In the Diaspora: Just because we're paranoid

For many assimilated US Jews, the presence of domestic anti-Semitism is a convenient pillar of identity.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Every time I walk toward the JCC on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a trip that I make often as an obsessive exerciser, I pass through a line of steel cylinders, each the size of a kitchen wastebasket. They are there, of course, to stop the advance of a car bomb. And while this sort of dual-purpose architecture has had a no-pun-intended boom in New York since September 11, with planters and park benches subtly doubling as barricades, I cannot help but think of such sentries as a particularly Jewish form of design. What other people would have rational reason to guard a building devoted to cooking lessons, Yiddish-theater performances, spin classes and the innocuous like? These precautions beg a larger question about ourselves, about how we as American Jews navigate a psychic course between not exaggerating Jew-hatred and not pretending it doesn't exist. Israelis, needless to say, suffer no such confusion, being on the receiving end of terror on a regular basis. For many American Jews, especially those without a deeper, more learned sense of either Judaism or Yiddishkeit, the presence of domestic anti-Semitism has served a convenient purpose as a pillar of identity. It takes the form, depending on the political flank of origin, of an assumption that blacks hate us or that evangelical Christians want to take over the country. Sadly, part of the commercial appeal of Philip Roth's alt-history novel The Plot Against America was that it whispered reassuringly into self-pitying American Jews' ears that, yes, it could've happened here, homegrown Nazis could've taken over the United States. The truth is that, notwithstanding Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Louis Farrakhan and other noxious anomalies, America has welcomed Jews unlike any country in two millennia of exile. Our dilemma in America is not caused by the hatred of others but by their acceptance and quite often their literal love - how to sustain Jewish community while savoring the upward, outward and social mobility of a pluralistic, polyglot society. Unlike our diasporic peers in France, we need not live in daily fear of vandalism and attack. Unlike those in England, we are not required to renounce Zionism and Israel as the price of full acceptance. And here in comfortable America, few parts are more comfortable than our West Side shtetl. ONE SINGLE recent day, though, reminded us of the limits of our security and the purpose of historical memory. It was May 20, the day on which Iran launched a solid-fuel missile capable of hitting Israel and four men were arrested by the FBI for trying to bomb an Orthodox synagogue and a Reform temple in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. There is a sardonic aphorism that goes, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you." That double-negative attests to a truth many of us American Jews learned anew on May 20. Even amid our confident existence here, there remain people committed to our destruction. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2007, he was widely reviled in liberal circles for having asserted that Iran has no homosexuals. Yet when Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, rhetorically stapled Ahmadinejad to the wall for his Holocaust denial, it was Bollinger who was assailed for having been an inhospitable host. Most recently, we've seen Roger Cohen of The New York Times aspiring to play Walter Duranty to Ahmadinejad's Stalin, devoting columns and speeches to depicting the cozy life of Iranian Jews and the unappreciated moderation of the regime. In the chattering classes where I keep company, a lot of us wish all that were true, that negotiation could succeed, if only to spare Israel itself the Iranian retaliation that would come after a strike against its nuclear facilities. The test-firing of the missile on May 20 tended to show the limits of the talking cure. Sometimes the people who say they want to destroy you actually mean it, and even find the threat of annihilation a great plank in their reelection platform. The four men arrested for trying to bomb the Jewish sites in Riverdale can't be readily compared to a demagogue vested with an electoral majority. They were marginal characters - career criminals, ex-cons, jailhouse converts to a jihadist version of Islam. Then again, so was Richard Reid, who nearly blew a jet out of the sky with a shoe-bomb. We know already that an FBI informant helped promote the idea of an attack and sell the materiel for it. We know, too, that the informant had his own criminal record and in time-honored fashion turned snitch to save himself. But nobody can be entrapped without cooperating in his own entrapment. Nobody can be stung against his will. It wasn't the informant, but the ring-leader, who declared, according to the formal charge sheet: "I hate those motherf---s, those f--ing Jewish bastards.... I would like to get [destroy] a synagogue." For any American Jew tempted to inflate the menace of anti-Semitism as a prop for his or her own fragile identity, those words, like Iran's missile, provide an instructive shock. Faced with genuine Jew-hatred, it's nothing to want to construct a sense of self around. And for any American Jew who thinks hatred these days is reserved for gays, blacks and Latino immigrants, those words and that missile say that there still are enemies out to get us.