Talking about antisemitism

Let’s see, we started last week talking about Dave Chappelle and ended it with two armed men arrested at Penn Station after allegedly making threats against the Jewish community. In between those incidents, swastika graffiti was found near a public trail in Maryland, a Jewish cemetery was vandalized with swastikas in Illinois, and antisemitic flyers were left in neighborhoods in various parts of Rhode Island (see the ADL’s antisemitic incident tracker for details/news links). And those are just the incidents I know about from last week, not including the man whose alleged threats put all New Jersey synagogues on alert until he was arrested.

I could say I’m horrified and we live in scary times and we need to oppose hatred. And all of that is true. But I think it’s more useful to share information. When people can put events and wrongheaded beliefs into a larger historical and cultural context, then they can better understand what’s happening. Then they’re better equipped to fight it.

So let’s talk about an antisemitic trope. Specifically, the Jews-control-things trope. Historically speaking, Jews have tended to cluster in specific industries or careers because we either weren’t welcome in or were barred from the others. This is where the European Jewish moneylender or peddler stereotype comes from (although some academics think that the stereotype might be overstated). Similarly, Hollywood movie studios were mostly founded by recent Jewish immigrants who would’ve been kept out of other, more established industries. And many early comic book creators were Jewish because they couldn’t get work in more mainstream art fields. When Jews do well in a particular industry, people accuse them of “controlling” it.

Having a bunch of Jews in an industry is not the same thing as Jews controlling that industry. But attacking Jews for “controlling” an industry sounds very much like saying Jews shouldn’t be in that industry at all.

The thing about tropes like this is, people get used to hearing them and then don’t question them. They become “conventional wisdom.” That’s how hatred thrives in plain sight.

In the library presentation I did recently, I talked about my short story “Clearing the Field” (in this anthology if you’re interested). It’s about a young baseball player who sees spectral Nazis on the ballfield. But she’s the only Jewish player, and she’s the only one who sees them. The field, she discovers, is the site of a former American Nazi camp. Eventually the Nazis start menacing her dreams, and she realizes she has to find a way to exorcise the hateful memories of the field for good.

Where did I get the idea from? The knowledge that there were not one but three such camps in New Jersey before the U.S. entered World War II. This is from my presentation:

  • The German American Bund was a pro-Nazi organization active in the 1930s until the U.S. entered World War II, after which it was outlawed. In addition to the Madison Square Garden rally it infamously held in 1939, it ran a number of youth camps throughout the U.S. There were several camps in the area: Camp Siegfried on Long Island, Camp Bergwald in Bloomingdale, Camp Wille und Macht in Griggstown, and Camp Nordland in Andover. 
  • Camp Nordland quickly became unpopular with the locals. It was the frequent site of protests, and the county sheriff began to investigate it. The state revoked its charter in 1941. The former campsite is currently used for recreational fields.  
  • An off-Broadway play about Camp Siegfried, written by Bess Wohl, opens Nov. 15, and a historical novel about Camp Nordland by Barbara Krasner will be published next year. 

I think people like to view white supremacy and American Nazis as a new problem. That’s just not the case. But people have to be willing to see what’s right in front of them.

If you’ve read this far, please check out this GoFundMe list to help victims and families of the Club Q shootings in Colorado. I don’t need to point out that hate speech against LGBTQ people has also been increasing over the past few years. We could do a lot about hate speech, and hate crimes, if we kept showing up for each other.

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