Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Our First Experience With Antisemitism (Except for All The Other Times)

This passage, about a Jewish couple in Tennessee whose attempt to adopt a three-year old child was rejected because they were Jewish, struck a chord with me: It strikes a chord because it is reminiscent of a phenomenon Albert Memmi explored in his Portrait of a Jew. Memmi speaks of how often Jews speak of never being truly "aware" of antisemitism until some particularly stark incident slaps them across the face. Until that moment, they will say, antisemitism was never really a "thing" in their lives. And yet, if you press them a bit, it turns out that this overt incident was not the first -- there were other incidents, perhaps many other incidents, but for whatever reason they didn't "count", and it doesn't occur to them to mention them or even think about them as antisemitic incidents. So after the initial declaration that the overt incident was "the first time", there comes the belated admission that well, I guess it wasn't the first time, not by a long shot, and what at first might have felt like a isolated, even freakish incident, really is just bringing to the foreground a lot of baggage which had been tucked away in the background.

We could all stand to wonder why this practice exists, and why it has existed for so long and over eras and locations where it seems nobody -- least of all the Jews -- should have had any trouble recognizing that antisemitism wasn't isolated or freakish (Memmi's examples were people like Herzl and Einstein).  What explains this pattern? Why is our first instinct, our deep psychology, to "forget" antisemitism has happened to us?

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