In a strange land

This week marks the time when the United States goes back to being The Stupid Country after a blessed eight-year reprieve. Two other things are happening: my grandfather’s yahrzeit, and a trip to Berlin.

My grandfather died when I was 19, so it has been some time, but I’m not sure what he’d make of the state of the country right now. The USA was very good to him. The first generation in his family to break into the middle class, in later life – through government work, at that – he survived polio, became a homeowner, saw my father graduate law school, and became a zaydie to me, my brother, and my cousins. The American dream, cliché as it is, actually became real for him. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have even known my grandparents, because history could have treated the Jewish half of my family so much differently.

When I was sitting in the educational session for Ashkenazi genetic screening at Montefiore a year ago, the woman next to me said she had no idea whether there was a history of breast or ovarian cancer among the women in her family because all her grandmothers and great-aunts died in the Holocaust. But my grandparents were the lucky ones in the United States while so many others, stuck back in Poland or elsewhere, were herded off to their deaths. For the added WTF-factor, the non-Jewish side of my family comes from Oswiecim in Poland, a town just west of Krakow. You probably haven’t heard of Oswiecim and I don’t think you’ll have much luck pronouncing it in Polish on the first try, but I’m sure you know it by the German name of the death camp the Nazis built there: Auschwitz.

So, yeah, I admit to having had a certain wariness about Germany when I was younger. It was the country of Beethoven and Bach, whose works I diligently learned on piano; of Kant (who I skimmed through for school) and Max Weber (who I actually wanted to read); but it was also the country that seemed to have let all that wealth of talent and genius warp its collective mind into the most twisted of ideologies, culminating in an attempt to wipe from the face of the Earth both ethnic groups that went into creating me. History seemed straightforward: a nation of people who had an admirable past, who thought they were so great, failed to cope with a changing world that knocked them off their pedestal, and ended up nearly destroying the world as a result. In a very cracked nutshell, that’s how it always looked. (And it sounds awfully familiar now that it’s happening in my own backyard.)

Germany hangs a strange shadow over many Jews of my generation. Growing up, I associated the country with the wholesale, indiscriminate destruction of all that was good in humanity, and I figured I didn’t owe them anything, let alone sympathy. It’s hard to read about the wall and the supposed spirit of people in East Berlin yearning for freedom when the question rolling around the back of your mind is, Where the hell was that yearning a few decades earlier, when your Jewish neighbors were being persecuted, disenfranchised, gassed? You couldn’t be bothered standing up for the defenseless when they were people like me.

Of course, we know it’s not that straightforward. Many Germans, at tremendous personal risk to themselves, fought back against the Nazis and/or protected Jews. We know all about Schindler, all about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We also know that while time doesn’t necessarily heal, it also doesn’t confer guilt upon those who weren’t born, whose parents weren’t born, when the atrocities took place. Guilt is not a mutated gene; it doesn’t pass through generations. Of course I wouldn’t blame today’s Germans for what happened 70, 80 years ago any more than I would expect someone to blame me for the sins committed by white Americans generations before we left Eastern Europe…! Guilt is the most useless of emotions, and in an attempt to not waste any more of my life with it, I decided there’s no way in hell anybody is going to ever make me feel guilt for anything I haven’t personally done. It would be the height of hypocrisy to insist on a different standard for other people.

What time does afford is an opportunity for reflection and for atonement – and more amazingly, for renewal. I began reading a few years ago about the revival of Jewish life in Berlin (and of the bizarre case of how young Israelis now flock there to work in creative industries in a fun city with cheap rent, when in many cases their grandparents did everything they could to get the hell out). There are congregations gathering, sometimes without synagogues of their own but with enough people to form a minyan. All this is a testament to how cities are places of constant change and constant potential, belonging to nobody in particular, and such is their strength and allure. Berlin, cursed with a wealth of history, has built a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial. They have shown they are at no risk of forgetting what was done in the name of their country, by a government that came to power through its citizens and democratic institutions, and that is all I could ever ask. Germany has, as much as it is possible to even do this, atoned for the twentieth century.

And now here we are, sitting in the United States, watching our country fail to remember everything we said we would never forget, poised to do everything we said we would never do because we were a different country, a different people, we had learned, we knew better, didn’t we? How easy it was, as a child reading history books, to think all those Germans should have known better, they should have seen it coming, they should have done something, and obviously they hadn’t, so they must have overwhelmingly agreed with the Nazis, right? How easy it was to think that the dissenters were so tiny a minority as to only be visible when their actions crossed into outright heroism. How simple it was to think that resistance in the face of an instant death penalty could be, well, simple. That if you believed something, it would be easy enough to turn it into action.

I’ve tried to avoid hyperbole since the shock of November 8th, because 1) Panic is never beneficial in an emergency, and 2) I still have confidence that American institutions are strong enough, and the resistance to Trump mainstream and widespread enough, that no, he is not going to become the next Hitler. If I’m naïve or wrong then I’ll eat my words at a later date, but in all honesty, I don’t think we’re in the final days of the Weimar Republic as I sit typing in Manhattan. But what I do know is that for the next four years, the United States will be represented in front of the entire world by a petty authoritarian who didn’t even win the popular vote – yet the world will stare back at my passport and silently think, you wanted this.

I decided to go to Berlin over the Inauguration weekend because I wanted to learn from the past. I wanted to see how a country came to terms with the horrific actions it committed, and how it made constructive lessons of the past. I hope I won’t someday see my children having to apply those lessons in the United States. I will stay away from the media on Friday. I will go someplace in the city far from any television that might be broadcasting the proceedings so that I won’t have to see someone who glorifies ignorance and stupidity ascending to lead the country that once let my grandfather prosper by merit, not blood. I will take a stone from New York City and leave it on one of the plinths of the Holocaust Memorial, as is our custom at gravesites, for those who have nobody to observe yahrzeit for them. And then I will live my life as I want it, because I am lucky that I can.

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Here we go again

And with another outbreak of violence surrounding Gaza, I brace myself to deal with the inevitable flood of hatred against Jews, the accusation that we’re genocidal and commit war crimes, that we target children, that we have no respect for Arab life, that we are unprovoked aggressors. You name it, we’re accused of it. I know that sometime in the next few days, I will read of visibly Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill and Golders Green being attacked, of synagogues being vandalised, because people punish Jews worldwide for whatever happens in the Middle East while at the same time claiming, “I have nothing against Jews, just Zionists and the Israeli government.”

Outside the Israeli Consulate not far from my apartment, people are chanting, “Zionist scum, your time has come.” Welcome to tolerant, liberal, progressive San Francisco.

No mention of over 12,000 rockets landing in Israel, targeting civilians, since 2001. Non-Israelis and non-Jews rarely consider the fact that their countries, if faced with the same attacks, probably would have retaliated a lot quicker. No mention that militants in Gaza deliberately aim at non-military targets. Nope. It would get in the way of their refusal to see any shades of grey in this massive mess.

This is me a few years ago, in London:

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It’s strange. I’m not really an observant Jew. I’m in synagogue maybe twice a year. But more and more I have to be a spokesperson for my ethnic group in the face of loads of bullshit. I have to explain everything to people who don’t have a clue. I don’t like it, but I have to do it because then otherwise I’m just rolling over and being complicit in letting people walk over us. Between this and Tottenham-Y-Word-gate, I’m feeling like I have to be SuperJew when I’m honestly not the best spokesperson, but, eh. Gotta be tough, Kite. Got to risk the fact that people are going to label you things that you are not, call you scum, dissolve friendships simply because you believe Israel has a place on the map alongside a Palestinian state. That’s life. Some people are going to love you and others are going to hate your guts, but the best you can hope for is that people are going to listen to your argument. Big shrug.

I hate war. Like any other person who isn’t a total sociopath, I want war to be the last resort. There are crazies out there who hate Muslims. I am not one of them. Extremists hijack Islam and use it to justify violence, and I know moderate Muslims feel the same way about that as I do whenever some crazy ultra-Haredi-Jewish idiot dehumanizes Arabs: angry that our background has been seized by people full of hatred, and eager to distance ourselves, rushing to say, “We’re not all like that.” I am saddened by any loss of human life, and I detest those right-wing elements of Israeli politics who treat Arabs as lesser people. But it is inexcusable for people to ignore the context, to ignore how many times Israel has offered to negotiate and been rebuffed, to ignore the barrage of rockets on towns like Sderot. People point to the skewed death tolls, at how few Israelis compared to Palestinians have died. That’s because there is an excellent missile shield intercepting them before they hit Israeli towns, and a coordinated warning system and network of bomb shelters. But that’s immaterial – does a government have to wait until a bloodbath has already happened to defend its sovereignity like any other country would? Israel has said enough is enough. Apparently, in the eyes of the rest of the world, it is not allowed to do that. It is supposed to sit there and take it and take it and take it.

I believe that the only way there is ever going to be peace is a two-state solution. Neither of us is going to disappear anytime soon so we ought to figure out some way to accommodate both groups. But Hamas won’t even come to the negotiating table. Palestinian people deserve better than that.

Hamas could help Palestinian people. It doesn’t. When Israel pulled out of Gaza, it left agricultural infrastructure intact so that Palestinians could use it. Hamas destroyed everything. If Hamas can keep Palestinians in poverty, if Hamas can place weaponry in civilian areas to maximize casualties in Israeli strikes, then it can continue to demonize Israel. Its charter calls for the extermination of Jews – not just Israelis, all Jews – and how can I negotiate my right to breathe?

I’m not going to apologize for my existence or to whom I was born. I am not going to be a useful idiot. There are loads of people who want us Jews to shut up and go back to hunching over our books in the Yeshiva rather than reacting like any other country would in the face of eleven years of attacks on its existence. Sorry – ain’t gonna happen. We Jews will negotiate land, we will negotiate policy, but we will not negotiate our right to simply be alive.

The rest of the world has a problem with that.

The rest of the world thinks that Israelis and only Israelis need to roll over and die.

Anyone who thinks this is genocide, read a book that has the definition of genocide in it. Look at Darfur, at Kosovo. And stop embarrassing yourself.

I was a teenager when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and I hoped that within my lifetime a similar process would play out between Israelis and Palestinians as it did between Irish Republicans and Unionists. That hope fades with every year I grow older. If there is to be ANY hope for peace, there needs to be negotiation. Hamas doesn’t want to negotiate. Never has done and, sadly, never will.

A friend of my father’s is an American Jewish doctor. He’s also part of a group that regularly travels to Israeli hospitals to perform free life-saving surgery for Palestinian kids. Several years ago he operated on a child with a heart defect. After the successful surgery, he met the child’s mother, who didn’t have any money and who didn’t speak Hebrew (and the doctor didn’t speak Arabic), but she was so overcome with emotion that she began stuffing a bag full of sweets and crying and giving it to him. Things like this show that no two groups of human beings are natural enemies. We get warped by politics, by intolerance. Both groups have done plenty wrong, but the only way forward is to at least acknowledge the other side has a right to exist. Israel has tried this. Hamas has refused. And that’s sad. And civilians suffer. All people essentially want the same thing. They want healthy children and a safe place for them to grow up. They want them to live.

The world doesn’t want to see things like the surgery project. The world thinks there’s no good in Israel, that it’s not a truly multicultural place. The world thinks people like this simply don’t exist, can’t exist, because it sees Israel as an evil malignancy to be chopped out and thrown away.

And I feel sorry for the rest of the world.

For the love of all that is sensible, please vote NO on Proposition 37

Voting NO on Proposition 37 tomorrow and hoping it fails. The proposition is not simply a case of “Shouldn’t you have the right to know what’s in your food?” – it’s scaremongering and anti-science, and the proposition itself is full of exemptions that would make the labels ultimately meaningless, kind of like those Prop 65 warnings you see everywhere (because the trial lawyer behind those is the same one behind this proposition – I’m sure he’s doing this just because he cares about food, no ulterior motive at all!).

The labelling scheme WILL increase food prices, and this WILL have the hardest impact on poor Californians who already pay high food prices. No, Monsanto is not my friend, but neither are the quacks like naturopaths supporting the Yes-on-37 campaign. I’m siding with the seven Nobel Laureates in chemistry or physiology/medicine from California, and dozens of other academics in saying no to 37. I trust them a lot more than a quack like “Dr.” Mercola, the top donor to the yes-on-37 campaign – Mercola is an HIV denialist and anti-vaccine panic-monger, why on earth would anybody trust him when it comes to anything scientific? Trust a man who doesn’t think AIDS is caused by HIV to know what is healthy? No thanks. I’d rather chill with the biologists at UC Berkeley who also believe this proposition needs to fail.

Nor should we pretend that businesses like Whole Foods are in this because they believe in the greater good – they have a profit motive just like every other business. It’s ludicrous for them to point the finger at companies that have a financial stake in GM food when they themselves have a massive financial interest in promoting non-GM food. (As for health arguments, you have a huge risk of food poisoning from “natural” fad foods like raw milk.) Plus I’m disgusted that people are using the “Monsanto gave the world Agent Orange and they’re telling you GM foods are safe” argument. That’s irresponsible scare-mongering of the worst degree.

As for “Frankenfood” arguments – genetic engineering takes place in nature, and always has done. You’ve been eating genetically engineered foods your entire life. An engineer friend schooled me, and it’s really fascinating. Definitely read up on it. I’m disturbed by how many of my colleagues in social science are buying the pro-37 arguments – guys, we’re striving for credibility as scientists, so shouldn’t we be examining the evidence? Shouldn’t we be looking at how there are no studies in proper peer-reviewed journals that find evidence GMOs are harmful to your health?
More is at stake than just California’s reputation – which, believe me, is already firmly cemented in the head-in-the-clouds-hippie category. Science is already under siege from quacks who take advantage of poor science education in this country. I have no business interests in this whatsoever – I’m a PhD student in sociology who hates unnecessary panic, and who hates the idea of the pro-GM backers being viewed as saints just looking out for your health and safety when they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes like everybody else. I’m not bankrolled by any corporation – if I was, then trust me, I wouldn’t be living in the Tenderloin. I’m for facts, not taking advantage of fear – NO ON 37.