The very word conjures a freighted emotional frisson we barely dare acknowledge or express.
Watching “Thurgood,” a biopic on the Supreme Court Justice and the NAACP, inspired me to think of the role of Jews in America.
They arrived at the Lower East Side of Manhattan and marched on. No proselytizing but a deep sense of unity and a devotion to learning, family and community. They set up places to help—like the Henry Street Settlement House and created unions and schools. They were—and are—in the forefront of the labor, educational, civil rights and related movements. It was Goodman and Schwerner who died with Chaney. Truly at the ramparts.
In my innermost heart I think of the ACLU; the NAACP; and even the Southern Poverty Law Center as either mostly Jewish or importantly Jewish organizations.
The Jews have been the trailblazers in our educational and cultural systems. They’ve produced inspiring films and influential literature. They’re philanthropic and altruistic, and their religion requires them to self-examine and atone.
When I was growing up, the city’s mayor was asked why he never said his mother was Jewish. Fiorello La Guardia answered, “I didn’t want to appear to be boasting.”
I had no exposure to Jews until I was 16 and went to push a hand truck, sweep and pack dresses in the Garment Center. I felt immediately comfortable and appreciated, notwithstanding the fact that I was an obvious loser—and that ain’t modesty speaking.
The experience of encouragement and acceptance accompanied me for the next 74 years and counting (albeit more slowly). And it led me to think of such colossal ironies—which I had not even suspected—that Jesus was a rabbi and that the temples where he spoke were actually synagogues and not cathedrals, as I half-believed (or, more likely, had been led to believe). And how can we conclude that Jews murdered Jesus when it was Pontius Pilate who sentenced him and Romans who placed INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) over the cross. And it was a devout Jew who spread the word beyond the Hebrews. Paul of Tarsus said you didn’t have to be circumcised or be Hebrew to worship Jesus. A real breakthrough. And this came around six decades after the Crucifixion.
More ironies; if you were a Jew in NYC in the ’30s, and had an inkling of the world around you, you’d have to be a Communist. Who fought the Nazis in Berlin in the ’30s? The Communists—only. And why did Jews sign up for the Lincoln Brigade in ’37 and ’38? Because, again, only the Left fought the Nazis and fascists in Spain. Such complexities expose the dangerous actions of such morons as our president—and his followers.
Even Jack Benny employed Rochester. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” and George Soros suffers pretty horribly for contributing to learning democracy and other good causes.
Another irony—the anti-Semitism in much of the Black community. I heard Malcolm X, in the early ’60s, exhort Black crowds in Harlem about the evils of “Goldberg.” Malcolm—to his everlasting credit—saw the light and abandoned the stain. His former boss, Elijah Muhammad, and his successor, Louis Farrakhan, continued the poison.
They came for my neighbor and I stood silent. When they came for me there was no one to protest.
“An entire nation—every single one, almost, became complicit in the Holocaust. This is the greatest crime ever perpetrated by any people. Six million dead is a statistic. Ann Frank is a tragedy,” Stalin, a pretty big criminal in his own right, was reported to have said.
And the beat goes on and anti-Semitism lives—and did I forget to mention Erica, my wife, is Jewish?
The creation of Israel in 1948 provided a glow of genuine satisfaction. As an evolved Zionist, I believed Jews needed a safety valve sort of homeland. Splendid.
What Israel and its actions have taught me, however, is a chastened discovery—the nation’s behavior has often meant bullying, insensitivity and exclusion. What an awful irony.
So—I believe Israel must live, but it also needs to remember the history of Jews and the need for mercy and justice. Jews must never forget the Holocaust and its lessons.