Monday, November 03, 2003

It’s Not Always Anti-Semitism

Words – spoken and written – are our primary means of communication. As social relationships and others contacts have expanded and as work increasingly shifts away from labor and takes the form of communication, there is an even greater reliance on spoken and written expressions, a trend that obviously has been advanced by technological developments such as the cell phone, email and the Internet.

None of us are angels and few of us are holy persons so that all that we do is likely to be morally compromised, to one extent or another. We tend to be sloppy or impulsive, at least occasionally, in the language that we use, which is why we are frequently admonished to be careful. We can be incautious in speech, saying things that scarcely reflect what we believe or think. In all relationships and especially in families, there is always the possibility that stress or anger may evoke words that are accusatory or hurtful. Relationships endure because there is the ability and willingness to separate the wheat from the chaff, to recognize intent and context and to look at the larger picture of what bonds people together and ignore or forget that which is hurtful and passing.

In public life and often in legal matters, words that were expressed long ago remain on the record and may be given greater prominence than they merit. Which brings me to anti-Semitism. Our tiny remnant seems besieged in a world of anti-Jewish sentiment, a world that encompasses all of Islam and much of Europe, not to mention a fairly regular diet of incautious remarks or actions on our home front. In the recent period, we have also had revelations about Richard M. Nixon and Harry S. Truman. When he isn’t forgiving the Prime Minister of Italy for his anti-Semitic words, Mr. Foxman of the ADL has what seems to be a full-time job sending letters all over the globe excoriating those who have defamed the Jews. It’s hard to keep up with all the bad news.

There is disturbing news, but I wonder whether it justifies our hyper-sensitivity as we parse spoken and written words in order to extract tidbits of anti-Semitism. The exercise is increasingly pathetic and even pathological as we become exercised over inconsequential words. I date this folly to the extravagant reaction to Jessie Jackson’s Hymietown crack years ago. There is much not to admire about Mr. Jackson, but the phrase did not merit a communal fit. We have been off and running ever since as we no longer distinguish between hardcore anti-Semitism and incautious language of the kind that, in fact, is employed when we speak among themselves.

In private discussion, there are verbal and psychological processes that engender the use of disparaging language. We need only think of how often in telephone conversations between friends A and B, there are hurtful things said about friend C. If telephone discussions could be replayed, countless friendships and other relationships would be shattered and if painful words hurled in anger or pain by spouses would be viewed as accurate expressions of feeling, the already high divorce rate – said to be 50% - would zoom into the stratosphere.

Of course, there are good reasons why Jews react so emotionally to inappropriate language. Yet, we need to show more restraint in reacting to words that should not have been expressed and we need to understand that there is an unfortunate tendency to be careless in private conversations when the topic is other ethnic groups. We who are ready to jump all over outsiders who say disparaging things about Jews should examine how some – and more than a few – Jews speak about other ethnic groups.

This isn’t to excuse Presidents Nixon and Truman or anyone else for nasty things said about us, but we must not forget that there is a public record to judge them by and it is a far better gauge of their sentiments than incautious words. This is obviously true of President Truman who may have had a bad day at the office or perhaps the kitchen was too hot and took pen to paper and produced the already infamous diary entry. Inexcusable though they were, the words do not alter Truman’s splendid record.

This episode raises the fundamental question of how to criticize Jews without violating standards of decency that proscribe anti-Semitic utterances. The gist of Truman’s outburst was that Jews make demands for themselves while they could care less about the situation of other people who face hardship and suffering. On any scale of group altruism, Jews would certainly score very high and yet it is the case that we are ethnocentric, as we press endlessly for our interests and show far less concern for others. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Our moral obligation is to worry primarily about our own and not about others. And so it turns out that in a clumsy way, President Truman hit on the truth.

The same could be said about Greg Easterbrook’s recent blog on, of all places, the website of The New Republic in which after decrying Hollywood’s glorification of violence and debasement, he wrote that “Jewish executives worship money above all else.” That’s nasty business and it isn’t any less nasty because there is a high incidence of Jews in the various cesspools that constitute popular culture. Still, we must recognize that Jewish writers have criticized the role of Jews in Hollywood, a role that is or should be a source of embarrassment to most of us.

We have major enemies in all of the Islamic world and among the Quislings in the West who have turned against Jews and Israel. Let’s not trivialize anti-Semitism by getting exercised over every trivial expression that incautiously says unkind things about Jews.