suicide bombings in Israel.

"It used to take years for big city media 'cause of the day' attitudes to reach us here. Not anymore. Sister-in-law's house has an idiot box in every room. At least one of them has someone blaming the Jews for our terrorist problems sometime during the day."

I contemplated the image of this rural mother reproaching her son for the cosmopolitan prejudice he'd picked up.

Little coincidence that the San Francisco Bay Area gets the prize for tripling its anti-Jewish incidents between this year and last, while in Berkeley a synagogue was set on fire, a man in a yarmulke was beaten on the university campus, and Hillel participants were pelted with eggs and their meeting house sprayed with graffiti.

Just when we young Jews thought we could roll our eyes at the previous generations' persecution complex, history repeats itself with astonishing cliche.

And yet, something is different this time--something history hadn't counted on--which is making contemporary times a very interesting backdrop for attempts to stoke the flames of anti-Semitism. Actually, it's what's supposed to happen when people permit themselves to speak freely and the dialogue is cracked open this wide: Truth creeps in.

Thanks in large part to a veritable army of conservative, mostly Christian, writers, commentators and politicians who have been tackling the newly unleashed accusations, distortions and misplaced resentments head on with cold, hard facts, the masses--and their simplistic, galvanizing media--have been forced to take a grudging step back and view the day's situation with requisite perspective--or else confront the motives that keep them from doing so.

Facilitated by the free flow of information, recently made freer still with the advent of the Internet and the more honest TV news era that the Fox News Channel has ushered in, truth seekers and tellers have a wider podium than what was available at these junctures in the past. Lies, agendas and biases masquerading as truth or "news" are exposed and halted in their tracks. Argument meets with counter-argument equally as loudly and in equally large forums. The greater truth has as wide an audience as the lie that is told long enough, loud enough, and often enough.

Truth and social conscience, meanwhile, have a way of trickling down, to whatever degree, to the less than informed citizen, so that now even he has a sneaking suspicion, if nothing more, that "the Jews" are not what ails the world.

The glasnost that the events of September 11th ushered in, with its ensuing dialogue, stand in triumphant contrast to the superficial tolerance campaign that has so long dominated the methodology of stemming human bias, suspicion and ignorance. Rather than letting them be aired, political correctness--whose other name is censorship--clamped down on feelings and opinions that didn't go away but were left to simmer. This imposed an inorganic civility that turned out to be touch-sensitive. By glossing over the root causes, the crude "tolerance" agenda of the past decade merely quieted the symptoms. But the disease remained.

To the crowd that asks, "Can't we all just get along?" I answer yes-once we've had it out. If the feelings are raw, let the language reflect it.

The counterproductive "anti-hate" sloganism was a half-hearted effort that we Jews share responsibility for: Rather than draw out the real lessons from the Holocaust, we used our unique experience to serve as little more than "an example of what can happen" from a combination of intolerance and good people looking the other way. We thought that if we could somehow turn "hate" into a tangible thing, then that's all we would have to fight. And so we watered down the lessons of WWII to some broad, generic notion so nebulous and subjective that it could easily be used against us.

Which brings us to the past year.

The tide turned, then turned again. It brought an outspoken, rationalized anti-Semitism, then defused it with the triumph of truth. Europe may be hopeless, but at least in America people are sensing, even if uncertainly and at times reluctantly, that if Israel takes the fall, America's biggest problems will have only begun.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2002, Julia Gorin