It Can Happen Here

An Exploration of my Jewish Fear

I’ve never met a holocaust survivor. I know one day there will be no one for me to meet. When I am on the internet, my friends talk about their identity. Until recently, I have felt disconnected from this conversation. My mother’s family emigrated to the States in the 1860’s. My father’s family in the 1900’s. We have been in Chicago. I have understood that I am both a German and Russian Jew, that there were conflicts between these groups in the city of my birth. I have been raised to go to temple only on the high holidays, to eat pork, and to be afraid that ‘it’ can happen here. I remember my father telling me his fear when I was around ten years old. We were walking in our neighborhood, Old Irving Park, in its sunny lawns and suburban quiet. I envisioned dead bodies on the grass and sidewalk.

My brother is 26 years old and went on birthright in the winter of last year. Over facebook chat he told me Israel is not about politics, but about safety. It is a land for all Jews, a haven in the event of another Holocaust. I rolled my eyes, and typed out a long screed. I wanted to shut him down. Before I sent it, I told him we would talk about the issue when he returned. I didn’t want to spoil his experience. He thanked me, and to my relief, was not a Zionist upon return.

An Orphan In History, by Paul Cowan is an essential book for my kind. My mother has told me to read it countless times. I picked it up a few weeks ago, and was gripped. It is the story of how a Cohen became a Cowan. It is a story about how the grandson of a German Jewish immigrant family to Chicago would find themselves in a Catholic boarding school on the East Coast with a Christian name and a vague, ethical understanding of the Judaism that had been intractable from the lives of their grandparents. It is the story of the word kike, which was coined by German Jews to belittle the more recently arrived Russian Jews to America’s cities. It is my story.

I was called a kike in middle school. I went to an accelerated program for 7th and 8th graders within Taft High School on the far northwest side of the City. The school was predominately Polish and Latino. My Dad warned me about antisemitism in the Polish community. I was studying to become a Bar Mitzvah, was obnoxious and short for my age. I remember a girl telling me her family raised her to hate all Jews. I almost couldn’t take her seriously, it didn’t feel real. In all respects I felt like a white American male. Old world prejudice wasn’t a threat to me. I was a thousand times better off than the poor Black and Latino kids I went to elementary school with, many of them depended on free school lunch and didn’t have proper school supplies. In two years I was in high school, was exposed to anti-Zionism, and to a crude, emotional Leftism, that would guide me toward a feverish Marxism in College. I was chilled by Lenin, and tempered by Rosa Luxembourg, and nourished by Walter Benjamin. I protested. I once marched in New York City, in the first week of the Occupy Wall St. happening. I held a sign that read:

If I am not for me

Who will be?

If I am for myself alone

What am I?

And if not now, when?

The quote is from Hillel. I’d had a print of it the wall of my bedroom since I was 15, which I got from a youth group activity at my Synagogue. It is a clear statement of my Jewishness, a tidy summation of the messy ethical amalgam I inherited from years of prayers and being my parents’ child. It is a call to action, and disquiets one who is comfortable in a world of injustice. For me, it is this Judaism that is incompatible with Zionist occupation, and antithetical to the American Conservatism of so many Jews in the States.

Now, for the past year I am reminded of who I am everyday. People close to me say I am paranoid about Fascism. For over a year I have been terrified by the Trump campaign, and have grimly watched my fears come true. I said before the first primary he would be the nominee, and wonderful, intelligent people told me I was crazy. I saw in his hand motions, in his manipulation of racist nationalists the makings of a dictator. I am no longer the 10 year old that envisioned corpses in front of homes in a nice neighborhood in Chicago. I am the 25 year old who envisions Trump winning the election, and the vigilant, fierce protest in response. I am terrified that gangs of Trump supporters will roam the streets, hunting down the opposition. I now understand my Father’s fear, which is the fear of so many Jews from generations past. It is fear but it is also knowledge, that ‘it’ can happen here.
This fear–this Jewish fear, is something I have only felt recently. As I write I realize that my fear is odd, because it is too late for so many. The fear that ‘it’ can happen, is not so important when it is happening, when Black and Brown people are systematically imprisoned, impoverished, and murdered by the same government that may never cease to occupy the Middle East. It is my hope that this Jewish fear be used to fight injustice and authoritarianism, and it is my dream that someday we will win.

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