There was a joke that used to go around about a golf game involving entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. Another player asked his handicap, and Davis replied “I’m a Jewish black man with one eye; how much more handicap do I need?”
This came to mind when I read the New York Times story about President Obama’s White House Seder. It was surprisingly moving for a non-observant Jew to learn of the President’s observance of one of our rituals. But as a Jew, I’m also slightly–and less surprisingly–alarmed on the President’s behalf. People already accuse him of being a Muslim non-citizen; how much more handicap does he need?
It’s illuminating, though, to consider the President an honorary or metaphorical Jew, because it highlights the parallels between the hysteria attaching to Obama’s presidency and the hysteria recurrently directed at Jews. What’s the difference between Sarah Palin’s claim that the President will operate death panels to kill her disabled child, and the classic blood libel that Jews kill Christian babies and use their blood to make matzoh? Only the most ignorant and fearful among us could possibly believe such nonsense, and yet time and again scapegoating has worked because people have believed it and sought to eliminate imaginary threats by killing real people.
And now the President’s opponents have adopted another tactic from the anti-Semites’ playbook. There’s already been way too much talk about Nazis in the course of debating the Affordable Care Act. But when a political group’s response to legislation comes in the form of coordinated window-smashing, only the willfully forgetful can fail to think “Kristallnacht.”
That’s the night the Nazis expressed their disappointment at a political setback by going on a simultaneous rampage all over Germany: killing Jews, beating them, setting fire to their homes and, most memorably, breaking 7500 windows of Jewish-owned shops. The current incidents of vandalism against the offices of Congresspeople who voted for the Affordable Care Act aren’t remotely comparable in scale to that night in 1938, but they’re precisely comparable in purpose. And the sound of breaking glass is the last thing you hear before reasoned political debate is drowned out entirely, and with it genuine self-government.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is apparently among the willfully forgetful. His response to the outbreak of violence among those who share his political positions was to claim that he, too, had been the target of political violence and–more important–to blame the Democrats for making public what had occurred. In other words, he claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.
Consider, if you would, the Wikipedia account of Kristallnacht’s aftermath:
More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps . . . . After this, the Jewish community was fined 1 billion reichsmarks.
In other words, the Nazis claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.
Let me be clear: I don’t think the people who broke campaign-office windows are actual Nazis, or that their doing so had anything to do with anti-Semitism or Jews. The fact that Kristallnacht was organized and the latest nonsense mostly not is a big difference, as is the fact that Kristallnacht had official sanction while the window-breaking doesn’t. Everything that happens isn’t about Nazis or Jews.
Being Jewish nonetheless provides a useful set of historical sense memories, and the sound of glass splintering on sidewalks is one of them.
In the early 1930s, plenty of people on the respectable German right disdained the low-class National Socialists. They were a tool, that’s all, useful temporarily for cowing and marginalizing liberalism so the respectable right could regain political power. By the time the respectable German right figured out that the Nazi tiger couldn’t be ridden, the whole country was already inside.
So who on the respectable American right will be the first to condemn wholeheartedly our current eruption of far-right thuggery? Apparently it won’t be John Boehner, who undercut his own criticism of the attacks by describing them as the natural result of insupportable Democratic provocation. It won’t be Sarah Palin, who like her anti-choice allies routinely identifies opponents as “enemies” and “targets,” and like them will doubtless pretend to be surprised when someone gets murdered. And it won’t be Eric Cantor, though as the highest-ranking Jew in the Republican caucus he might be expected to remember history and hope not to repeat it.
So is there anyone left in the Republican Party to speak out, or are they all too busy hoping the Tea Partiers don’t come for them?