TheBigSmoke now funneled into FridayMash
“Oh, you’re a Jew?” – My experiences facing Antisemitism
There’s been some weird shit in the news about white supremacists and the rise of Antisemitism across Europe and in the USA. There was also a discovery of a Google Chrome extension that white supremacists use to “call out” Jewish people in the media and online.
You would be correct in thinking that this is reprehensible and heinous.
There will be those of you who blame it on immigration or the state of things or whathaveyou. But I promise you, these feelings are always there. And they always boil to the surface.
I want to share my experiences of to-my-face Antisemitism. These have been few, because I am lucky, but that doesn’t make them any less affecting.
Walk it off.
The first time it happened, I was seventeen.
I was working a less-than-glamorous job at the cinema in Chatswood. All kinds of people – all kinds of teenagers more specifically – came and went through that place. Some were great employees, some were thieves; some were great people, and some weren’t. That’s the nature of any job, I suppose.
One day, I was on with this girl. She was a year younger than I; she was sixteen at the time. Let’s call her Lorna. Lorna was of Armenian descent, but born in Sydney.
Conversations being what they are, ours somehow ended up on the topic of genocide in the 20th Century. I don’t remember how. Maybe we were talking about history. Maybe we were talking about something else. I don’t recall who brought it up first, but it was brought up.
“There was the Armenian Genocide, after World War One,” she said. An event also in the news recently.
“And the Holocaust,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, smirking. “But who cares about a whole bunch of Jews.”
I had never experienced true speechlessness before. When I was a teenager, I was kind of a social butterfly, more apt to be the centre of a social gathering: telling stories, jokes, getting along with everybody, words, words, all night long. It was a rare thing to get me to shut up. But at this, I baulked.
“Well,” I said, heat rising in my cheeks. “I do. Not just because I’m Jewish, but because I’m a human being.”
She looked me up and down, stricken – not at my insult to her humanity, but at my Jewishness – and sneered. Her hand went up to the golden cross at her neck.
“Yeah, well, you guys killed Jesus,” she almost spat the words, but half-laughed at the same time, as if to say, “ha-ha, I got you there”.
I had to physically stop myself from lashing out. My manager, being observant, saw what was happening and sent Lorna off to do some busywork far away from me.
“Did you hear what she–”, I couldn’t finish.
“I did,” my manager said. “Walk it off.”
Not I’ll talk to her, not She’s in deep shit. Just, Walk it off.
I think that was the start of my wariness surrounding my Judaism. I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want to tell people. I was so concerned that someone would say something like that again; would make me their villain, make me an excuse or a concept.
It’s just how I flirt.
The second time, I was in my second year at the University of Sydney, doing my undergrad degree; a delightfully useless, but nevertheless interesting, Bachelor of Arts. A girl had noticed me, and I had noticed her, and boy-meets-girl, blah, blah, blah. Her name, for this story, is Maureen.
We hung out a few times, and it became apparent that she was a radical Christian, but not of the mean kind. She was way into social justice, wanted to be a social worker. Very active in the youth group at the Uniting Church. I met her Pastor (I still don’t know if that’s the right word) and he was pretty great. He protested with the best of them at Berkeley in the ’60s, and was still very active. A good man.
Anyway, when it became time to decide whether or not Maureen and I would date, she said something that should have raised huge red flags before my eyes, sounded all the alarms. But I was young and she was pretty, and we got along and liked a lot of the same stuff.
“I have to ask God if it’s okay if I date you,” she said after we kissed. “Because you’re Jewish.”
“Sure,” I said. “Okay.”
I didn’t know if this kind of thing was par for the course. I had never dated a truly religious person before. Outside of her faith, she behaved like any other 20-something-year-old woman that I knew, so maybe this was just some big part of her faith, and I wanted to be accepting. I didn’t want to judge her way of doing things, especially as I had no knowledge of how it all worked.
The next day she told me, “God said it was fine”.
I was honestly less shocked at the revelation, more at the fast response time. I had never been a praying man, but the seldom times I had – in times of ludicrous desperation – I had never felt anything. No kind of response, or sign. But she had. Okay, great.
Relationships in your 20s being what they are, things didn’t turn out well. We fought a lot, messed around a lot, and finally had one big blowout fight.
“I knew I shouldn’t have dated you,” she said. “Because you’re a Jew!”
Silence fell between us.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she said, a reddish flush in her cheeks.
“How else could you have meant it?”
Where was all the acceptance of what God had said was fine? That was gone. Instead, it was easy to fall back on the old excuse: you shouldn’t date a Jew.
Now, on top of being afraid to tell people, I was worried people would actively stop loving me because I was Jewish. I had no idea how long it had been bubbling inside her that my Judaism was affecting our relationship. This is, also, on top of the fact that it was an emotionally abusive relationship. She made me feel awful and then tried to kiss it all better. “It’s just how I flirt,” she said. And my Judaism was a weapon she could use against me to make me feel bad.
So, ah, how’s that goin’ for ya?
The third time, it was more subtle, but equally destructive.
I was on exchange in my third year of university. I decided I wanted to rediscover my hometown of Montreal, Canada. I had never been back as an adult and I wanted to know what it was all about. My marks were good enough to secure me a spot on exchange at McGill University, a university otherwise known as the Harvard of Canada. (A title which, I feel, it richly deserves.)
There is another well-known university not far from it, called Concordia. It’s like the UTS of Montreal, where McGill is the USYD. The students from these two universities regularly attended the same parties or sporting events or things of that nature. One of the people that I hung out with semi-regularly was this guy nicknamed “Crazy Nick”. His name was Nick, and he was kind of crazy. I know clever, right? But we loved him for it.
Crazy Nick was big into conspiracy theories of wide and various kinds. One of them being the idea that you can change your DNA simply by thinking about it hard enough. He was also a Gnostic Christian. Enjoy reading about that, because it is actually quite interesting.
Also on The Big Smoke
Dutton appoints himself judge, jury and executioner
Australian Border Force threatens to repeat the worst part of history
Anyway, Crazy Nick always carried a Bible with him, wherever he went. Not that he was super religious, but he loved to talk about it. Fun fact: not long after I left Montreal, he started his own religion in the name of “The Trinity: God, Plato, and the Sun”. He baptised some homeless people, some of whom sought rehab, which he claimed as a victory.
“Jordan,” he said to me in his needling voice. He always had this big smile, everyone’s friend. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and it was easy to see why, but he was also friendly, genuine. “Have you, ah, read the Book of Habakkuk?”
For those not in the know, the Book of Habakkuk is a very short book in the Old Testament by the Prophet Habakkuk. It’s typical Old Testament “there will be a reckoning” stuff.
“No, Nick,” I said. “But we’ve gone through this before–”
“Let me, ah, read a part to you,” he said, opening his big pocket Bible. There are different translations of it, but his version went approximately like this: “‘Cursed be he who builds his empire upon the blood and bones of the innocent’. So, ah, how’s that goin’ for ya?”
At first, I didn’t know what he meant. Then, I realised, he meant Israel.
I had no response to it, because we were at a party, and I wanted to have a good time. I stood up and walked away.
I later had relayed to me by our mutual friend, my former roommate, that Nick had been reading a book by a notorious French Antisemite published in the 1930s. This book was apparently called The Jews. I can’t find out exactly what book was, but I think it was La France Juive (Jewish France) by Édouard Drumont, which was written in 1886, and republished in 1938. Fun fact: he founded the Antisemitic League of France in 1889.
In the book, Drumont talks about racial characteristics of Jews. Paraphrased by Crazy Nick, they went thusly: “Why can’t we just admit that Jews are sneakier than other people? They’re smarter, but they’re sneakier. Just like, ah, gentiles are dumber, but they’re nicer.”
“Because,” my friend said to him. “That’s really, really racist.”
“No, come on man, I’m not a racist,” he supposedly said in return. “You know that. I mean, why can’t we just say that a group of people are something because that’s the way they are?”
“Because that’s the definition of racism!”
Fun fact: he later converted to Judaism. I think it was Gnostic Judaism.
I was now very afraid of the way people painted Jews, of how people saw me. Most people I met saw me, as a Jewish Person, as complicit with every action taken by the Israeli Government. I was to blame for the actions of every other Jew on Earth, good and bad.
Every action I took was a Jewish Action.
I don’t get it. What’s a Jew?
The fourth time that comes to mind is a weird one. I don’t know if it’s Antisemitic, necessarily, but it definitely made me keenly aware of my own Jewishness.
During my Masters of Creative Writing, I worked as a day labourer on a construction site in downtown Sydney. You get all types on a crew, most rough-around-the-edges types, but in general, kind-hearted people. But racism, sexism and homophobia are quite rampant.
Now, I wear a Magen David around my neck. A Jewish star. I keep it underneath my shirt because I don’t feel the need to have it on display. I’m not showy about my Judaism. It’s not like I have faith or anything, I just feel attached to the culture.
Well, one day, my pendant fell out of my shirt while I was picking something up.
“Oh,” one of the older guys said. Let’s call him Randall. “You’re a Jew?”
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
“Don’t shit yourself,” he said, laughing. “My wife’s a Jew!”
We’re outside, then, having lunch. It’s me, Randall, and a couple of young blokes from out Saint Mary’s way: Rob, Sam and Rob’s little brother Chris.
Now, when men get together – especially rough-around-the-edges, day labourer men – they sometimes tell off-colour jokes. This is common. Since most of these guys were a lot bigger than me, and being that I had to work with them for another six weeks, I didn’t speak up with any particularly radical ideas like, “Hey, maybe sexism isn’t funny?”.
To be fair, and to my embarrassment, Rob actually did stand up to another tradie, a bloke named Trent, who went on a tirade about how the world went to shit “with nuclear bombs and when gays got rights.”
“Why are they so bad?”, Rob asked, while I stood silent. “They’re just trying to get along, like anyone else.”
“They’re fucking disgusting,” Trent said.
But Rob had spoken up, and that spoke volumes for his younger brother and Sam. More than Trent’s angry ranting.
Anyway, back to outside at lunch. Randall tells the following joke:
“What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?”
“What?” the audience obediently asks. Fear burbles in my gut.
“A pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!”
Laughter from all.
“I don’t get it,” Sam said from his corner. “What’s a Jew?”
Heads turned, looked at him. This is a 20-year-old with a one-and-a-half year old child.
“’What’s a Jew?’?”, Randall repeated. “That is,” he said, pointing at me, a snide smirk on his face. “He’s a Jew.”
I recoiled a little, give a good-humoured wave. I’m one of the guys. Please don’t make this awful.
“I don’t understand,” Sam said, confused.
“You know, Jews,” Rob said, trying to explain. “They wear those little hats?” He mimed putting a yarmulke on the top of his head.
“Oh, yeah,” Sam said. “Why do they do that?”
“It’s a religion thing,” Rob went on. He was a valiant explainer. “You got Christians, Muslims, and you got Jews.”
“Oh,” Sam said. “Right.”
I took a few things away from this moment. And they were all pretty troubling.
First of all, he didn’t understand the joke because he had never met a Jew before, didn’t know what they were. That part, I can almost understand. There aren’t many of us here in Australia, and especially not out where he’s from. But this means that he has managed to avoid any and all pop culture references to Jews and Jewish characters.
In conjunction with that, it means that he didn’t understand the nature of the topic of the joke. Yes, on its face, you can see that the difference between a human person and a pizza is that one will scream upon entering the oven, that much is obvious. What he is missing, clearly, is the context. His brain didn’t tag the point that this joke references the Holocaust, where many a real and living human person, who happened to be Jewish, were burned alive, because of that very fact. It gives the impression that he does not know what the Holocaust is. I felt like lending him a copy of Schindler’s List. It made me worry for the education system.
Last of all, I was now his stereotype. No matter what I did differently to him and his fellows, that was “How Jews Did Things”. All Jews were thin, wiry white boys with long curly hair that wanted to be writers, poets, actors. They went to University.
He laughed when I did things differently, after that. Making note of each thing I did, that maybe he hadn’t really noticed before, that was a variation on what he knew.
This interaction made me very self-reflective and keenly aware of the nature of Jewish stereotypes and characters in the media. A lot of them are writers, or bankers, or lawyers, or doctors. They are nebbish (unfortunate, poor, wretches, Woody Allen types). They are rich, but strange, and usually have some kind of poor health situation.
I am a walking stereotype. I have a large, Eastern European nose. I want to be a writer, and an actor. I like being the banker in various board games, because I like being the organised one. I’m a hypochondriac and sometimes tight with money.
“Why do you Jews have the monopoly on being cheap?” as my former boss once said.
Also on The Big Smoke
Fact check: Is Peter Dutton wrong?
Waleed’s Australia: A land girt by fear
I wanted to share all this with you because, in light of everything that’s happening lately, I wanted you to be aware that this kind of thing is always bubbling just below the surface. I don’t look overly different, which I consider lucky, because if I did I think I would have been on the receiving end of more direct attacks.
These things that are coming up in Europe and America are not things of the past, they are happening right now. It is something that, in a way, every Jewish person is waiting to see happen again. We are ready to run.
These things that happened to me, they were recent. They were not at the hands of some scary bogeyman these days named “Muslim” or “immigrant”. They came from middle class white people in Australia, Canada, the USA.
This kind of thing is always ready to come back full force. And it already is with Trump’s supporters. It’s happening in Scandinavia. And it’s not just Jews. This time, we seem to be the secondary targets. No, this time it’s Muslims, Arabs, people who are darker skinned that I am.
But they’re always around the corner from me.
So, before you start to swallow that “All Muslims are this” or “All Arabs are that”, please, please remember that, within living memory, this already happened. They said “All Jews are responsible for our suffering in Germany”.
And I will speak out now, as I have before, because I would want someone to do it for me.