A DIASPORA HERITAGE
Staying with a relative just after my “release” from “incarceration” on Ellis Island, I one morning got ready to visit Manhattan. Influenced by American movies, I for a long time had eagerly anticipated the experience of walking the streets of the city which – to this immigrant, at least – was one of the great marvels of the world.
I dressed up for the occasion and I presented myself to my hostess.
“What do you have in your breast pocket?” she inquired. “Whatever it is, it deforms your suit.”
“I have my identity papers,” I replied. I took out my breast-pocket leather wallet that contained my passport, visa, the ship ticket and other documents that I considered pertinent.
“Why are you carrying all that stuff?” she inquired.
“Well, just in case I will be stopped by the authorities, I need to prove my legal status in this country.”
She laughed. “No one will stop you.”
I was astonished, as this was contrary to my European experiences. Perhaps, one could argue, my fear of authorities is the consequence of my ghetto and concentration camp experiences; it had only been a scant two years since my liberation from the concentration camp.
But during the two years I spent in Germany after liberation, I was employed by the United Nations, and that should have alleviated my fear. After all, for two years I was an officer wearing an American officer’s uniform and had almost all the privileges that U.S. officers enjoyed.
Yet I was still fearful, even in the land of the free. The things is, my fears did not rise from my tragic experiences alone; they had deeper historical roots. My fear came from a feeling that was culturally transmitted to European Jews, a fear shared by my fellow Jews and part of the Jewish psyche for almost 2,000 years: that should we defend ourselves, persecution by Christians will only worsen.
In September 2002, I spent two months in Oxford, England, the home of the famous and venerated colleges. During Rosh Hashanah, my wife and I attended services at the local synagogue.
After services, in my discourse with some Jewish professors, I asked the reason why I hardly ever saw any Jewish criticism of the British government’s treatment of Israel. Their response:
“We do not dare!”
I have also experienced this reluctance of Jews to confront Christians in the U.S. My own experiences are too numerous to enumerate, but our reluctance to stand up for our rights is illustrated well enough in an event I will thus describe.
During a Yom Kippur service, I had an opportunity to address the congregation, and in my discourse, I briefly examined anti-Semitism as the Christian dialectic with Judaism. Although most people agreed with my comments, nonetheless many felt that I should have not spoken of this issue publicly.
I too have been indoctrinated into this point of view. From childhood on, I was constantly admonished al tiftach peh l’satan, in this case meaning “do not give the Christians a reason to vent their hostility against us.” The motto by which we lived was “do not rock the boat” – in short, be invisible, do not start any argument or a discourse about religion with Christians.
The assumption was that if we Jews become less noticeable, if we become less visible, if we are less contentious and do not challenge the legitimacy of the ruling majority, then it is less likely that Christians will vent their anti-Semitic hostility and be punitive.
Of course, this belief was rooted in a false consciousness, for the Holocaust began in a country in which Jews were highly integrated and less visible either by lifestyle or politics.
We have reluctantly accepted and even reinterpreted biblical passages to mean that our fate is that of the eternal stranger. For instance, we have taken Moses’ naming his son Gershom, saying “I am a stranger in a foreign land,” as a prophetic statement on the Jewish future.
Similarly, we often attribute G-d’s statement to Abraham, “you shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a strange land where they will suffer,” as a prophetic statement of our future – even though that statement was meant to prophesize Jewish enslavement in Egypt.
Indeed, it seems that we Jews have taken for granted that we are fated to become na v’nad, a transient people, strangers in other people’s countries. Christianity has defined the legitimacy of our unstable future, proposing that, like Cain, we were cursed to be “the wandering Jews” till the second coming of Christ.
Even a cursory look at the Jewish history reveals that Jews not only were forced to leave the countries in which they had resided for many years, but were sometimes massacred. Thus it is quite understandable that the lives of Jews were fraught with fear of the future.
We meekly accepted our fate and made matyrology an important part of services, proposing that the myriad of slaughtered Jews died for the sanctification of G-d.
Diaspora living has led to self-perception of powerlessness, but even more tragically, to our acceptance of the view of being weak and unable to fight back. In a way, we rejected the biblical and post-biblical heroes of Samson, Gideon, Deborah, Jael, the Maccabeus and Bar Kochba, people who fought for freedom even though they were less powerful than their enemies.
Instead, as a response to our frustration arising from the sense of powerlessness and injustices, Jews once a year indulge in a revenge fantasy. During the Passover seder, the front door of our homes is opened, and we invite Elijah the prophet to enter our home, at the same time asking G-d (or perhaps Elijah) to pour his wrath on those who hurt us.
Similarly, my mother comforted me when I was hurt by anti-Semitic encounters.
“Wait,” she said. “Messiah will soon come and he will take revenge for all indignities that we suffered.”
The 20th century brought changes, and many Jews opted not only for the creation of a national home that could serve as a country of refuge to Jews, but also for the need to fight back. Zionism influenced the younger generation, including me, to reject meekness and to break the old stereotype as the submissive Jew.
Many of us joined the revisionist Zionist movement “Betar,” started by Ze’ev Jabotinski, who advocated Jewish militarism. We wore quasi-military uniforms and our hero was Joseph Trumpeldor, a former lieutenant in the Czarist Army who lost an arm in the Russo-Japanese war.
No longer, we argued, were we to keep silent, no longer were we to submit to injustice; like all other people, we are to fight for our rights. And this new Jewish worldview of standing up for our rights started by Jabotinski was reinforced by the Holocaust experience.
I have long given up the motto inculcated into me, “don’t rock the boat.” The freedom of speech and self-defense applies to Jews also. I believe that we need to reinterpret the ancient saying sei a mensch to signify that we will take nothing less than to be what we are – Jews.
Editor’s note: Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.
By Eugen Schoenfeld