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Friday, March 20, 2009


For me being a Jew has always been a source of pride, and burden. As a young child living in the Bronx during the years of the Holocaust most of my extended family lived within blocks of our tenement apartment. By my pre-teens, increasing affluence allowed my parents to move from slum to an apartment complex in Queens. Physically the distance from relatives went from blocks to miles; socially we went from Galitsiana Jewish to Italian Catholic. There were few Jewish families in Glen Oaks. An outsider, I was a lone Jew in an Italian neighborhood. Until Joe Parisi and I began hanging together. With Joe I could relax, just a kid among kids. Until the evening we went to his church gym to play and the priest said that Jews were not welcome. I joined the army on my seventeenth birthday. It was 1956 and beyond proving myself a man, I also felt the need to assert myself an American first, Jew second. So rather than use my enlistment to go to photography school I opted instead to join the infantry in Germany. The Holocaust was a decade past, an event I intended to relegate to history. Except that my instant discomfort in standing on German soil remained with me for my entire 18-months tour. Perhaps for other Americans the war was over, but I was haunted by the fact that Germany had recently murdered my people. And despite my best efforts at reason and denial I could never overcome fact: I am, I accepted, a Jew and could never fully assimilate into Christian society. The year is now, 2008, the Holocaust sixty-three years in our fast-receding past. Why these memories today, when all immediate evidence protests that lethal antisemitism is history, that we American Jews are confidently at peace and quietly determined to achieve that which I could not fifty years ago, to disappear into the American melting pot? Why write today on antisemitism? My reasons are neither mysterious nor complicated. With the birth of my first child I decided that my family would be raised in Israel. When reality intruded and we wound up living in the United States my priority shifted to instill in my children a strong sense of Jewish identity. From pre-school to middle school they attended yeshivot. But mere identity and pride as Jews are insufficient preparation for life in Diaspora. It was also important for them to understand and appreciate their place as Jews in Christian history, in Diaspora, in a country loudly and proudly proclaiming itself Christian. I was only too aware that generations of Germans in the years leading up to Shoah proudly raised their children German, loyal to their fatherland, described their homeland as "exceptional." But German Jewry did not have the benefit of historical experience of Shoah to draw upon, to learn from. They were Shoah. As did our German relatives we in America also describe our country as "exceptional." For us the Holocaust is today a point in history, a distant and receding memory. When the subject does arise we find ourselves in agreement with Elie Wiesel that Shoah is a "mystery," a unique confluence of chance events: Germany’s lost war, hyper inflation, economic chaos; and yes, that charismatic madman who seduced the German people. Yes, we reassure ourselves, a mystery. How else understand that this most cultured country in Europe, indeed in the entire Christian west, could so casually, coldly and systematically turn on a tiny minority, their Jewish neighbors, their intermarried relatives; how else explain that even such a country, the one in which Jews were most assimilated, where Jews were more intermarried than at any other time or place, including American Jewry today; how understand that the country where Jews had resided for more than two thousand years; how could “exceptional” Germany conclude that Jewry is a mortal threat to themselves, Europe and the world, a threat warranting extermination? Clearly an aberration, a mystery. But the Holocaust is not so easily set aside.If religious anti-Judaism is a basic pillar of Christian theology (the Gospel of Matthew condemns all Jews and forever for the assumed murder of Jesus), with the arrival of the Age of Reason in the 17th century Jews believed their long persecution as religious outsiders would end. But the Enlightenment, still a product of Christian history and culture, inherited also its Christianity’s prejudices. Jews, since not Christians like everyone else, were at first seen as a foreign nation. By the 19th century, as the tools of the scientific method were applied to the Jews, we were now classified as race. The "science" of eugenics, born in England, developed in the United States and exported to Germany, decided that Jews are of inferior human stock, a different bloodline than our Nordic citizen-neighbors. Then, in the mid-1930’s, German law sealed our fate: a “Jew” was defined as anybody with a single Jewish grandparent (whether that grandparent was a Christian convert or not). So Jews were now legally a breed apart, soon to be defined as not even fully human. Where the Church considered Jews to be children of Satan, Germany defined us as vermin deserving, no demanding for the health of nation and humanity, to be excised once and for all. No, Shoah is not a "mystery" but rather an event with a 2,ooo-year, well-documented history. Does Shoah differ from the Inquisition or the Crusades? Certainly. But in technology, not motive. The 20th century merely provided the computer for locating the victims, Ford’s assembly line for efficient mass murder and waste disposal. And modern bureaucracy made it all so impersonal. Nobody was personally responsible. Nor is what we today label "the Holocaust" the final chapter. Germany established many social and ethical precedents, one being that mass murder is not only feasible but, under the right circumstance, a socially acceptable act of racial hygiene. Far from being merely a historical event, a thing of the past, Christendom’s Jewish Problem remains yet unresolved. For Jews this means that the choice of life in the Christian Diaspora is, and will always remain, a calculated risk. Jewish leaders often assert that the key to ending antisemitism is education. Was that not already tried in Germany, in France and Belgium, Holland and, yes, the United States (antisemitism was as strong here as in Europe before, during and following Shoah)? When a tactic is tried and fails it loses credibility and demands explanation as to why this time it should succeed. I suggest the explanation is denial. And how convince ourselves that, as individuals or collectively, orthodox or atheist, that we can escape our fate through assimilation? As the German legal precedent clearly established, when the next event arrives, it will take but a single Jew in that future Christian family tree to condemn the entire present generation to death. This book represents a commitment made twenty-eight years ago. It is dedicated to my children, the two whom I personally fathered, and to their generation, and to those that follow. Out of concern, and with love.