A Brief Tale of Uncertain Moral for Yom Ha’Shoa

I wrote about this via Twitter back in January.  I’ll more-or-less re-iterate what I shared then here.  I don’t know why I feel compelled to do this (again), apart from the fact that, as the years go on, I realize that this anecdote is, more so than the Torah or Midrash or anything else, the primary text by which I attempt to understand the nature of God.  And Judaism is a religion that has, despite poor odds, survived, and it has done so on the basis of repetition: I say the words that my dad said that my grandfather said that his parents said; I teach them to my children to repeat, maybe out in front of a crowd, maybe in candlelight away from windows.  But the words are repeated, and we persist, a thin red thread stretching through human history.  And when I cannot believe in anything else—as is frequently the case—I can believe in the worthiness of that task, and my fitness toward taking it up:  I can persist in the repetition of the words, I can take them a little farther down the road.

I’ve got a lot to say about this but I bet you can guess most of it. And the parts you can’t guess… there’s no room for them here.

Like, for example, here’s a thing: When I was in college I used to participate in this thing in the Diag, where for 24hr we’d read names of…

…Holocaust victims. The names were on these ledger sheets in a big, thick binder. I’d always take an overnight shift, 3 or 4am, reading out…

…into the dark, telling cold air and trees and sleeping crows the names of the dead. The ledger sheets, there were columns for name, number…

…birth place and date, death place and date. Maybe some other stuff. The first time I did this, I hit a patch where there were no names…

…just numbers. The birth and death dates were close together—not much more than a year, as I recall, some much less—and the birth and death…

…places were both camps. These were infants born in camp, numbered, and then taken elsewhere to die or be executed. No names, so I read …

… their numbers, told them to the cold air and the trees and the sleeping crows and the dark and the handful of Jews standing around w/ me…

…I know a lot about the Holocaust. I know numbers, I know places, I know people. I’ve seen pictures and films, I know stories that are…

…published and well known, and others that are between me and the person who no longer remembers them (z”l). I think about all of them…

… often. But I think of those pages of numbers, the empty column for names, those infants, that dark, the crows most often. B/c I feel…

… more than any other, that fact, that moment, has something important to tell me about the Nature of God and the Nature of Humans. And…

… 20 years on, I still have no idea what precisely that is.

Except for maybe that, nowadays, I think of it and, for no particular reason, I think of Malachi 3:18—which you can look up on your own.

I lumped this into my “Take Action” category, not because there is any particular action you should take today, but so that you maybe might seraphchamsa-IMG_7181meditate on this story further, as you go about your days.  Because someday you will need to take action, and all I can do for you is prime you for that not-at-all-good moment.

Actually, on reflection, there is an action to take today:  Tell this to your sons and daughters.  This is thing, it was a grand—almost inconceivably grand—project humans undertook.  Not monsters.  Not one Very Bad Man—worse even than Pharaoh or Bashar al-Assad—but just normal human beings—tons of them, whole nations of them, doing their jobs.  No more, no less.

Human beings like you and me.  No more, no less.

I don’t know what bugs me more: the vicious anti-Semitism or the terrible math

Just a quick take here.  These flyers were found posted around the University of Illinois Chicago:

Whoa! Racist, but persuasive—there's even footnotes!
Whoa! Racist, but persuasive—there’s even footnotes!

The argument looks kosher—there’s a neat graphic, and even footnotes to a reputable, impartial source!  But if you actually look at the link indicated for footnote #2, you find pretty much nothing other than this graphic:

Actual facts once again wreck a perfectly usable racist trope. Also, way to go, American Hindus!
Actual facts once again wreck a perfectly usable racist trope. Also, way to go, American Hindus!

While this graph does show 46% of Jews to be in the top 18% of earners (the largest percentage for an identified American religious group), it is not possible to extrapolate what percentage of which religious persuasions occupy the 1% from this graphic (i.e., those earning in the $500,000 to $1.2 million range).

Anyway, just another reminder that on November 8, 2016 me and my kids were fired from being White—again. 🇺🇸🔥

White Supremacy, THE PURGE, and “the least racist person you’ll ever meet”

A couple summers back my wife and I watched THE PURGE on Netflix.  We weren’t expecting great chops as either sci-fi or horror (it’s sort of the lazier ends of both), but we were both sorta taken aback by how bafflingly racist the whole thing was.

Just to be super-duper clear: I’m not saying that the filmmaker is racist (I don’t really have any clue who the guy is; he looks white-ish in pictures, but who knows—or really cares—what his identity is).  I’m not saying the actors are racist.  I’m not saying that any aspect of the conscious intent of the film is racist. In fact, it sorta goes out of its way to be tokenishly multicultural and non-racist (the only totally morally uncompromised primary character is the nameless black male, one of the more prominent secondary characters is a black woman, there’s an Asian man in the mix, and all of the villains are white and explicitly upper-class)—which what was precisely what made it so baffling: even though the film worked to be formally racially progressive, both my wife and I (nominally white people) found ourselves queasy with some of the lines these actors were obliged to say (specifically constantly and exclusively referring to the black man as a “pig”) and found ourselves almost simultaneously asking aloud mid-film:

“Jeez!  How the hell would a black person feel watching this?”

Or, more to the point, how would a black person feel watching this film knowing what I know?

Because, through a crazy coincidence, I happened to know something about this film not immediately apperent to average viewers, but certainly known to the filmmakers:

The film opens with a montage of faux surveillance cam footage of various violent crimes, establishing the cultural mood of this near-future dystopia (you see some of this montage at around the 26sec mark in the trailer embedded above).  The sort of things you’d expect: Liquor store robberies, riots, a woman getting held up at an ATM, a black man with a sawed off shotgun jumping a police station lobby counter and firing at police officers, etc.

But here’s the catch: I recognized that last piece of footage, which I’d stumbled across in 2013 doing research for a client.  It was not faux anything; it was actual CCTV footage from a Detroit police station.  The black man with the shotgun was 38 year-old Lamar Moore, his motive is still unknown, and he died during that attack. In fact, he was fatally shot just after the piece of footage used in THE PURGE‘s mood-setting montage.

The final, violent minutes of a black man’s life were used to set the mood for a mediocre Ethan Hawke vehicle.  Someone found that footage and edited it in.  Someone made sure the rights were cleared, so they wouldn’t get stung on copyright infringement later.  And that someone didn’t seem to think, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, that this might plausibly be a sore spot for anyone (for example, 37 million Americans).

This, for me, finally highlighted the bright line difference between “racism” and “white supremacy.”  Racism is really about a conscious framework, a deeply seated belief that people of color or Jews or immigrants or whoever have certain essential characteristics that make them unfit.  White supremacy is assigning the interests of white people primacy–generally in complete ignorance of the experience of non-Whites, in much the same way that you probably never think about the impact patching a hole in your eaves has on the squirrels who’d set up house in your attic.  A racist thinks black people are lazy and Jews are greedy cheats (or whatever), while the vast majority of rank-and-file white supremacists probably don’t think about them at all.  While all white racists are implicitly white supremacists, not all white supremacists are necessarily racist.

Do the makers of THE PURGE think ill of black people?  I don’t think so–but I also don’t think they honestly considered the existence of black viewers as sentient entities who might view this film and think “What the fuck are you people doing?!”

And this, right here, brings me to the President, and why it makes me insane to hear him get all huffy about being “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and “the least racist person.”

’cause Donald Trump is the guy who’s says stuff like this:

Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”

Meanwhile, I’m a Jew, and even if I’d never met another Jew in my life, I’ve still met me.  And earlier today I was hanging out with Brian, and he’s black, and he–likewise–has met himself (as well as his sister, his children, his parents, etc., etc., etc.)  Obviously, we’ve met each other.

And I really and sincerely do not believe that Donald Trump is so tremendously stupid or naive that he honestly believes that he is less anti-Semitic than every living Jew and less racist than every living African American.

As such, the only possible way that he could believe the sentence “I’m the least anti-Semitic/racist person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” is if he either doesn’t conceive of Brian and me as being part of the “you” he is speaking to (which is weird, since I heard him say that in a live presser, and therefore literarily was part of that “you” at the very moment he spoke) or he does not conceive of us as being “people.”

Does this make him a racist or an anti-Semite?  No, not at all; he’s a white supremacist, and he really and honestly doesn’t even think about me and Brian existing at all, nor how his words and silences impact our lives.

Meanwhile, as I write this, the wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers continues: There was one two hours ago in New Orleans, on top of the 11 on Monday, bringing us to a total of more than 70 this year.  For comparison, a “normal” year might see two dozen bomb threats targeting JCCs and synagogues total for the entire year.

I imagine some of you are getting damn tired of hearing this, all this whining and “identity politics” that “divide America” by “drawing attention to our differences” because, after all, we’re all the same underneath.  I hear you, and I understand.  But I’m absolutely terrified that, in the absence of me saying this stuff, then you aren’t thinking about the fact that I exist at all, and might just do things—or fail to do things—that get me and my children killed.

UPDATE: Exactly twenty minutes after posting this I got an email telling me that a bomb threat had been called into my daughter’s daycare at 9:10 AM.  They’ve evacuated the building, and my daughter is currently being hidden someplace secure, someplace I do not know where she is, while they sweep the building.

So here we are.  This is my day.  This is America in 2017.

Listen: If you think “The PotUS *can’t* be an anti-Semite! His daughter is a Jew!”, then lemme share a lil secret with you…

…every American who’s ever hassled me about being a Jew has been generally enthusiastically

(This "America golem" is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt this month. Expect to see him here often.)
This “America golem” is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt today. Funny lil world, right?

committed to the worship of a God whose earth-walking avatar wasn’t just a Jew, but was a rabbi to boot.

Racists, as a rule, are not super-duper committed to logical consistency. A willingness to reject logic out of hand is sort of a neccesssry condition to be racist.

IN OTHER NEWS:  Support pours in for damaged Jewish cemetery near St. Louis

And you will know the righteous from the wicked—Malachi 3:18

The Math I Should Not Have Done

There have been more than 60 bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish Community Centers in the past month, more than 30 of them since the inauguration alone (i.e., in the last twelve days).  Most of these have been domestic in origin (I have that from several sources, include a JCC security head who was told this at an info session with the Detroit FBI office this week).

just another funny little joke, i guess
just another funny little joke, i guess

That number sounds bad—but you don’t really have a benchmark for this, right?  I mean, you ask yourself “Well, how often do folks call bomb threats into YMCAs or non-Jewish daycares?”, and the answer is “Basically zero”—so that sounds bad.  But then you poke around online, and find that U.S. schools get over a thousand bomb threats every year (in fact, I used to teach at an alternative school, and one of my students—a very sweet and peaceful kid when I knew him—had been kicked out of his last school for making a bomb threat).  And how often do schools get bombed?  (Actually, bombs are placed at schools more than you think: According to some old ATF numbers, nearly 100 devces are placed each year in schools).

So I started poking around the FBI UCR (Universal Crime Reporting) Hate Crime stats.  Here’s a representative sample of annual anti-Jewish “intimidation” crime tallies (“intimidation” is the UCR category that includes, but is not limited to, bomb threats).  You’ll note a predominantly downward trend:

  • 1996 had 363 such offenses 
  • 1997: 387
  • 1998: 380
  • 1999: 420
  • 2007: 201
  • 2008: 201
  • 2010: 201
  • 2011: 187
  • 2012: 87
  • 2013: 152
  • 2014: 93
  • 2015: 114

(My numbers above are spotty, owing both to gaps in the FBI stats and because I just can’t dedicate too much time to picking around UCR reports tonight.)

I’ve emphasized 1999 for three reasons:

  1. It is the peak of the available numbers by a significant margin.
  2. It’s the year of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting committed by Buford O. Furrow
  3. If January 2017 is indicative, then we can expect 600 bomb threats this year.  And if bomb threats generally correlate to the volume and volatility of anti-Semitic hate floating around out there . . . well, you can do the math.

“A Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance”

trump-tallit
The Second Place President-Elect, simpering like a douche, wearing a Jewish prayer shawl laid on him in a black church for God knows what reason.

I want to talk about why this picture absolutely breaks my heart, but fist I want to talk about that quote in the title. It comes from a “congratulatory address” penned by Rabbi Moses Seixas of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and presented to President George Washington.  Washington, in his reply, mirrors Rabbi Seixas’s language, but gives us the slightly more familiar formulation, callings ours a government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  But I really like the full paragraph, so I offer it now:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I like that he starts to poke a whole in “tolerance” right from the birth of our nation—I myself am done with being “tolerated,” like a fart in an elevator or a tax you can’t dodge.  You can accept me as your fellow citizen, or deride me as a Jew, but I’m not going to be tolerated or indulged. And I like that he finishes by saying “all we want us for everyone—and anyone—to show up and be good citizens to all.”  I can pledge my allegiance to such words.

And, yes, America has done a crap job of giving bigotry no sanction over the years, but as a Vision Statement it’s solid, and viewed over the course of the centuries, we’ve pretty steadiy progressed.

Until now, and because of this man.  In the last year—and at an accelerating clip—we’ve raced backward.  Today—and I’m telling you this as a fact, based on my actual experience of actual events, and a lifetime of actually keeping an eye on actual trends in how folks think of Jews—we’ve slid back decades.  The sort of anti-Semitic garbage folks haven’t pulled since I was a kid are back and feisty as ever.

And President-Elect Tantrum hasn’t done shit. In the weeks following his “electoral triumph” he literally spent more time hassling actors than he did decrying hate crimes and all-around shittiness being done in his name and on behalf of his team.

And there’s the man himself, draped in a prayer shawl—something I wore at my bar mitzvah, that I wore at my own wedding and while officiating a wedding, that I wear on our High Holy Days—and it kills me.  Not just to see something sacred ripped from its context and used as a damned fashion accessory (and apart from the weird vein of quasi-crypto-Judaic cultural appropriation that has long pulsed through Detroit’s black Evangelical communities), but to see it on a man who can’t be bothered to extend the minimum effort toward Doing the Right Thing.

Jesus!  His most beloved daughter—the daughter that, bizarely, is I guess going to be First Lady somehow?—is Jewish! (she converted)  Yet even then, he can’t be bothered to speak out against anti-Semitism.  And if he can’t be bothered to speak out against a rising tide that would like to see his daughter killed, cremated, and scattered to the sea, what the hell can I possibly expect from him when it comes everyone else, the blacks and browns and queers and immigrants and whoevers with whom he seems to have absolutely no personal contact.

George W. Bush—a terrible president responsible for terrible suffering—did the right thing in situations like this.  It’s one of the very basic components of presidenting: Being reassuring and calming when the shit hits the fan. Obama has been fantastic at it; both Bushes had their moments, Clinton could do it, Reagan certainly did (sorry. that’s as far back as I personally go with presidents).

And yet this guy won’t.  And that’s unforgivable.

So what do I need for this to be good, for us to move forward and me to be able to grit my teeth and say “President Trump”?

When I’m wearing my tallit on Yom Kippur, I’m told that three things “soften the Lord’s harsh decree” as It considers our failings:

  1. Repentance
  2. Mindfullness
  3. Righteousness

And that’s what I want: A president who says “It was a cock-up not to get on this sooner,” gives some evidence of thinking meaningfully and deeply about how he’s fanned these flames and what he needs to do to stop doing so, and takes some sort of action to show solidarity with us, the people of all of the protected classes who are now checking our locks, keeping an eye peeled, and sleeping light every night.

RELATED:

Tech Companies: “How Dare You Suggest We’d Help Build the Muslim Registry We Already Built!”

So, when I saw this item the other day, I immediately thought of this blog post I penned in January 2015.  tl;dr on all this:

Trump transition team has been publicly mulling over creating/reviving a “Muslim Registry.” The Intercept started calling social media/tech companies and only one—Twitter—said “We’d never help with this!” (FYI, IBM has been down this road before, and yet still somehow doesn’t know the right answer to this question).  Yesterday, Facebook finally clearly said “No way! We won’t do it! We’d never build a Muslim Regsitry!”

But here’s the thing:

  1. As I pointed out back in Jan 2015, these companies have already built these databases.  They know when you are sleeping, they know when you’re awake, they know if you’ve been bad or good or if you even give two shits about Santa Claus.
  2. More to the point, the abstract threat I wrote about back in Jan 2015, when it freaked me out a little that Amazon had clearly flagged me as a Jew, became real in the Spring of 2016 when a bomb threat was called in to the Jewish Community Center housing my daughter’s daycare.  Because I sit on the Board of our congregation (which uses that building regularly for our religious services), I ended up touching base with the local police and FBI agents investigating the incident.  As it turned out six JCCs across the U.S. (in locales as far-flung as St. Louis, New York, and Louisiana) received the same threats at the same time—and all had very similar names.  When I did some googling, I found that all of us were listed together alphabetically in online Jewish education directories, with our phone numbers and addresses.  I.e., someone was just working their way down a list. This time around, it was just to make phone calls and fuck with us and our kids.  Next time?  Who knows; here’s what said in 2015, and it’s still about the same:

[I]n Amazon’s datacenter, I’m a row in a table. The index on that row is something like “CUSTOMER #2045674” and the cells include “kindle-owner” and “SF reader” and “owl pellet buyer” and “Jew” and my mailing address. Just another row, among millions–until that table gets resorted by the “Jew” column, and then I’m a box waiting to be ticked off by God-knows-who for God-knows-what-reason. Maybe they want to send me free Xanukah candles! Maybe they want to send me a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge! I guess I’ll have to wait for the mail man to come and find out then!

So I guess it’s swell that Facebook and IBM and Amazon and whoever else handwould never-ever-ever build the Muslim Registry they already built, but what if they maybe entirely accidentally do build a registry (which they already built, which is already being used to facilitate hate crimes and international terror)?  What then?

FYI, in business jargon, this is an externality.

 

My funny, glamorous, gracious Aunt Lola died last night. She was enslaved in Auschwitz at 16. Z”L

I just learned that my Aunt Lola died last night–great aunt, technically, the wife of one of my father’s uncles. Although we’ve lived in the same town for twenty years, Lola and I, I had only seen her a small handful of times during those decades; there’s been bad blood in our family. Not with Lola and me, but elsewhere, and we wound up on different sides. That’s just how it goes.

I loved her very much when I was small. She was small–putting her at my level, as a tall dweeb in a clip-on tie and penny loafers–and glamorous and funny. She glowed. Her rich, thick Czech accent always reminded me of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, which is a not-super-insane association for a boy who watched a ton of TV in the ’80s. I remember one time, at a summer party at my Aunt Denise’s house, at the end of the party, she slipped off her shoes–fancy gold, sharp-toed, high heels. Her toes were twisted and calloused, almost as though her feet had been bound–which I guess they had, although by American women’s fashion, not some out-modded and backward cultural obsession with ideals of beauty (ha! Joke!)

I remember her gingerly stepping from foot to foot on the thick shag in her hose, “Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh!” as though it was hot as coals–and she wasn’t play acting; her feet were aching from the shoes and the standing and the heat of the day. She looked up to see me sitting on the sofa across from her, looking on in dismay.

“Oh David,” she smiled, “Sometimes you need to suffer to be beautiful.”

I didn’t know then that, at 16, she been shipped to Auschwitz like a crate of shoes–a slow three-day train ride, because of the congestion on the tracks created by shipping so many other folks to camps, like cattle or shoes or some other commodity. There she’d been disgorged onto a ramp, and at the bottom stood Dr. Mengele. He was making a selection. Some were sent right, other left. Her folks went one way, she the other. She became my aunt, they became ash. She was stripped and shaved and tattooed and beaten, and sent walking to her new life.

She ended up in the barracks closest to the crematory ovens, and so her job was to sort the belongings of the dead–the clothes, the luggage–searching for jewelry and food and blankets and meds and anything of use. To sort it, to box it up for storage, or to be redistributed to widows and orphans.

There’s more, there’s lots more–heck, there’s a second run-in with Dr. Mengele. You can read and listen to her testimony here.

But I didn’t know any of that when I was small–I mean, I knew all of that, because such stories were not rare where I grew up, nor such survivors. But I did not know her story until I was much older–older than she was when she was enslaved–and I’m still learning bits and pieces, because I never heard it from her.

Which I don’t take personally; there was never a good time to share it with me, and there was no bad blood between us. When I last saw her, even though the folks around her were shooting me and my sisters daggers–gosh, even though one of my cousins later sought me out to hassle me about that chance encounter–Aunt Lola was still as charming and gracious as ever.

And I still loved her very much. Let her name be a blessing.

Her name is Lola Taubman; she sorted the laundry in Hell for a time as a teen, and then lived 72 years more, largely here, largely in good health.

When the Machine Knows You’re a Jew

Yesterday I hit Amazon.com to see how steeply they were discounting my book, and was met with this home page:


Check out that row of suggested titles above; they’re all Jewish children’s books. This stopped my heart. Because I am indeed a Jew, and I do indeed have small children.

Just for comparison’s sake, I switched my browser to Incognito Mode and reloaded Amazon. Here’s what I saw:

Still got Megan Trainor and the GEICO gecko, but now my above-the-fold pitch is for a bunch of HD movies that were big blockbusters that I’d never, ever watch. I.e., pretty generic.

Maybe this seems like no biggie to you. After all, algorithmically suggested purchases are a cornerstone of Amazon’s business model. I respect your position. I know that I’ve got more than a little paranoia and clinical hypervigilance informing my thought process. So, just to break down why this greeting from Amazon was so disturbing:

    1. All the titles are Jewish kid’s books. The algorithm seems *really* confident that these would interest me (and, shit, it’s right: We own an earlier edition of one of these books, and read it often).
    2. It’s unclear how Amazon would have reached this conclusion based solely on my interactions with Amazon: I’ve never ordered much in the way of explicit Judaica via Amazon, or had Jewish-themed items on my Wishlist or in my browsing history. I’ve ordered more tools and owl pellets from Amazon than explicitly Jew-themed items. This leaves two possibilities:
      • Their conclusion is based solely on my order size and timing–because I do indeed tend to place my big holiday order earlier than most, since I’m buying for both Xanukah and Xmas. But, man, that seems pretty thin justification to dedicate a major portion of screen real-estate to Jewish children’s books–items that would have basically no interest to huge swaths of the buying public.
      • Amazon can make some wicked-awesome inductive leaps based on buying patterns, the kind of stuff that you’ll never notice with the small sample sizes normal humans experience, but become glaringly obvious when you have Big Data to crunch. Like, maybe all sorts of people buy owl pellets and read Ben H. Winters ebooks, but only bona fide child-rearing Jews buy the second-cheapest owl pellet package that includes a bone chart and wait for those Ben H. Winters ebooks to dip below $2.99 each?
    3. Since the sub-points under #2 seem pretty far-fetched, we’re left to assume that Amazon is doing some very heavy-weight, semantically deep data correlation. Yes, it’s certainly “public knowledge” that I’m a Jew–not only does Google tell you so, but I’ve donated to Jewish charities, am active in my congregation, have worked for Jewish organizations, and have published essays and columns about being a Jew–but still, that’s some pretty granular cross-correlation for a site that mostly makes money off me by offering good deals on horror and SF ebooks and being able to quickly deliver the Slinkies my children adore and destroy at regular intervals. Which is to say that I’m left fretting not only about HOW Amazon determines I’m a Jew, but also WHY they bother, and WHAT might happen if someone else suddenly realized “Hey, I bet you Amazon’s data could cough up a pretty complete list of every Jew/homosexual/trans person/woman/Asian/whatever in the US! Wouldn’t that be a handy list!”
      • ’cause, you know, there’s never ever ever been a situation where a suitably motivated group of people with a pretty complete list of all the X-TYPE PERSONS in a geographic region has set their sights on killing all of them.
    4. As the kosher-market raid coordinated with the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrates, sometimes any old Jew is a good enough target.

So, that’s me, that’s my paranoia and hypervigilance, my over-reaction to a perfectly innocent commercial gambit. It’s just the free hand of the market, nothing more, nothing less. No one is coming to stuff me in a boxcar; I’m just a nervous guy with my nervous, paranoid fantasies (based on my relatives’ and co-religionists actual lived experience, and my own personal experience of anti-Semitic [micro]aggression and threats).

On the way out, I guess I just want to point out that this is an excellent moment to crystalize what “privilege” really means when we talk about “White Privilege.” As I’ve written in the past, 99.999% of the time I’m as White as any other pink person, and enjoy all those privileges. But when I see a thing like this, history indicates I’d be a supreme fool not to take a moment to meditate on the ramifications. No American Xtian or Athiest has to do that when Amazon greets them with a big fistful of Xmas items.

Simply put: “Privilege” means the privilege of not having to invest cognitive cycles in wondering who might be coming to hurt you and your children. This is why, when the fan starts getting shit-hit with things like Charlie Hebdo and Ferguson and GamerGate you need to be a little patient with us hysterical Jews and Blacks and women and whatever. We get a little worked up because, now and again we’re just completely worn out waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Anyway, this isn’t just a pity party for those of us who live in a protected class. This party is for you too, for you in the majority, you who sleep easy, because it’s instructive of the Shape of Where We’re At:

There are no more secrets.

Yeah, sure, you’ll get your little bullshit secrets–that you pooped your pants a little last week, that you kissed someone you shouldn’t have in 7th grade, that you’ve got some naked pictures, whatever. But it’s not like I got paranoid yesterday; I’ve been paranoid for almost forty years. I’ve sorta made a point at keeping the word “Jew” from being associated with my name whenever I suspected it might go into structured data (in my medical records, for example). But still, Amazon found me, and they weren’t even really, really looking. They don’t have some sort of ideology that rewards flushing me out, they have no demagogue promising that their God Thing will lavish them with heavenly rewards for hurting me and mine, they have no cosmology that holds that I’ve systemically dicked them over with interest rates and business shenanigans. Amazon saw it fit to sort me out and label me “Jew” in some arcane column of some totally banal, cyclopean spreadsheet because it means an extra $5 to $10 in sales a year to them, if even. That was enough to make it worth it to Amazon. And they did it on their own, without ever violating my “rights.” And if tomorrow Amazon switches business gears, and becomes the world’s marketplaces for demographic lists of people instead of the world’s marketplace for SF ebooks and horror anthologies and owl pellets, well I just better hope that no one running a bomb lab in Yemen or Boston or Paris decides to buy a mailing list.

Here’s the thing: I was fine with being “David Erik Nelson, Jew”–because that’s what I indeed am, what I’ve been my entire life. And for most of my life, when being a Jew has caused me grief, it has done so in association with being David Erik Nelson, as a response to something I did or said. Sure, it may not have been fair–when an Xtian gripes about Xmas, it’s because everyone is stressed out; when I do so, it’s because I’m a fucking whining Jew who should just be glad America tolerates me–but at least it felt personal and specific and, in some way, intelligible. When the threats came, it was because someone specifically disliked something I wrote or said or embodied.

But in Amazon’s datacenter, I’m a row in a table. The index on that row is something like “CUSTOMER #2045674” and the cells include “kindle-owner” and “SF reader” and “owl pellet buyer” and “Jew” and my mailing address. Just another row, among millions–until that table gets resorted by the “Jew” column, and then I’m a box waiting to be ticked off by God-knows-who for God-knows-what-reason. Maybe they want to send me free Xanukah candles! Maybe they want to send me a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge! I guess I’ll have to wait for the mail man to come and find out then! Oh brave new world that has such things in’t!

All of which is to say: The data got smart faster than I did.

The Four Bigots You Meet in the Comment Thread


So, my latest column is up at the The Ann Arbor Chronicle: In it for the Money: Chosen People.
It’s about my own personal experience of being a Jew in the midwest, and by extension (in an imperfect way) about being a Jew in America in the 21st Century. It is likely best summarized by this sentence, pulled from near the end of the column:
“Here and now, in this place, this is as good as it will ever get for the Children of Israel – and still, my daughter’s daycare needs an armed guard and blast-proof windows.”
The Chronicle allows comments, which are moderated by the editor or publisher prior to becoming made publicly viewable. As you might imagine, some of the responses to this column have not made it out of the moderation queue, and likely never will. Out of about 16 comments (at the time of this writing), only half were shit-canned (which isn’t to say all criticism was quashed; as you can see at the link, both critical and supportive comments were published).
But the unpublished comments are fairly indicative of the kinds of responses I’m used to seeing to pieces like this, so I thought it might be instructive to share some of those sentiments.

THE FOUR ANTI-SEMITES YOU MEET IN THE COMMENT THREAD

1) Straight Up Hate-Speakers:

Here I group both generic Phelps-ianGod Hates Jews! Hitler Had the Right Idea!” stuff and specifically-targeted “IM GONNA MURDER-RAPE YOUR JEW FAMILY, DAVID ERIK NESLON!!1!” notes. (PRO-TIP: Specific threats get immediately forwarded to the authorities and abuse@whatever.com; email and online comments are far from anonymous, folks, and this is shit up with which I will not put). In response to this column there was a little tiny bit of the former, but none of the latter (thus far), so that’s been nice. I mean, yeah, it’s maybe sorta fucked up to say “It’s pretty nice that no one is directly threatening to kill my family in response to an essay I wrote,” but for real, I’m pretty relieved.

2) Victim Blamers

These tend to come in the guise of Rational Debaters, but instead of rationally addressing anything I’ve said–by, for example, questioning if the incidence of violence against American Jews is high enough to justify the expense of the security, or asking what the sample size of this or that poll was–they instead choose to raise something like a “kernel of truth” argument: If so many folks hate Jews, they *must* have a valid reason, right? There’s almost certainly something the Jews did to earn this despise, right?
They tend to work their way around to suggesting that the real problem, for example, is that I choose to send my girl to a “Jew-only” daycare (PRO-TIP: JCCs are not limited to Jews–just as YMCAs aren’t limited to young Christian males. Our JCC daycare includes non-Jewish children [and staff, for that matter], and I know that JCCs in other cities are very popular with local gentiles who happen to like the quality of the daycare or gym facilities or whatever, and just dismiss the religious part with a multi-cultural shrug [as I myself so often do]).
I.e., the Victim Blamers are running in to point out–as I myself did *in the fucking article*–that if I’d just stop being such a fucking Jew, I wouldn’t have to worry about people hurting my family because we’re Jewish. Pardon me, but even if I hadn’t myself made this point, shouldn’t it be self-evident? And doesn’t the need to rely on circular reasoning draw into question the possible existence of a reasonable explanation for this animosity? In other words, the kernel of truth at the center of your circular argument is, in fact, a void–’cause that’s the thing in the center of a circle.
Nonetheless, these commentors treat this point as though it constitutes a stunning rhetorical victory, possibly because they are sort of gob-smackingly dense.

3) Palestine Enthusiasts:

There’s a tendency among some American Jews to treat any criticism of Israel as inherently anti-Semitic. In case you need me to go on record: I’m not one of those Jews. There are scads of things you can say about Israel that are critical, yet do not denigrate anyone’s ethno-racial creed. Go ahead, knock yourselves out.
But observant (read: functionally literate) readers will note that *my column was not about Israel*; it was about the United States. In 3,000+words I mention the nation of Israel exactly *three times*: Once to point out Nazi war criminals go to trial there, once to point out I get nervous when Israel does bad things because I’m afraid everyone is going to blame me and my kids, and once to say “[don’t] give Israel a pass on their awful domestic policies.”
Nonetheless, some folks race to the comment threads and their blogs to talk about all of the things I’m evidently saying in favor of Israel and against Palestine.
These are Palestine Enthusiasts. No matter what, once a Jew starts talking as a Jew, Palestine Enthusiasts desperately, desperately need that conversation to be about Israel. I spent more words in this column talking about a skinned cat than I did talking about Israel, and yet something like half the published comments focus mostly on Israel/Palestine.
Palestine Enthusiasts don’t think of themselves as anti-Semites–heck, some portion of them are in fact Jews–but the insistence that every Jew has something meaningful to say about Israel and shares some special responsibility for actions taken by Israel or on Israel’s behalf is inherently racist.
I am an American-born Jew. I have never crossed the Atlantic in my life, nor had any desire to do so, let alone go anywhere *near* Israel. Like most of my fellow citizens, I’m *woefully* under-informed on international politics. I’ve never taken any position on much anything that Israel has done or suffered–apart from generally supporting all humans finding non-violent resolutions to their conflicts. The only Israelis I know, or have ever known, are *ones who left Israel* (obviously, since I’ve *never been to Isreal and have no desire to go,* and thus couldn’t have met any Israelis in Israel).
I’m sorry to be tedious, but I evidently have to bend over backward to make it clear how little I have to do with Israel. In fact, that’s why I *didn’t* write a column about Israel: Because it doesn’t interest me, and I have nothing of value to share on the topic.
I’ve never extended Israel any political, material, or even vocal support (apart from my mealy-mouthed pacifist bullshit, which I basically offer all humans free-of-charge, because I’m a shaggy hippie).
And yet somehow I need to atone for Israel’s actions.
If you want to argue that, as an American taxpayer, I’ve supported Israel with my tax dollars, I think that’s a totally valid claim, and I agree that, like it or not, I have indeed done so–just like every other non-tax-refusing American citizen. So, I ask the gentiles in the audience: As a tax-payer, when was the last time someone asked *you* to explain anything about Israel, or personally apologize for something Israel did, or defend Israeli policy, or accused you of being a Zionist, or wanted you to “stick up for and protect those who need protecting in the occupied territories of Palestine”? Why don’t the Victim Blamers from #2 blame *you* as much as they blame *my toddler*? ’cause *she* doesn’t materially support Israel–she doesn’t even know what a nation *is*–but you do, and you do support that nation by paying taxes. Israel is as much your fault as mine–probably more so, because there are a ton more of you than there are of us, and to believe we–a scant 2% of the voting population–have some magical influence over US policy as pertains to Israel simply by virtue of our being Jews is a plain endorsement of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and all its heirs. There’s simply no way around it.
The fact is Israel seems to be overwhelmingly a White Christian-American issue, not a Jewish-American one. And those numbers are worse than they sound, because we’re talking about percentages of populations of very different sizes. In the end, that works out to 65 million White Evangelical Christians with a mad-on for Israel, vs. only 2.4 million Jews. Do you really think politicians are kowtowing to those 2.4 million Jewish voters, or is it maybe just possible that it’s the 65 million Christians that impress them?
Nonetheless, Israel is my daughter’s problem and not yours, and if someone wants to shoot her over it . . . well, shit, she maybe might just have it coming, according to those crack logicians in Group #2 above. We should really talk that all out, rationally, because every perspective is equally valid. Fair, balanced, etc.

When was the last time a writer talking about Christmas shopping or Hobby Lobby’s day in court saw his or her comment thread hijacked by questions about why the Greens hate Palestinian children?
Exactly *never,* because the Greens are rich-ass tax-paying Christians, and we all know that Israeli and US policy basically falls entirely under the purview of my toddler and wife and the folks we hang with one Friday Night each month. We share some prayers, drink some wine, nosh our challah and quinoa salad and potluck lasagna, then troop down into the secret vaults, don our black robes, fire up our babies’-blood-fueled Macs, and plot out Israel’s next move. That’s just *exactly* how the world works. Thanks for chiming in.

4) “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” Truthers:

These are folks eager to out the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a hoax” hoax. They are also Holocaust deniers–or deny that it was *really* that bad, or what have you. It would be sort of funny, if it wasn’t also sort of terrifying. I include this example (I found the link among the unpublished comments, twice I believe) for a few reasons:
1. It was briefly syndicated by various like-minded blogs.
2. It’s a really interestingly bizarre alternate-reality reading of what I wrote (as is generally the case in this genre).
3. I like that I’m described like so:

“Detroit-born David Erik Nelson (Jewish) is an award-winning science fiction author and essayist.”

That’s inaccurate (I was born *near,* not *in* Detroit, and have never stated otherwise), but it’s nice that even the haters feel obliged to give me my propers.

Bonus: “Not All Gentiles!” Gentiles

Every time there’s an online discussion of sexism or race in America, a White dude has to swing in shouting “Not All Men!” or “Not All White People!”–as though the fact that not *all* of the Majority are *purposefully* doing something to harm the folks in these Protected Classes somehow lessens the hurt. “Yes, you were raped–but Not by All Men!” That must be super comforting. I don’t want to dwell on it, but I guess being brutalized by all of a major portion of the population is indeed worse than getting brutalized by some smaller subset of that portion. Thanks, “Not All Men!” Guy! You put it all in perspective!

I want to be clear that I feel where the “Not All Men” Men are coming from. First because, agreed: It’s not *all* men; according to reasonable figures something like 94 percent of all men don’t sexually assault anyone. But it certainly is *some* men, and it’s the awkward inaction of the Majority of men that gives that small percentage cover to go on being rapists and assailants.

Beyond that, I think the “Not All Men!” Men are maybe like the Righteous Gentiles that get huffy when we talk about the lingering face of anti-Semitism: Basically good folks who want the world to be basically good, and feel bad that the world continues to often be pretty shitty, and frustrated that they seem to be able to do so little about this state of affairs. Also, I think that sitting and just listening–which, really, is all you *can* do when someone is telling you about horrible things they’ve suffered at the hands of folks who look and act like you–feels like being scolded, and the “Not All Men!” Men need to make clear that they are *not* these guys, these bigots, these rapists, that these are things they would never, ever do or contribute to.

Again, it is because they have basically good (if naive) hearts that the “Not All Men!” Men make assholes of themselves and come off as totally insensitive jerks.

Anyway, I note the conspicuous lack of “Not All Gentiles!” commentors. Heck, I don’ think I’ve *ever* seen a gentile feel the need to rush in and point out that not *all* gentiles take pot shots at Lubavitchers walking to synagogue, or what have you. I don’t know what to do with that little kernel. It just sits there, being what it is: A very interesting silence.