Focus on anti-Semitism

Focus is a kind-of distorted mirror image of John Howard Griffin's 'Black Like Me.'

focus book 88 298 (photo credit: )
focus book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Focus By Arthur Miller Penguin 240pp., $14 'I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine," the musician Lou Reed once said. I wonder how Reed would feel about the nostalgia I've been experiencing lately: nostalgia that is mine, for a past that isn't - nostalgia for a time when anti-Semitism was simpler, when it's causes and effects were more obvious and more obviously real. I'm thinking about the kind of anti-Semitism captured in playwright Arthur Miller's 1945 novel, Focus. Focus was Miller's first and final novel, but that's not the only reason it stands out in his oeuvre. Miller grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, but his dramatic works rarely engaged Jewish themes. Focus does so with the passion of an ideologue. Focus is a kind-of distorted mirror image of John Howard Griffin's 'Black Like Me.' Griffin's book documented the author's experiences masquerading as a black man in the American South of the 1950s. Griffin's ruse was purposeful. He wanted to experience racism in order to better understand it. In Focus, Lawrence Newman has a similar experience, but unintentionally so. Newman is a middle-class American, mild-mannered, if slightly Puritanical. He's a bachelor who lives with his mother and works in human resources. He's also an anti-Semite. "[Newman] had never been able to pass a Jewish neighborhood without seeing behind the dingy curtains hidden sums of money... To him they had no tradition of nobility... Their houses smelled, and when they did not it was only because they wanted to seem like gentiles." Newman's anti-Semitism is passive, but it's so all-consuming that it's almost unbelievable - almost as unbelievable as what happens next. After donning a pair of glasses, Lawrence Newman is mistaken for a Jew. He loses his job and becomes the subject of racist aggression previously reserved for Mr. Finkelstein, the Jewish shopkeeper down the block. In the history of literature, perhaps only Clark Kent had more transformative spectacles. In an introduction to a 1984 edition of Focus, Miller explained his inspirations for the novel: "As far as I knew at the time, anti-Semitism in America was a closed if not forbidden topic for fiction." This seems almost quaint now. These days, conversations about anti-Semitism seem to flare up in the media every few weeks. Recently, they were stimulated by Iran's Holocaust cartoons and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's London Review of Books article about the influence of the Israel Lobby in American foreign policy. But the fact that anti-Semitism is an acceptable topic of conversation doesn't mean we're any more enlightened about it. Indeed, the above mentioned cases are somewhat mystifying. Despite appearances, they are not obvious examples of anti-Semitism. While Iran's leaders are hardly philo-Semites, the cartoons were political satires, accenting Western hypocrisies about free speech. The point: While unflattering presentations of Muhammad are vigorously protected, Holocaust denial is a crime in 10 European countries. The Walt and Mearsheimer paper is even more complex. Though far fewer people would consider it explicitly anti-Semitic, it's presentation of the Israel lobby as a shadowy, disconnected group that guides American foreign policy resembles, in some ways, other Jewish conspiracy theories. On the other hand, many of Walt and Mearsheimer's points are undeniable. Israel does, in fact, receive unequaled aid from the United States, much of which seems incommensurate with America's regional interests. Of course, I would never truly wish for a return to the anti-Semitism of Miller's era, but reading about an anti-Semitism that feels so different from the kind discussed today is instructive. Languages are built upon distinctions and vocabularies that can express them. If we are to develop a more sophisticated way to analyze anti-Semitism, we must create a language that allows us to distinguish between its manifestations. Recognizing that there are indeed different manifestations is an important first step.