Friday, January 30, 2015

The Missing Element

British Jewish journalist David Aaronovitch has an interesting column about a meeting he had with a young man interested in becoming a columnist. In the course of the discussion, Aarnovitch mentioned he sometimes wrote for the Jewish Chronicle, but that it did not pay a particularly large sum of money for its columns.
And this is what he then said. "It's not surprising is it? I mean, they're notoriously tight-fisted." Eh? What was that? "They"? He might as well have produced a platypus from his trousers. So, astonished and hoping I might have misinterpreted him but fearing that I had not, I checked. "Who is tight-fisted?" And he replied, in a mildly baffled voice, "Jews. They're known to be stingy and miserly with money." If my face registered my feelings it must have been quite a sight. "Are you serious?" I asked. "It's what everyone says," he protested. "It's well known." Not trusting myself to any further conversation and needing to calm down I sent him away. Later he returned to apologise. He had not meant, he told me, to be in any way offensive. He was very sorry if he had been. And I could tell he had almost no idea of why I had reacted as I did. For him the sentiment that Jews were money-grubbing misers was not just commonplace, it appeared that he had never even heard it contradicted. Perhaps in his part of the country (rural East Anglia, I discovered) it was what everyone thought. But you might have expected a three year degree course at a new university to produce at least one challenge to this medieval stereotype.
This is striking, and striking on a couple of levels. One can be shocked that the stereotype was blurted so openly (and to someone named "Aaronovitch", no less). But I'm more amazed at the bafflement. I take Aaronovitch at his word when he says his interlocutor seemed genuinely confused that this would be seen as offensive. It seems from his description that the young man is not wedded to a hateful view of Jews. He just accepted this stereotype as part of the world, not as something particularly malicious (though obviously not favorable), but simply the way things were.

This, in some sense, is more worrisome. The young man in question does not seem to be unreachable, or even particularly malign. He holds anti-Semitic views simply because he had never before encountered a situation where they would be challenged. Three years of university experience, and nothing. That's a problem. It's one thing to accept that some people are simply going to be attracted to hateful ideologies. It's another thing when regular people maintain such ideologies simply because no countervailing narrative was ever presented. That speaks to a gap; one that probably can't be cured but by exposure to actual Jews who are in a position to take control of their own narrative. Hopeful in circumstances a little less shocking than that which Mr. Aaronovitch found himself.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think it's more worrisome for a slightly different reason, although it is one with which I know you are well-acquainted.

When I teach about the difference between individual, person-centered racism and structural or institutional racism, I see one of my chief pedagogical tasks as helping dislodge learners off of the deeply-embedded belief that racism is purely a product of pernicious intent.

I increasingly turn to the idea of racism being institutionalized in social contexts as scripts. There are racialized scripts, many of which are racist in the sense that they ascribe particular views held or possessed in common by an identifiable demographic group. These views or characteristics render the possessors deviant, therein embodying the classic definition of stigma, and imbuing stigmatizers with what Link and Phelan term "stigma power" (which includes the powers to exclude and dominate).

Racialized and racist scripts are common all over the world, and in the West, many such scripts are deeply anti-Semitic. Enacting these scripts, speaking the words and the language that gives them life is itself a form of reifying these anti-Semitic codes, perpetuating and extending them even where the utterer may have no intention, indeed, may be utterly unaware of the extent to which they are racist and anti-Semitic to the core (and the terrible violence and oppression such scripts have historically reflected and fueled).

I think this idea captures almost exactly Aaronovitch's experience. His interlocutor blithely reinscribes deeply anti-Semitic scripts, which are so deeply embedded in his social context that he has no earthly idea that they are so desperately racist. He need not know. This is how structural racism operates, and anti-Semitism is no different in form from any other kind of racism in this particular structure.