Friday, September 26, 2008

Saving the World (Part Two)

WBS asks:

I got to hear about how the Holocaust Museum didn't
have anything on gay folks and Roma.

Uhh, wait so is there something too left wing about me
if I wonder about this question too?I attended a shul full of Holocaust
survivors (you probably knowof it) for a while and dare not ask that question to
them, I couldn't -- I'm not cruel like that. But I did ask a Rebbetzin (my age)
why Orthodox Jews weren't involved in civil rights and charity that benefited
everyone. She said she didn't know and that was the end of that conversation and
I never brought it up again.Please tell me how can these questions can possibly
be asked to anyone without offending or hurting them. There is no book anywhere
that could possibly tell me the answer to these kind of questions -- it has to
come from a person (unless there are books?).

Let me clarify this one a little, and see if I can help you make some sense of what you're trying to learn. If I sound critical, please excuse, I'm trying to get at truth here, and it can be rough going.

About the museum:

First, it's a lie, and a stereotypical one. The Holocaust Museum has an enormous range of exhibits and materials on all facets of the Holocaust, including gays and the Roma/Sinti, Jehovah's Witnesses, people targeted for political activities, etc. Although it may not have been at quite at the level it is now in 2001, it has never focused or meant to exclusively on the Jewish experience, although of course that experience looms very large in any study of the Shoah, for sheer numbers' sake. I doubt she'd ever been to the museum, or knew much about it, she'd just read some misinformed rant online, and accepted it as truth. She also, of course, defined the Museum as a solely Jewish project. It's not.

Secondly, it had nothing to do with what we were talking about. She says "Bin Laden didn't do it, the Israelis did, but no one will say that because the US supports everything Israel does." I say "That's anti-Semitic, paranoid and moronic." She says: "The Holocaust Museum is racist." It's a non-sequitur, and one that shows that everything in the anti-Jewish basket is being thrown all at once.

Third, getting back to the idea of the museum being "Jewish", it's an example of an anti-Semitic brain glitch that plagues a lot of well-meaning people, the idea that the Jews are responsible for representing other people's genocide experience. Not Europeans, not Germans, not the other groups themselves, not the United States or Russia, who between them ended the killing in Europe, but the Jews. How selfish, to bear testament to your own suffering, without giving equal representation to the suffering of everyone else, and without making it clear that this is all just a general symbol for inhumanity anyway. It's predicated on the idea that a. Jews have so much money and influence that we could just snap our fingers and reeducate the world, and b. the Shoah is most important as a way for non-Jews to access an understanding of genocide, not as an experience of a particular people and culture.

It's crazy to say that if the world has allowed itself to forget the suffering of the Roma (and ignore their present oppression in Europe), this is first a Jewish responsibility. Any American who's read Bury Me Standing knows as much about the Roma as I do. But I've heard fifty times, "Why don't the Jews talk about other people's Holocaust experience?" First, we do. I've read infinitely more about the Roma, and the Armenian genocide, etc., in Jewish publications than in 'mainstream', let alone lefty mainstream ones. And secondly, it's a crazy mental pretzel in which Jews are responsible for the care and maintenance of the world's memory of genocide, and any shirking of this imaginary responsibility makes us monsters, unworthy to insist on our own history's value.

Imaginary exchange:
"Why don't Jews talk about the Armenian genocide?"
"Buddy, why don't YOU talk about the Armenian genocide, except when you're hatin' on the Jews? Maybe because you don't care about Armenians nearly as much as you dislike Jews?"

Sorry, this is dense free rant. Feel free to ask for clarifications.

About the Orthodox and civil rights/social action, I suspect that the answers you're looking for are complex and layered. For example, are we talking about the present, or the great civil rights hey-day of the '60s? When you say Orthodox, who are we talking about? So I'm stringing together not a cogent answer or argument here, but with some things that come to mind. (Other people, feel free to jump in knowledge is hardly universal.)

First, we are. We do. Jews have always been intensely involved in issues of civil rights and social justice. Most of the Jews involved in the classic civil rights movement activities were the children or granchildren of traditional/observant Jews, even if they themselves, like many young Americans of their generation, were pulling away from tradition. Many observant young Jews were also involved. Definately read about Heschel, who is not only a great and important figure, but also gives a lot of context for the era. There's a new biography of Heschel out, which is on my way-too-long list of books I'm going to read just as soon as I can...I don't know if it's good, but it's definately a place to begin.

Before that, Jewish workers, both frum and defiantly secular were fighting for worker's rights in the sweatshops of New York, shoulder to shoulder with Italian and Polish workers.

Jews of the 1960s were involved in an absorbing range of specifically Jewish issues, including the survival of the state of Israel, and the freedom of Soviet Jews. These issues absorbed many of the greatest activists of two or three generations, and were completely ignored, or actively opposed by most left-wing Gentiles, who saw Jewish freedom and Jewish survival as unimportant, and most likely reactionary, as left- and right-wing Gentiles too often have. Support and solidarity often came from Christian groups, not the mainstream of American activisti.

In terms of the present day, I would say that all organized Jewish groups participate in tzedakeh and social action work of various kinds. The Orthodox shul nearest to my home participates in regular food drives, book drives, literacy work, and organizes its people to feed the homeless. Some Orthodox communities, the Chassidish in particular, prefer to keep a distance from the secular community, and focus their efforts in the Jewish world, in the Modern Ortho. and Conservative communities we go all over, and Reform, the Reform do tzedakeh in outer space if they can figure out how to get there. (Some people aver that they already are there. I was raised High Church Reform, so I simply cheer as the Hadassah ladies strap on their rocket packs.)

Orthodox communities are historically, and in the present, more often immigrants, more often non-English speakers, more often poor, all of which means that they are offered substantial opportunities to do tzedakeh work close to home. This is called community activism in other neighborhoods.

As to why Jews often give our first priority to Jewish, not universal, causes, there's a simple reason. Mostly, no one else will fight for us, no one else will speak for us, no one else will notice if we fall. (To all the crazy people who have, and do, kol ha-kavod). And honestly, I can't think of another American community that faces the level of criticism and self-examination that Jews do for having the nerve to give our time and energy to our own struggle. One wouldn't feel the need to ask why Latinos, say, don't get involved in "charity that benefits everyone" if they work for Spanish-speaking immigrants, or why blacks don't, if they focus their energies on getting black students into colleges. Who's 'everyone'? (Tip, it's never the Jews. We are always 'someone else'.)

About information: Your rebbetzin may be from a community that's too insular for her to know some of this, and if she's your age (I think you're a youngster, no?), she may not know much about American Jewish history. But there is a big Jewish world out there. I don't exactly know what you're looking for, but it's probably somewhere. ;)

Whoooof! Lecture over. Shana tova, and anyone who has recommendations about reading on Jews in civil rights, let me know.

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