Why I am a Jew

by David Winner at 3 Quarks Daily: Throughout most of my life, I periodically napped in the back sitting room of my parent’s house in Charlottesville, gazing at an enormous shelf of my father’s books.

Why I am a Jew was an unlikely title to find.   Though my father was most certainly a Jew, he was fiercely disconnected from all things Jewish.  He claimed that he only learned that he was Jewish after he left his Jewish mother and Irish American stepfather behind in Pasadena to go to a very antisemitic Harvard in the late forties.  He hated Woody Allen, Larry David, Bernie Sanders, and all other public Jews, never set foot in a synagogue or at a seder dinner, and was skeptical about the state of Israel.

Perhaps being brought up by such a non-Jewish Jew has influenced my perspective.  When the news broke about the Hamas attacks in the fall, Angela, my wife, was cross with me before I even opened my mouth because she was stunned by what had happened and feared what I would say.  I’ve had a long history of disparaging Israel.

A few days after the attacks, I came back to my house in Brooklyn to find Angela in conversation with our ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbors.  They were in shock.  Their seventeen-year-old son told us that Muslims had slated the following day for killing Jews around the world.  Only Israel could protect us from the “animals.”  The world, as he framed it, was overrun by an evil force out to get him and his community.   Rather than confront his racism, I retreated inside.  I didn’t think he would ever construct things any differently.

And my nearly opposite view would hardly matter if I somehow encountered Hamas.  I wonder about the last thoughts of Vivian Silver, an elderly Israeli peace activist killed by Hamas.  Did she feel betrayed, doubt her life’s work?  Did she fear Israeli retribution, an apocalypse overtaking Gaza?

Of course, I’ve never met any members of Hamas, and, unlike my father at Harvard, I spent the first three decades of my life not hearing or experiencing anything remotely anti-Jewish.  In my educated middle-class universe, antisemitism appeared to be an artifact from the past.

But that changed after I’d started teaching at a community college in Jersey City.  A couple of decades ago in a class amorphously entitled Cultures and Values, I permitted a free-floating class conversation, stemming from my tiresome standard-issue liberalism.  My students agreed that George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and Guantanamo were bad, but the real problem was the Jews.  We were greedy and dishonest. We controlled the banks and the movies.  The students in my class were a veritable United Nations of not liking the Jew: Irish, Italians, Poles, Nigerians, Filipinos, African Americans, American-born and Latin American-born Latinx, Indians, Pakistanis.

The sentiment did not come from the Palestinian situation as that did not seem to be on anybody’s radar.  One contributing factor could have been the absence of Jews in Jersey City.   Typical urban white flight occurred in the seventies, but some white people remained.  The Jew flight, on the other hand, was more pronounced.  There were so few Jews around to be juxtaposed against the negative tropes.  And, often enough, my students worked in New York City for Jewish overlords, who were unkind and inconsiderate, as overlords tend to be.

When, on occasion, someone has identified my ethnicity and asked me about Jewish holidays that I’ve never heard of or Israel where I’ve never been, I’ve felt mildly affronted as false assumptions about me seem to have been made. Still, when anti-Jewish rhetoric streamed forth from my class, I owned my Jewishness. I spoke not about my gentile mother, my determined secularism, or my opposition to Israeli policies, and they were welcome to consider me rich and greedy if they so wished.

More here.