Thursday, December 07, 2023

Hebrew Letters in Portland

Earlier today, I was chatting with a friend on the subject of whether we felt "afraid" as Jews. I said that I didn't personally feel especially "afraid" as a Jew, but that I acknowledged that others in my circle (students, colleagues) were articulating different experiences from mine, and that I didn't want my own relative lack of fear to imply that their experience was inauthentic, concocted, or an overreaction.

A few hours after that exchange, Jill asked if I wanted to go out and get donuts for Chanukah. I looked down and saw I was wearing that shirt -- the one that says "Carleton College" in transliterated Hebrew letters. And before I left the house, I changed shirts. While it's not that I was sure something bad would happen if I went out in public wearing Hebrew letters, I felt in no uncertain terms that it was unwise -- a risk not worth taking -- and that if I did wear it I'd certainly feel anxious from the moment we stepped into the car until the moment I got home.

What changed? Obviously, nothing -- there was no event over the interceding two hours that precipitated fear in me that I lacked before. The sense that wearing that t-shirt outside might be an Unwise Idea was already latent inside me (there's a reason why the "Hebrew Letters in ...." post is an ongoing series) -- I just sort of ... forgot about it. The fear was simultaneously always present and yet so sublimated that even in this moment I could earnestly assert in perfect good faith that I wasn't feeling it.

I'm reminded of a phenomenon Albert Memmi wrote about where Jews who experience antisemitism often simultaneously say things like "this is the first time I've ever truly faced antisemitism" and then, if you press a half-inch on the matter, will kind of belatedly remember a dozen prior instances where they also faced antisemitism. As much as there is, in some circles, pressure on Jews to trumpet our vulnerability and insist that everyone Acknowledge Our Peril, there's also, in a different register, a ton of pressure on Jews to downplay antisemitism, to show that we're not one of Those Jews who jumps at every shadow, to not make a big deal and agree to lump it on the small stuff (this dichotomy is, too, one that I think is very much one that is experienced not just by Jews but by many minority group members).

But still, I'm not sure what to make of all of this. What does it mean that I said -- again, perfectly earnestly, not as an exercise of bravado -- that I didn't feel significant "fear" right now as a Jew in a moment where at some level I knew full well I didn't feel comfortable being visibly Jewish in public? Perhaps my understanding of what it meant to be "afraid" as a Jew was one that envisioned something more visceral and panicked -- feeling as if any second now someone would jump me, terrified that we're an instant away from a mob demanding the evil Jew be removed from campus. The more workaday experiences of not feeling comfortable wearing a Hebrew t-shirt, or idly wondering (as I sometimes do) "what would happen if someone graffiti-ed my house with a swastika" -- that I've just internalized as a baseline state of being, it surely is not serious enough to qualify as being afraid. That seems a problematic thought -- the idea that as Jews we've just so thoroughly normalized a level of anxiety over antisemitism as the default setting that it feels wrong to even identify it as "fear". But clearly there's something to it -- recall my posts on how "schoolchildren shouldn't have to live like Jews", which also relates to how Jews just accept as normal certain orientations towards threat and danger that objectively speaking should be seen as intolerable.

Nonetheless, when I say I'm not sure what to make of all of this -- I mean it. I'm not fully convinced that the "right" answer is that actually, I am afraid as a Jew and I should embrace that sensation. Just the other day I was talking about how, in contrast to the zeitgeist, I haven't felt like my personal social media feed (Facebook and the like) has been overrun with extremists or monsters either cheering dead Israelis or gushing over dead Palestinians. There've been a few, but not all that many in the scheme of things. "What am I doing wrong?", I joked. "Am I being shadowbanned from all the bad content? Or am I just that good at picking friends?" But the point is that in the main the notion that my status as a Jew right now is defined by fear and alienation just doesn't resonate with me. I respect that it does for others, but it isn't how I'd generally characterize my experience, and I don't like the thought of being conscripted into endorsing an affective state that doesn't actually resonate with me.

But then again, I still took the shirt off. So am I just self-deluding? Or is there some middle ground? I don't have a good answer.


Eliana said...

Great post as always. I've been thinking a lot about this too.
I feel like the reasonable middle ground (for folks like us, many people who have worse experiences or different dispositions do feel very scared right now and that's sadly also rational) is something like 'I do live with some ambient fear of antisemitism and it affects my actions sometimes, but this is not the primary component of my life or of my Jewishness'.
There's a lot of intermediate space between "I never feel frightened by antisemitism" and "I'm terrified, fear of antisemitism dominates my life" (which sadly is a reasonable response for those who are being beaten and harassed by antisemites now) and probably most Jews are in that intermediate space.

Dennis Yedwab said...

This is of a piece with something I noticed re: 10/7 and Israelis. A podcast I listen to had a bunch of comments from Israelis about what they experienced. A number of them were shomer shabbat and, to a person, they all saw their phones going off because of the attack, but, since they didn't use them on Shabbat, they decided not to check becase they were "only rockets". Only after they continued to go off, did they bother checking. So, again, the baseline was, "eh, rocket attacks are regular enough that I won't disrupt my Shabbat." I don't know what to make of it either, but that's just a different baseline.