Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Burden of the American Jew
Israel's slaughter, and what comes next
“I am a patriot—of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature.” Henry Miller’s words in Black Spring have trilled through me since I was nineteen. Best known for his surrealistic and sexualized romps through Paris, Miller wrote tenderly on his first years in Williamsburg, when he ran wild through its gloriously fetid streets, love and violence on the offering in equal measure. For Miller, Williamsburg was his homeland; he could write with venom about America but never his neighborhood. There was no contradiction here. His patriotism was reserved for Driggs Avenue. The rest of it was an abstraction, nothing that could touch the heart.
That sentiment is familiar. I came of age on the other end of Brooklyn a century later, in an enclave that was slowly shedding its immigrant and working class character. Bay Ridge could be a world unto itself, nestled in the shadow of an enormous bridge and ribboned by highways, fog-swept and wind-bitten and gorgeous. I grew up surrounded by Irish, Italians, and the occasional Arabs. As a New York Jew, I was in a distinct minority, and this could be a strange place for someone like me to be. Stroll through Park Slope or the Upper West Side or Midwood and you will be confronted by every flavor of Jew—God-fearing, Godless, socialist, right-wing, shomer Shabbat, secular, Hasidic—and come to believe, wrongly, this is what America is—a place where the Jew and Christian exist at parity. Until college, I didn’t know there were towns on Long Island that were entirely Jewish, not just Orthodox but culturally that way, children already primed for their inevitable Birthright trips. Bay Ridge has a single Jewish temple, and I went there for Hebrew school lessons on Sundays, indifferent except for story and snack time, when I chewed on animal crackers and thought vaguely about how all the animals fit on Noah’s Ark. The morah didn’t like when I asked about the asteroids and the dinosaurs, and why there weren’t dinosaurs in the Torah. My bar mitzvah was held in Bergen Beach, not Bay Ridge, because the temple there had a larger ballroom and it was a two-for-one kind of deal. I learned how to read my Torah passage from a portly cantor who spoke in a thick Hebrew accent and once made me cry because I hadn’t studied hard enough. Once the Bar Mitzvah ended, my knowledge of Judaism dribbled slowly out of me. There were batting averages and anime sagas to absorb. My religion would make no more demands of me.
The glory and tragedy of Israel was supposed to matter to me, but never did. It didn’t matter for a reason so obvious that other Jews kept missing it, as if so blinded by the sun’s golden light they forgot what it was that was burning their eyes in the first place. I was born in New York City. I am an American citizen. I have no family in Israel and no descendants from there. I am an Ashkenazi Jew, with great-grandparents who migrated out of Eastern Europe during various waves of anti-Semitic violence in the nineteenth century. These were the Russians, the Belarussians, the Pale of Settlement Jews, the backbone of America’s first socialist wave. They streamed through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, remaking the new century there. They were the tailors, the garment workers, the candy store owners, the scholars, and the gangsters. They were, in time, heading to Washington. Their children wrote best-selling novels. My great-grandfather opened a gas station to give his developmentally disabled son something to do with his days; while his son tinkered with automobiles, he read Tolstoy in Russian and smoked his pipe. These Jews could only be so entranced by Zion, by a theoretical country somewhere in the world only for them. What was Zion against Orchard Street, the Grand Concourse, Ocean Avenue? They had already left one country to come to this one. The United States may have been Christian in character, but it was not Christian by law; this distinction mattered, and it gave Jews the escape hatch they needed out of the shtetls.
I understand, intellectually, why it is I’m supposed to care for Israel—Zion was promised at the end of one World War and guaranteed after the Holocaust—and why it matters, now, Israel has been under attack. I grieve for the civilians Hamas slaughtered. But I grieve, too, for civilians slaughtered everywhere—in Sudan, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Maine—and I struggle to care more about one foreign country over another. Well, the Zionist has an easy retort: you are Jewish. But I, as an American Jew, never demanded an ethno-state. I have never been to Israel and I would not feel safer there than I would in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I have never been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack here. I do not wear a kippah, and never will. Perhaps the frum prefer Israel. But in their private moments, I doubt they’d say they’re better off in Israel than Borough Park or Midwood or Rockland County.
Zionism might be a service to the Israeli Jew—compelled into the military, hungry for an invasion of Gaza that would immolate the Middle East anew—but it does little for the American Jew, happily moored here. It actively punishes, even endangers. An entire religion must answer, in one form or another, for the actions of a particular nation-state. We must account for a government that we never elected and never will. The Knesset isn’t the New York State Legislature or Congress. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t live in the White House. It was an annoyance to be an American traveling abroad and have to answer for Donald Trump, but at least there was logic baked into such casual idiocy. He was the American president. The most ardent Zionists must reckon with how much their advocacy has been a gift to anti-Semites. European anti-Semites, in the last century, fantasized about packing up all the Jews in Germany and France and England and jettisoning them into the desert. To Palestine, with all of you! The cynical anti-Semite, a hundred years later, can corral a New York Jew on the street and berate him for the sins of Netanyahu. Do you see what your religion has done? You’ve blockaded two million people. You’ve killed more than 7,000 in retaliatory airstrikes, far exceeding the number of dead Hamas claimed in Israel, far exceeding the hostages taken. You are the colonizers, the oppressors—you, the Jew!
What does the Jew say back? The Zionist is giddy to conflate Judaism with Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, and the IDF. Temple Shalom in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn is supposed to have everything to do with the occupied West Bank. The convergence of anti-Semitism and Zionism is too unsettling for most American Jews to contemplate for more than a few black seconds. The insect brain clicks back in—support Israel, support Jews—and the consequences can never be mulled, not really, not when the beast looms in full view. The anti-Zionists, of course, will never win either; they are perpetually outgunned, literally and figuratively, and they have no better hope of a nation “from the river to the sea” than the descendants of the Iroquois have of reclaiming billion-dollar New York real estate. For now, activist zeal has returned, with chants of Black Lives Matter swapped out for Free Palestine, but the proponents of BDS and the dissolution of the Israeli ethno-state will never have what they want. Perhaps, for some, that is fine—the rotor of activism is an unkillable foe—but for the genuine believers, all of this will be a hard comedown. Israel won’t budge. The United States and Western Europe are committed to the status quo, and won’t tolerate anything less.
The American Jew is not terribly sympathetic here. I am not dodging rockets from the sky. I am writing comfortably, in New York City. My religion is, at best, a faint appendage of my greater self. It is more malleable than an ethnicity, but it has its own permanence, one suffused in culture. I take it with me and the anti-Semite reminds me of what it is, my little inheritance. I accept, too, the burdens of the nation I’ve called home, the one I pay taxes to, the one I will be a citizen of until death. If my patriotism is tepid, it is something that must be contemplated and ultimately contended with; it is worth, in the end, having an argument about. On Israel, despite my many words on the subject, I find myself demanding a divorce between the nation and greater Jewry. Leave the diaspora alone. Or allow me my own fantasy; an army with which to quickly convince the Müllers and Kleinschmidts and Wagners that Zion belongs in the Rhineland or somewhere in the great middle of their country. Let the reparations be complete. Give Germany to the Jews and tell the Christ-worshipping Germans France can be lovely this time of year, and that their fair skin should save them from the worst of the Frenchman’s xenophobia. Israel could be Berlin, or maybe Munich. Wherever the challah bread is better. I will make aliyah there. I’ve never driven on the autobahn.