Sunday, December 18, 2011

Anything but.........

When I was a kid, I used to laugh at how people from my parents' and grandparents' generations used to see antisemitism lurking behind every corner.  It went something like this:
The grocery store is out of brisket......antisemitism
The garage said that my car needs new brakes......antisemites
At the restaurant we had to wait a very long time for our food to arrive..... must be antisemitism
The power's out......must be an antisemitic conspiracy
Dana got a B in penmenship rather than an A......well you get the idea.  
 I used to laugh at this paranoia that went around our dining room table, my grandparents' living room, the lunch counter at Thrift Drugs or basically anywhere that more than 2 Jews were in attendance.

And I don't think my parents, grandparents, friends or our Jewish community were oddballs, I am pretty sure that every Jewish person of my generation remembers conversations like this.  

As a kid I just pretty much thought that adulthood meant that you become paranoid.  But as I got older I started to understand that the older generations around me went through the Second World War and all of them came out scarred.  They experienced, either directly or indirectly the worst kind of antisemitism and living through that changes you, it changes your perspective and for those who survived it or had loved ones that did not survive it (or both), there is just no way to live through that and not see the world as a cruel place and humanity as inhuman.

And as a teenager, I experienced a little of this cruelty myself .  In high school  someone carved a swastika on my locker at school and the Principal told me to just "get over it".  They never looked for who did it.  There was a boy who seemed to take pleasure in tormenting me, throwing snowballs or rocks at me at the bus stop and trying to humiliate me in front of everyone.  Walking home from the bus stop he would walk close behind me and my friends and say nasty things about me, sometimes running up fast behind me and knocking the books out of my hands.  In the 3 years we were in school together this boy never spoke a word to me, other than his taunts.

My dad told me to try and ignore it as best I could, that his taunts said much more about him than about me and to try to hold my head up high.  My dad knew it was tough, but as his youth in Europe during the Second World War had taught him, antisemitism was a fact of life and wasn't going anywhere.  And in our small town making a big deal about it seemed worse.  I lived in a small community where people had connections going back generations.  We were outsiders and my dad knew that calling out for justice would make it worse.  Largely he advised me to keep my head down.

As an insecure teenage girl, made even more fragile by the wounds of my parents divorce, it was tough.  I figured that it was this boy who carved the swastika into my locker and just tried to follow my dad's advice and take the high road.  I looked the other way when someone vandalized our front yard with gasoline spelling out sexual expletives about me on the grass.  I came to the bus stop as late as possible and as soon as I had my driver's license my dad let me take the car to school most days so that I didn't have to put up with this boy's humiliations.  When this boy graduated a year ahead of me all these things suddenly stopped.

In a weird way I even hoped it was this boy who made the swastika.  Because his hatred of me, as inexplicable as it was, was out in the open.  As much as I hated a part of my life in that town because of this boy and I let this boy make me feel afraid and ashamed, the thought that someone else, someone whose hatred was a total secret and unknown to me doing this was even worse.

But this experience for the first time made me tag all these incidents with my parents' familiar label......antisemitism.  I learned too that the world was not always a kind place, that there were people who were unkind or at least did unkind things, that ignorance and insecurity fueled people to do these unkind things but more importantly,  for every ignorant, unkind and antisemitic incident, there were loads of others who showed kindness and understanding and like with a lot of other things in my youth, I learned how to take the bitter with the sweet.

My dad always told me "antisemitism exists, it is real and there are those people out there, who out of fear and ignorance will hate us for no other reason than our Judaism, but there are many others who are not that way.  You have to learn how to find those people and try to shrug off the rest."

Good advice.

And largely, most people I have come into contact with in my life have been kind and understanding so while I know it can be a cold world out there in terms of those who are antisemitic and those who are not, I can also let a crappy salesperson be a crappy salesperson for no other reason than he/she is a crappy salesperson.

I don't see antisemitism around every corner.

But I am also not blind and I know that it does exist, even though nowadays people have become somewhat more clever at how it manifests itself.

Living in Europe, many Europeans get visibly uncomfortable when you bring up antisemitism.  The Dutch whose tradition is more tolerant than other Europeans particularly look down their noses at the French, the Germans and the Belgians for their particularly tough views.  For many Europeans the topic of the Holocaust is an uncomfortable one.  For the Dutch it brings back their own bitter history of suffering under Hitler's Germany and the Dutch, as well as many other Europeans and minority groups suffered terribly during the Second World War.  And the Dutch have a higher ratio of people who truly did try to help Jews escape the Nazis.  Anne Frank is the name which most readily comes to mind but there are countless others who survived because of the kindness, compassion and risks that ordinary Dutch people took to save Jewish lives.  My father in law owes his life to many of these people.  He was a toddler when the Germans came to occupy Holland and his parents, afraid for their childrens' safety placed my father in law and his sister with non-Jewish families in order to protect their identities and keep them safe.  My father in law lived with several families during this 3 year period from 1942-45.  He was only 4 when he was sent from his parents to live with strangers and he lived with different families during this period, being moved each time that there was fear that his identity may be discovered.  One time he told me he was moved because he had mistakenly told someone when they innocently asked where he was born, the real city he was born in and that didn't support his false identity, therefore a day or two later he was moved to another family.

So, the Dutch are quite uncomfortable talking about this period in their history, the entire Dutch population suffered and they are not eager to talk about it but I think, like many Europeans there is probably also guilt for not doing more to prevent Hitler's mass exterminations.

Antisemitism has been around in Europe for centuries, it has been something which has largely been considered as acceptable until after the Second World War.  Antisemitism pre-1945 was inbred, as inbred as noses or eyelashes.  Jews were different, they were objects of suspicion, hatred and that was acceptable, it was okay.  It was as natural as the tide, rolling in and rolling out.

The new antisemitism and the antisemitism I find in Europe now is focused on anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment.   It is not based on Judaism but on Zionism and the State of Israel.  The majority of Europeans and the European media are extremely harsh toward Israel.   It's a disguise, a clever one, not rooted in prejudice, but politics.

In a world where it is no longer acceptable to say "I hate Jews", the sentiment has merely been recycled into something which is more politically correct.

A couple of years ago I was at a dinner party and sat next to a guy.  He brought up Israel and its racist practices and oppression of the Palestinaians.  Not wishing to open up a whole can of worms and thinking of my dad's advice to "shrug off the rest" I listened and asked him questions to try and understand his logic.  He knew I was a Jew, that I had lived in Israel and he really seemed to be on a roll.  At some point in his diatribe he asked me questions and I tried to explain to him that the Palestinian situation is so complex, it is more than just about land and that the stories he reads in the press might be biased.  I made the mistake of telling him one of my personal beliefs which is that Israel's existence is an important element in Jewish survival in our world today, that without Israel being a formidable military presence, not only would Israel's neighbors have crushed it, but that many Jewish communities around the world would be at risk.  And that for many Jews a strong Israel cannot be disentangled from the survival of Judaism.  That we lost so much in the Holocaust  makes every Jew understand that Jewish survival is not a given.  And his answer to that, when the other people in the conversation started to nod their heads in agreement was, "Ah, I am so sick of the Holocaust already, it's enough with the Holocaust, the Jews lost 6 million, it's enough, get over it."

Now this guy was just an ignorant a-hole who drank too much wine at a dinner party and let his manners get away from him but I am quite convinced that what he said was a true reflection of his views, the alcohol giving him courage to say what he really thought.  And I am pretty sure that there are many more people like this in Europe, who feel this way, perhaps some to a lesser degree.  And this is precisely why anti-Israel sentiment has so much more support in Europe than it does in the United States.

But no, it's not about antisemitism, not at all.  Just like it wasn't with my high school principal or that boy that threw snowballs at me.

Currently in the Netherlands there has been a debate about the practice of ritual slaughter.  For those who don't know what it is, ritual slaughter is a practice of butchering meat practiced by the Jewish and Islamic communities to ensure that meat that is butchered adheres to the religious requirements of Kashrut for Jews and Halal for Muslims.  There has been a law proposed on the basis that ritual slaughter is cruel to animals because ritual slaughter does not stun the animal first before it is killed and therefore subjects the animal to suffering. To stun the animal would be in violation of the practice and the meat could not be considered kosher or halal.  Ritual slaughter has been practiced in the Netherlands for several centuries.  Similar laws outlawing the practice have been passed in Scandinavia, the Baltics and Switzerland.

The current state of the proposed law is that the lower house of Parliament (Tweede Kamer) has voted in support of the law but last week under debate in the upper house of Parliament (Eerste Kamer) serious questions were raised about the proposed law and in particular why it is pointing such a strong finger at Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter?  The upper house will vote on the law on December 20th.

Even Temple Grandin, one of the world's foremost authorities (and one of my personal heroes) says that the practice can be maintained as long as certain requirements are met and she says even more that pre-Slaughter stunning may even cause more suffering.

Before you send PETA after my ass, let me just say that I am all for protecting animals and for ensuring that animals are not treated cruelly.  That being said I do think in the world there are people who prioritize the rights of animals over humans and when animal rights become extreme as with any other form of extremism, that is not a good thing.

So, is it really about the animals?   

Or is it possible, plausible that it could be about something else?  Something more deep seated than animal rights?  Could it possibly be about Europeans finding another way to disguise their anti-semitism and their growing resentment about the prevalence of Muslims in their countries?

Could it be about fear?

Could it be another disguise?

Crap, you really do turn into your parents.

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