November 20, 2019

The Great Divide

Who are your readers, a friend asked me recently. He is not Jewish, which perhaps explains the question.I gave a pat answer: Young and old; men and women; observant and secular; liberal and conservative; survivors and their offspring; families that often trace their history through three generations. The usual; you’ve met them all. I waved away the question.

But it lingered with me, partly because I had deliberately omitted one category: Those who view the gentile world with distrust as opposed to those who see non-Jews as “fellow Americans,” not much different from their Jewish friends and family. I remembered what someone close to this newspaper once told me: In the end, I have my two bags packed in the closet, because you can’t trust anyone who isn’t Jewish. He had served in the army during World War II, was a self-made man, quite successful and wealthy. He had an attachment to Israel, but no desire to live there. The vehemence behind his words caught me by surprise. I thought then that his feelings probably reflected a generational divide. That no amount of worldly goods or acclaim could erase, for him, the sting of rejection and segregation which characterized the experience of so many American Jews in the 1930’s through much of the 1950’s. His children – certainly his grandchildren – did not feel that way, I assumed.

Today I am less certain. The response to Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s vice-presidential candidacy has given me pause. Of course most Jews, regardless of political affiliation or generation, were thrilled. But a minority let their anxiety show. Such visibility carried risks, they said. What if the anti-Semites seized on the campaign to mobilize all the latent and overt hostility towards Jews that exists out there? In the first days after the nomination, the Internet, carried more than 14,000 crude messages. Or: What if the Democrats lost? Would Lieberman and the Jews be assigned the blame? And so it went.

New York Magazine seized the occasion to publish a cover story on Lieberman accompanied by a round-table discussion with some of the city’s more prominent Jews. There were many questions posed, but the answers all seemed to revolve around this key one.

The people who’ve raised the most doubts about the wisdom of putting a Jew on the ticket tend to be Jews themselves. Do you think Jews are paranoid or just more conscious of anti-Semitism? Here are some of the responses, albeit in shortened form, with some connection to other statements made later in the discussion.

Mort Zuckerman (founder of Boston Properties and publisher of the New York Daily News, U.S. News and World Report and Fast Company): I think people always worry about someone Jewish being in such a visible and exposed position, because they’re worried it will reflect back on the whole people, as any minority is concerned – it’s the same for Black people. But Jews need not have any fear about Joe Lieberman, because he leads by example… So I think it will really give a wonderful vision of what Jewish people in general are like.

Malcolm Honlein (executive chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations):…It’s important to note that just ’cause we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not chasing us… I think it will clear up a lot of mystery in this country about what it means to be a Jew, especially an Orthodox Jew… For many people, it’s the first time they had to confront, beyond the stereotypes, beyond the bigotry, just what a Jew is.

Marcelle Karp (a founder and co-editor of Bust, the feminist ‘zine and a co-author of “The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order”): You know, I hate to inject a skeptical note into this, but I think there’s something being lost here. Things might be different in New York and in L.A., but in many parts of America, they still hate us.

Philip Weiss (a novelist, journalist and columnist for the New York Observer): One of the things I find really dismaying is this constant harping about anti-Semitism. America said no to my father in very important ways. But I’m 44 years old, and America has said yes to me over and over and over again. And yet there are people at this table still saying they hate us. I don’t think they hate us. What I would argue is that they love us… and our specialness has been recognized… Quite apart from his politics, which I don’t particularly like he’s (Lieberman) an impressive person, and so Jewish. The polls suggest that Americans are happy to accept him. They don’t think it’s such a big deal.

Ben Younger (director of the movie “Boiler Room” and who recently sold the pilot for a new television series to ABC): If Joe Lieberman ran around wearing a yarmulke, he might elicit a very different reaction… I don’t mean to be a naysayer, but my experience and my family’s experience have taught me that it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security… A year ago in Bergen County, (New Jersey) where my parents live – a very nice middle to upper-class community – walking home from Rosh Hashanah at night, I’ve got guys screaming at me. Screaming Jewish epithets. I felt it in San Diego, where I spent a summer last year; I felt it in Los Angeles; I feel it all over the place. You don’t wear a yarmulke, so you don’t know. If you hold a lulav in your hand and walk home on Sukkoth, you’re a target.

Weiss: I think that’s terrible… But I would say that there is racism directed towards many people in this country, and many groups face barriers much worse than ours. For Jews, these barriers have largely fallen… I’m embarrassed that at this moment when America has said yes to us… everyone at this table remains so self-obsessed. What is happening here is that a Jewish man is being nominated to be the vice president of the United States. It’s a great responsibility, and I hope it’ll force us to stop just thinking about Jews. The fact is, Jews have a lot of power in this country.

Karp: We’re all successful New York Jews – that’s who we are at this table. I don’t think if you ask someone who drives a truck in Mississippi that he’s going to intellectualize what’s so great about Lieberman. He’s going to look at him and go: He’s a Jew.

How do we rationalize the divisions among the New Yorkers? Age doesn’t offer a satisfactory answer. Nor does the secular-observant divide; or the political one, liberals vs. conservatives. For a brief while I thought perhaps the comments accentuated the difference between those who have strong affiliations with Jewish organizations and those who do not (namely, Philip Weiss).

But upon reflection, I’ve decided it might just be a function of personality plus experience. Some of us need to be well-defended, choose to keep our guard up. For good reason: History has taught us that lesson and, in some cases, experience has confirmed it.

But then there are those of us who prefer to remain open to life’s risks. There may be slaps, occasional or a’plenty, but the pleasure of roaming the world, freely, seems to compensate for the potential confrontation, and even the occasional moment of danger.