To call our world (particularly its Jewish environs) frightening is a bit like calling the Orioles bad. It’s so painfully obvious. Yet, to call for a return to “the good old days” — as politicians are wont to do this season of rhetoric — is maddening.
When compared with the present, for both Jews and America (albeit not the O’s), days of yore were quite bad indeed.
Such thoughts came to mind while recently speaking to UMBC students in an American Jewish history class. We were reviewing the infamous “Grant’s General Order Number 11,” which later this year “celebrates” a 150th birthday and in which the then-Union commander expelled all Jews from swathes of Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee for the role some surely had (with non-Jews) in smuggling.
It was the nation’s highest-level official anti-Semitic act ever promulgated. For the record, Grant is said to have regretted it forever after (and President Lincoln quickly had it overturned).
Fast forward to 2012. As we peruse the headlines, it’s hard not to be concerned. Anti-Semitic acts in this country — which, yes, can be masked by anti-Israel sentiments — are relatively stable in number in recent years. But worrisome is the preponderance of educated idiots who keep committing them — whether Mad Mel Gibson, some Occupy Movement leaders (countered by some Jews) and even Henry Kissinger (still honored by Jewish groups despite being outed on Nixon-era tapes for saying what only anti-Semites would or could).
Abroad, the only thing crazier than the drivel slithering across the lips of Ahmadinejad, Chavez and leading right-wing (and often far-left) European politicians is that they either run countries or soon could.
And the stakes? Let’s just say they’re nuclear.
It makes me want to choke on my words to a friend a few years ago. He was offering what I consider his usual paranoia about life for Jews in America.
“Anti-Semitism is rising here,” he ominously told me and another pal during one of our occasional, always frenzied and wonderful two-hour verbal duels over diverging views (one of us left, one right, one center). “I listen to C-SPAN all the time and you should here what the common person is saying about us.”
I quickly rejoined, “Statistics tell a different story. Jews are more accepted here than ever. You hear some pathological nuts who buy into every conspiracy theory Henry Ford and Louis Farrakhan (truly strange ideological bedfellows) could imagine. But they have no power.”
So who’s right?
In truth, we both are. We live in an era in which a Catholic woman (and wannabe Jew) named Madonna has mainstreamed Jewish mysticism, in which some leading political commentators and academics decry American Jews for dragging the nation into war with Iran (as they said with Iraq twice, despite affirmative votes from the U.S. Congress, which I believe remains overwhelmingly non-Jewish), in which most Jews and non-Jews alike simply want to be left alone to pursue their lifestyles and in which Jews have unfettered access (and win general elections to) the nation’s halls of power.
So what is the great threat to Jews in this country? It should not be non-Jews; it should be the lack of Jewish passion. But if we had no angst over either, I’d really worry.