Deconstructing Judaism, Pt. IV

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 8.58.11 PM

Assyrians, Donny

(….Part I here….)

One October almost a decade ago, I was enrolled for the fall semester in my California hometown community college when an Israeli army pal flew in to visit. He spoke almost no English, and it was a great opportunity to translate and see my native country through alien eyes. The morning he arrived, I showed him around San Francisco. It was during the Jewish high holidays, and I had taken the week off school. Our plan was to drive to Lake Tahoe the next morning.

Toward mid-afternoon we came to the Palace of the Legion of Honor (when I show you San Francisco, I do it right.) The museum is on a hill sloping sharply down from the plateau of a cliffside that looks north across the Golden Gate toward Marin. The bottom floor is partially subterranean, but white-walled, high-ceilinged and well lit. As you exit east-to-west along the south side, there’s a long hallway leading past the gift shop and the cafeteria. My friend and I slowed to peruse the contents of the glass cases along the south wall, when a number of ancient Assyrian artifacts caught our eyes.

“Assyrians!” my friend exclaimed.

“Those bastards!” I chimed in.

Well, about a week later I was in World Civ class (Honors World Civ, if you must know.) The instructor, a charismatic, Jesuit-educated old historian with a wry sense of humor, who knew about my Israeli army sojourn, was lecturing about the Bronze Age Levant. When he came to the Assyrian sacking of Jerusalem in 701 BC, he paused, lowered his glasses down his nose a bit, and cast a mischievous glance in my direction. “I don’t want to inflame any tensions here,” he quipped. “I know Sam’s still mad at the Assyrians.” What could I say? He’d busted me.

My old father is a small-town doctor, raised as one of a few dozen Jews at a time when the town was overwhelmingly WASP. He’s totally irreligious and apolitical. Yet, not long ago, he told me about a Lutheran minister who’d been in to see him as a patient. “I asked the guy why Martin Luther didn’t like the Jews,” he told me. Awkward. What kind of madhouse would the world be if everyone had memories this long?

As it turns out, we have some idea. Yoav Shamir’s 2009 documentary, Defamation, examines official Jewry’s exploitation of anti-semitism for political gain. Andy Nowicki reviewed the film for the original Alternative Right:

[T]he most powerful segment of the film involves a group of Israeli teenagers who are flown to Auschwitz on a field trip. The kids are familiar adolescent characters: rowdy, rambunctious, immature, emotional, prone to gossip and mischief, at times sweetly wide-eyed in their innocence. They are both annoying and likable simultaneously, as teenagers can be. In any case, this group is in no mood to have their consciousness raised during their exciting trip together: much to the consternation of their adult chaperones, they just want to have fun. 

Over the course of the trip, however, these kids are repeatedly bludgeoned with the message: You are Jews and the world hates you; you must in turn hate and fear the world if you hope to survive! Their faces are pushed into the gruesome tales of the events that took place in the notorious camp, and at night their handlers tell them stories of how the present-day country of Poland is still rife with neo-Nazi violence. A harmless comment to some members of the group uttered by an old Polish man is interpreted as viciously anti-Semitic; Shamir tries to correct their misconception, but to no avail; they have been instructed how to perceive reality, and won’t be dissuaded.

The kids, being hedonistic at heart, do manage to put up some resistance to the relentless stream of emotionally compelling propaganda being pumped into their ears, but they can only hold out for so long. Near the end of the trip, a lovely young Jewess breaks down and tells Shamir that it has finally happened: she has learned to “hate” her enemies; the implication is clear that she has come to view the Palestinians and Arabs as cut from the same cloth as the Nazis. 

This scene has a viscerally searing quality, similar in feel to Orwell’s account of his hero Winston Smith succumbing to the horrific manipulations of the Ministry of Love and learning to embrace the pernicious ruling ideology of Oceania. The corruption of innocence portrayed here is simply breathtaking, and heartbreaking to behold.

Who can fail to detect the empathy in Nowicki’s recounting of this little incident? I know all about these stories. I was nursed on precisely this kind of pathos and spite throughout my childhood, and adolescence, and as a young adult in Israel. The problem is that, because I am half-Jewish, this fear and loathing that Judaism traffics in is directed, in part, against a part of myself.

The perspective of this series is one that will be difficult for many Jews to accept or even follow. I’ve tried to raise a mirror to Judaism—not just to the frummies, or the liberals, or the Zionists, but to Judaism and Jewishness fundamentally, and what I see reflected back is not entirely flattering. As Nowicki puts it, channelling the filmmaker, Shamir,

Hating those one takes to be one’s enemies and constantly fearing the worst from them may in fact be a self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing out the worst in everyone, oneself and one’s enemies alike. If Jews want to thrive and inspire goodwill from others, Shamir appears to be saying, they should eschew such a spurious mindset, and not dwell so much on bad things that were done to them in the past.

But what kind of Judaism would that be?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: