Confessions of a Jew in a World of White Privilege

I’ve been white most of my life. About 99.7% of it. When I say I’ve been white I just mean I’ve enjoyed the perks of being a white man in America. Or not even enjoyed them. In fact, I wish I’d been aware of them enough to really savor those perks, but like most of my kind, I just took them for granted.

When I say 99.7% of the time I make exceptions for moments when I was forced to experience, a few times violently, a marginalization. Several times in fourth and fifth grade, kids threw pennies at my feet and said, “Pick them up, kike!” When I refused they swarmed me with punches and kicks, leaving me sprawled in playground dirt. It’s crazy but true that this was in Northern New Jersey in the 1970’s. David Irving and my city-raised Jewish friends might deny it, but it happened. These bullies were mostly Irish and Italian, from families whose ancestors had been hammered by ethnic hatred in America, but when those little fists were flying I probably wasn’t musing on such ironies.

I’d never compare these boyhood dust-ups with the physical, political and economic violence and trauma visited upon so many in this country. Sure, I’ve been the only non-White Christian in the room and felt an odd vibration. I can recall when somebody said something hateful about Jews, then assured me they didn’t mean me. Still, fat lips, bloody noses, and nasty comments do not a true victim of white supremacy make.

Maybe opportunities were denied me for my Jewishness, or even just my Jewy-ness — my face, my inflections — but I’ll never know, and I’ve led a plum existence, full of chances, and more important, second chances. That’s the story of most Jews in America. There were dark moments, of course —quotas and beatings and death— but you are often not supposed to utter a very obvious fact: The Jews of America have flourished. The Jews of Europe are a different story. I remember once sitting in a bar in Queens as the bartender told me about his sad past in Ireland. “You see,” he said, “the Irish are the Jews of Europe.” I knew what he meant, but had to reply: “I thought the Jews were the Jews of Europe.”

As a Jew raised without a belief in God or any familiarity with Jewish ritual, as a Jew with no connection to Israel (except for the writers I admire) and a low opinion of the actions of its government (though as an American, it’s tough to throw stones), I once clung to the legacy of the Holocaust and various pogroms to lend my background some meaning.

I have a great love for Jewish-American culture, and see myself participating in it, in ways clear to me and not. But I’ve also always been frightened and fascinated by the idea that there are people who hate me, want to kill me, or just kick me in the ribs with worn-out Keds for an aspect of my identity I don’t ponder that much, for a religion I don’t practice. But I’ve learned to keep something in mind: Many people on the planet live with very similar absurdities, and are far closer to a death caused by them.

Back in what he must consider his “brain-dead liberal” days, the great playwright David Mamet made a fascinating movie called “Homicide.” The protagonist, a Jewish detective, is torn between his secular family of cops who at best ignore and occasionally disdain his heritage, and a shadowy group of Jewish militants who offer him a sense of belonging, a way to be a heroic, faith-fueled Jew. At one point, in a library, a scholarly Jewish man, upon discovering the detective’s lack of religious education, wonders what kind of creature he’s encountered. “You say you’re a Jew, but you can’t read Hebrew. What are you then?”

Many would say the same to me. I guess my first answer would be “None of your damn business.” My second would be that I’m a human being born into a family whose forebears identified themselves through a sometimes ethnically defined religious tradition known as Judaism, certain threads of which are deeply, and often happily, stitched into my body and mind. But my third answer would be question: “What’s that got to do with right now?”

The election of Donald Trump and the advent of some radically racist, misogynist and, yes, anti-Semitic voices in the highest realms of our government is lamentable, but as many have written, not that shocking. Still, while I understand the source of the visions that currently plague some Jewish friends (stock cars, barbed wired, camps), my main response is a renewed and keen awareness of how groups that have already suffered catastrophe after catastrophe in this country might be feeling, and in the near future, faring.

Anti-Semitism has great symbolic power, and because of that, the fight against it should be conducted in such a manner that it bolsters the wider resistance against the poisoners of the republic. If the prominent inclusion of Jews on the Bannonists’ hate list fosters more solidarity, that’s a very good thing. I hope to never see a Jewish Lives Matter sign — that would be ridiculous in the American context — but there’s always been enough Jew-hatred in this country to remind Jewish-Americans where the lines are drawn, and to inspire some to join a greater fight against, for example, racism, even as we may thrive in a racist system. That last part is a painful paradox, but if we let it be a paralyzing one, these particular terrorists, the Bannonists, will win.

Sam Lipsyte is the author of “Home Land” and “The Ask.”


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