Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The late Charles Krauthammer was a wise man, but the wisdom of our elders doesn't always inoculate us against the sudden shock of antisemitism. An essay on the movie Borat, in Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, may be the proof. Violent American antisemitism? Krauthammer, wise as he was, never saw it coming.

The book, a compendium of decades of essays, lays bare Krauthammer's fearful grasp of medicine, social science, and politics for all to see. But it's not just what Krauthammer knows. It's that he informs his topics with the force of his own convictions. He's a man of integrity. He's likable.
So you nod as you read the essays slowly, with a dictionary and a cup of tea nearby. Krauthammer was mostly right in the things he wrote over the decades. But he was wrong in thinking that antisemitism quiescent, was antisemitism gone. Like so many, Krauthammer was lulled into thinking that America was safe from the kind of antisemitism we've now seen at Tree of Life, Poway, Jersey City, and Brooklyn. 
Near the end of the 2015 book, we come to several Krauthammer essays touching on Jewish topics, including the November 2006 Washington Post op-ed, “Borat the Fearful.” Here, Krauthammer takes Sacha Baron Cohen to task for whipping up the crowd in an Arizona bar with "Throw the Jew Down the Well."
Baron Cohen could easily have found what he seeks closer to home. He is, after all, from Europe, where synagogues are torched and cemeteries desecrated in a revival of antisemitism—not “indifference” to but active—unseen since the Holocaust. Where a Jew is singled out for torture and death by French-African thugs. Where a leading Norwegian intellectual—et tu, Norway?—mocks “God’s Chosen People” (“We laugh at this people’s capriciousness and weep at its misdeeds”) and calls for the destruction of Israel, the “state founded . . . on the ruins of an archaic national and warlike religion.”
Yet, amid this gathering darkness, an alarming number of liberal Jews are seized with the notion that the real threat lurks deep in the hearts of American Protestants, most specifically southern evangelicals. Some fear that their children are going to be converted; others, that below the surface lies a pogrom waiting to happen; still others, that the evangelicals will take power in Washington and enact their own sharia law.
This is all quite crazy. America is the most welcoming, religiously tolerant, philo-semitic country in the world. No nation since Cyrus the Great’s Persia has done more for the Jews. And its regard is to be exposed as latently antisemitic by an itinerant Jew [Baron Cohen] looking for laughs and, he solemnly assures us, for the path to the Holocaust?
Look. It is very hard to be a Jew today, particularly in Baron Cohen’s Europe, where Jew-baiting is once again becoming acceptable. But it is a sign of the disorientation of a distressed and confused people that we should find it so difficult to distinguish our friends from our enemies.
Krauthammer gives an accurate depiction of the state of antisemitism in Europe and in the United States respectively, at the time when Borat hit the theaters. Then it seemed the overt antisemitism of France or Norway was something that could never happen in America. Yet nine years later, when Krauthammer published "Things" he still couldn't have foreseen the spate of violent American antisemitism that would begin with the Tree of Life Massacre.
Krauthammer understood some things about American antisemitism even in 2006. He saw the insistent belief, the mantra of liberal Jews, that the threat of antisemitism could come only from religious freaks and white supremacists, from those on the right. Then, as now, there was society-wide denial that antisemitism might also come from the left.

This concept, the idea that antisemitism can spring only from the right is a message that continues to be amplified by the progressive left, even when proven wrong. This is what happened with Rashida Tlaib’s recent tweet in regard to the Jersey City shootings. Tlaib found the tragedy tweet-worthy only when she thought it a case of white antisemitism. Once Tlaib discovered that the perpetrators of the Jersey City shootings were black, she deleted* her tweet.
Going back to 2015, when Krauthammer published “Things that Matter,” violent American antisemitism was still largely mythological. There was the 1991 Crown Heights murder of Yankel Rosenbaum; the exception that proved the rule. But American antisemitism wasn't about killing people. That was something that didn't happen in America.
It wasn’t only Krauthammer who thought that way, of course. And this is what makes American antisemitism, “surprise” antisemitism. It's something we thought could never happen in America.
Krauthammer's essay embodies that false sense of security.

This is not to say that Krauthammer is wrong, therefore Baron Cohen is a prophet. It's doubtful that Baron Cohen saw Tree of Life coming, and the entire subsequent string of attacks. But perhaps what he saw and meant to convey is that antisemitism can be sudden with no lead up, no signs or warnings.

Once one knows of Tree of Life and the way the act burst onto the screen, we must stipulate that it's one of the ways it can happen, antisemitism without warning. That there can really be no such thing as "surprise antisemitism" because when it happens, as it happened at Tree of Life, it turns out it's just one more manifestation of the beast.

This may be what Krauthammer missed, and what Sacha Baron Cohen tried to show us in a bar in Arizona. "Surprise antisemitism" was always a myth. Antisemitism can happen without warning. Even in America. 
Antisemitism, in fact, can lie dormant for the entire almost 250 years of a young country’s existence, then come roaring forward without warning, like a sudden clap of lightning from the sky.

Krauthammer never would have seen it coming. Not Tree of Life, Poway, or Jersey City. Because even a wise man like Krauthammer won't see the signs of antisemitism when they aren't even there to be seen.

And this is the real lesson we learn from that Arizona bar: that when it comes to antisemitism, we won't always get a warning. It may be we'll never see it coming.

And the thing about antisemitism is that it's tricky like that. It can show up on your American doorstep, a complete surprise. Which is what makes "surprise antisemitism" a terrible and misleading misnomer.

A completely imaginary concept.
*Follow the link to see Elder of Ziyon’s excellent scoop on the subject of Tlaib's deleted tweet.

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