October 13, 2005
Two Jews, Three Opinions, Part II: Day of Atonement Thoughts on Jewish Culture, Subculture, and Prejudice
[warning: much anecdotal musing ahead]
So here I am on this fine Yom Kippur, engaging in a bit of anthropological fieldwork among my extended family, a bunch of relatively liberal, politically aware Reform-ish American Jews in South Florida. In some ways we are very typical of our subculture(s), and in some ways we are not, but to be sure, there is a wide spectrum of opinion around here, and most of it is expressed passionately and frequently. My family is warm, loud, always interrupting each other, generous, and all-around decent people, and make frequent attempts to be openminded. Mom is even loving the biracial grandchild, in spite of her various complaints over the years that my sister (who basically hasn't dated a white guy since high school) is a reverse racist.
However, if I have to have one more discussion about how all Muslims are not out to exterminate the Jews, I might do something very un-Yom-Kippur-like, and really have something to atone for. I try to cut my aunt some slack - after all, she has worked for the past 20+ years at a grade school affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, and she gets the pro-Israel, anti-Muslim propaganda during most of her waking hours. But sheesh, she was just mentioning that she'd been thinking of donating to Pakistan earthquake relief, until her good friend and co-worker (a rabidly Zionist Israeli; one wonders, indeed, why she lives in the U.S.) mentioned maybe she shouldn't do that, because, you know, we wouldn't want to support people who want to wipe out the Jews.
I just don't get it, and I really need to keep a low political profile at family gatherings if I don't want them to turn into an all-out yelling match. How can a bunch of people who not only profess to be open-minded about issues of race and religion, but live that way most of the time, choosing their housing, education, etc. with an eye toward multiculturalism and tolerance, have such a blind spot for openmindedness and tolerance toward a particular group? How can my mother, who chose to raise us in a highly integrated and liberal town that was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and who has friends of every possible color, spend Rosh Hashanah dinner post-9/11 interrogating me about "why THEY hate US," but not bothering to listen to the explanation that THEY are no more monolithic in belief than WE are?
And on a more macro scale, how can so many American Jews, who have chosen to live in a pluralistic and diverse society on the macro level, be so stubborn about treating Arabs and/or Muslims (though frequently the two terms are conflated, occasionally adding modifiers such as "fundamentalist" or "terrorist"; you should have seen me trying to explain the background of my not terribly observant North Caucasian indigenous Muslim ex-boyfriend when I brought him home to Meet the Parents; 15+ years later, I think they still couldn't place his home republic on a map) as individuals, just as they would have done unto them as Americans or Jews? And considering the long Jewish tradition of social activism, participation in the civil rights movement and human rights organizations, and general left-wingness, how can so many of my people turn around and discriminate against another people on the basis of their religious beliefs, and from such a position of ignorance, too?
And on a still more macro scale, I am endlessly frustrated by how these prejudices, which are shared not only by Jews, but by large subsectors of American society, play out in terms of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. At risk of delving into the realm of Zionist conspiracy theories, let's face it, the U.S. is a democracy, and so at least some of the time its foreign policy behavior reflects the views of its electorate. Combine that with the fact that American public school education completely ignores anything south of the Equator or east of Germany, not to mention across the Straits of Gibraltar, and you have a recipe for some very ill-informed and misguided decisionmaking at best, and civil war fed by fuel from the outside at worst.
So then, my fellow blog people, how to change these attitudes? Weeks like this make me think that it will be a long and uphill battle, but we have to start somewhere, right? Aqoul is but a drop in the bucket, and let's face it, my grandparents, or even my mom and sister, aren't going to read it - and they vote.
[I was going to support this with oponion poll cites, etc., but I am snatching a few minutes away from a family gathering to write, and if my uncle catches me writing this I'm going to have some 'splainin' to do.]
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I try to reread George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" at least once a year. It doesn't help, really, but it explains. A little.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at October 13, 2005 06:12 PM