Response to Tony Bouza’s “The Jews” Commentary Published Jan. 21, 2019

Yes, this got our attention. The title, alone, was enough, but it appeared above the fold in the print version. As we read, the distortions from beginning to end it demanded response. Clearly this is just the reaction that Southside Pride had in mind and we are glad to oblige.

First, the title, “The Jews,” is engineered to provoke. As Jews, we perceive these two words as a prelude to an attack: “The Jews” own the media.” “The Jews” control an international conspiracy that manipulates politicians.” “The Jews killed Jesus.” “The Jews will cheat you.” Etc. The list goes on and we’re girded for battle. Let’s see what Mr. Bouza has to say about what we did to lie, cheat, steal, etc. In this case, Mr. Bouza surprised us. He did not attack. He gushed praise. We have heard this litany of good deeds and accomplishments before … by our grandparents. Art’s grandmother, Lena, would have been “qvelling” with pride. Indeed, she could easily have made these same comments herself (and she did). Our grandmothers would have been surprised to know that “The very word conjures a freighted emotional frisson we barely dare acknowledge or express.” Deb’s grandmother Sophie believed that it conjured a litany of Eastern European foods that stick to your ribs: knishes, kreplach, kneidels and blintzes.

Second, there is no coherent structure for this commentary. This surprised us since usually Mr. Bouza’s commentaries are well thought out. He begins with a reference to the movie “Thurgood” and then launches into his praise of “The Jews.” He jumps from civil rights to education, philanthropy, culture, New York City’s mayor in the 1930s and jumps again to his own childhood, to the New Testament, Communism, Nazi’s, Jack Benny & Rochester, Malcom X and Ann Frank. After this whirlwind ride through “history,” we land at anti-Semitism and finally a slap on the wrist for Israel’s current behavior. What is the point?

Third, this narrative is dangerous because it obscures a reader’s ability to see Jews as human beings. It describes a two-dimensional Jew that is used for political gain by people like Benjamin Netanyahu who says he speaks for “the Jews” and by white nationalist organizations that talk about the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This narrative lifts up certain individuals and then equates them or their deeds with the whole community of people referred to as “the Jews.” What we know, and what we feel strongly about, is that Mr. Bouza’s version of “Jewish history and progress” is the folklore narrative that Jews may tell themselves, but it is far from the truth. If this narrative is to be displayed in our local media, it needs a tempering dose of truth. We love the Southside and we love being Jewish. Therefore we believe that our Southside neighbors need to know who we are as full human beings, not idealized caricatures. The following are just a few points to expand on Mr. Bouza’s “history”:

• Far from “arriving at the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” Jews were here in the USA beginning in the 1600s. In fact, Jews lived in the South and some owned enslaved Africans. Many Jews came through Canada, and some were “illegal aliens.”

• Although Jews were involved, we believe that saying we were “in the forefront of the labor, educational, civil rights and related movements” is a bit of a stretch. Although some of our relatives helped organize the ILGWU, they were organizing against other Jews who were the owners. Deb’s father and uncle, Si and Moishe, were disowned by their extended family when they organized a union in their uncles’ hanger factory. We can understand that in Mr. Bouza’s “innermost heart he thinks of the ACLU; the NAACP; and even the Southern Poverty Law Center as either mostly Jewish or importantly Jewish organizations,” yet we believe these organizations would have a hard time agreeing to that label. We also think that it is important to recognize that these movements were led by many people of diverse faiths due to their common belief for human dignity and morality.

• Equating Jews in New York in the 1930s with Communists may be laudable but is very far from the truth. Our own families are complex. We are communist and capitalist, pro- and anti-Zionist and even pro- and anti-Trump. Art’s grandpa was an anarchist. His grandmother a Democrat and “Bundist.” Yes, some joined the CP but many others were trying to get food on the table and a place to live in a virulent anti-Semitic environment. In addition, New York has always been home to large Modern Orthodox, Chasidic and Conservative Jewish Communities, none of whom would claim communism. As Jews we also always have to acknowledge that many of our community and family members are pure capitalists.

• His poisonous oversimplification, “the anti-Semitism in much of the Black community,” contains the same flaw as this whole piece. It promotes a two-dimensional view of the Black Community and uses the behavior of two people to characterize an entire culture and community.

• Near the end, he comments, “And the beat goes on and anti-Semitism lives.” This is indeed ironic since the two dimensional structure of his own arguments are the exact methods anti-Semites use.

All this effusive praise leads to “A caveat.” Mr. Bouza says, “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.”

As Jews, we feel strongly that the discussion of Israel needs to go beyond this two-dimensional characterization that seems to need a little slap on the wrist to correct its bad behavior. We can expand the picture by remembering that the State of Israel was created by the winners of WWII as a place to ship unwanted Jews out of Europe. The Haganah conquered the land and displaced the indigenous residents in a brutal manner, killing many. Indigenous Palestinians were thrown off the land and forbidden to return. This behavior continues 70 years later to this day. The West Bank and Gaza are the largest open air prisons in the world. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed by the occupying army known as the Israeli Defense Force. This group currently trains U.S. police departments.

We also feel compelled to remember that the sequence described above for the conquering and occupation of Israel completely parallels our own occupation of Indigenous people’s homeland here in the USA. These parallel tracks are not a coincidence. Ultimately they are about white supremacy and both countries and all their citizens need to come to terms with this.

“The Jews” are a complex people shaped by their history. We would hope for future reference that those seeking to understand our culture and history do so from reliable sources within the Jewish Community. As with any people who struggle in unfriendly environments, some people who are Jewish “make it” and others don’t. Some assimilate into the dominant culture and some become part of various subcultures. Finally, as a complex people, we strongly believe that Israel needs to be held accountable for its current behavior which, in our estimation reflects the opposite of Jewish values. It is doing real, physical harm and creates stifling pressure on Jews worldwide.

–Deb Moses and Art Serotoff

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