In a new era of American nativism, language is our only homeland

The violence and conspiracy theories of today do not differ substantially from those of 100 years ago.

Volunteers perform the final rites before burying the remains of Holocaust victims at a cemetery just outside Brest, Belarus, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Remains of more than 1,000 Holocaust victims were
Zaka volunteers performed final rites before burying the remains of Holocaust victims at a cemetery just outside Brest, Belarus, in May 2019 [File: AP]

Anti-Semitism is the oldest conspiracy theory and as such, all others are stoked with it. Whether it is the Rothschilds (wealthy Hungarian Jewish financiers) controlling the weather, George Soros the global economy or Jews, in general, the “liberal media” – all these conspiracies feel interchangeable in 2020. 

The New York Times, which I (as a Jew) supposedly control, recently published a piece on “Jewish Genius” that promoted race science with its claims of Jews’ intellectual superiority. This supports the racist “puppet master” narrative, while also laying the groundwork for the assertion of the inferiority of other ethnic minorities.

Under the guise of combatting anti-Semitism, President Donald Trump furthered it with his Executive Order in December – taking a page straight out of the Soviet playbook in equating religions with nationalitiesIn the process, he tried to make me a stranger in my own nation.

But as the “there-ness” of Israel has been foisted on me by the US president, I am here to define my “here-ness”.

In Yiddish, this concept of “here-ness” is called doikayt, a key concept of the Jewish labour movement, known as the Bundists, which sought to confront the challenges of the countries where Jews actually lived, as opposed to looking to Zionism for an alternative to those countries.

Shootings in supermarkets, shootings in forests

December also saw a deadly shooting at a New Jersey kosher supermarket. It made me recall my distant cousin who was shot somewhere in the Bronx’s tangle of Kosher supermarkets. I tried to conjure his blood rushing between the food carts on the Lower East Side, the egg cream foam, pickle brine, and melty halvah lingering on bystanders’ tongues. But I could not place any of it, could not even remember his name or the decade he died, just that it happened, that my grandfather told me so.

At the news conference in New Jersey following the attack, a grieving Rabbi David Niederman somehow found the strength to answer a reporter’s question about why Jews should not be feared. When he told people to come to his town of Williamsburg, New York to see how Jews live alongside Latinos and African Americans, the rhythms in his speech overwhelmed me. They were the same as my rabbi’s in Las Vegas. Each inflexion, a missive from the old world.

My family is from Belarus. During the second world war, under Nazi occupation, Belarusian auxiliary police helped facilitate massacres, leading Jews from ghettos straight to their deaths. In Minsk – the part of Belarus my family is from – Nazi officers threw candy at Jewish children who had been thrown into deep snow-covered sandpits to die. On October 15, 1942, Nazi German records listed 17,893 Jews living in the neighbouring Belarusian city of Brest. The next day, a line was drawn through that number. Though the numbers are shoddy at best, within two days at least 16,000 Jews were murdered over execution pits in the forests and the Brest ghetto.

In February 2019, the remains of 1,214 Holocaust victims were found in a mass grave in Brest. No DNA tests were taken before the skeletons were stuffed into 120 coffins and reburied in a cemetery in southwest Belarus. We did not learn their names or stories. They were not reburied in their original mass grave, because that would have interfered with the construction of luxury condos.

Callipers and a new era of nativism

When I was seven, the movers my mother hired to help us move from the east side to the west side of Las Vegas stole a trunk full of her journals, thinking there was something of more value inside them than the names of all our relatives lost in the Holocaust. She had written them down in her diaries when she was a girl, taking notes on grandpa Julius’s lap. Julius and his two brothers fled from the pogroms breaking out all over Belarus for America “the Golden land” at the turn of the century. The rest of our family was left behind. 

Julius was a tailor in New York who spoke Yiddish and knew hardly any English. Sometime in the 1940s, my family sat in the Bronx, in the same rat-infested tenements as boxing champion Jake Lamotta, playing a game of initials. “P.T. an ek-tor,” Julius said in his thick accent, challenging his family to guess the name of an actor. Three hours passed before he announced – beaming with pride at having stumped everyone – “Pencer Tracer” which is how he had heard “Spencer Tracy”.

For religious reasons, Jews at Ellis Island signed their names with a circle instead of an x. This was called a kikel – Yiddish for circle – which was later shortened to the racial slur kike.

Like many other Eastern and Southern European immigrants at Ellis Island, Julius probably had callipers placed around his head to “measure his intelligence” according to the racist pseudo-science of craniometry. In 1909 German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas and his assistants began measuring the heads of Ellis Island’s newly arrived immigrants. According to Carrie Dohe, by the end of his survey in 1911, his team had measured the skulls of more than 18,000 Eastern European Jews, Bohemians, Sicilians, Poles, Hungarians and Scots.

Nativists of the time responded to the wave of 1.5 million Russian Jewish immigrants with fear. It is the same fear that shapes the anti-refugee policies underpinning the camps at the Mexican-American border today. 

By 1917, the US had passed the Immigration Act, which – among other things – imposed literacy tests as a way of restricting immigration. In the four years that followed, only 20,000 Jews were admitted into the US.

A century later, America finds itself with a Nativist at its helm, someone appealing to the basest instincts of his supporters through hateful, xenophobic rhetoric. Rhetoric enacted on the streets of Charlottesville where Nazis chanted: “Jews will not replace us.” Behaviour encouraged by Trump’s defence of the “good people on both sides”.

Where 100 years ago, the Rothschilds were accused of controlling the markets and blamed for the failures of capitalism, today’s populists use George Soros’s name with the same vitriol and accuse him of controlling caravans of “illegal immigrants”. 

Two weeks of violence

In the two weeks leading up to the November 6, 2018, mid-term elections, there were several notable acts of violence in the US. On October 24, a 51-year-old white man named Gregory Bush murdered two black people in a grocery store in Kentucky, telling a white bystander: “Don’t shoot me. I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.”

On October 27, 2018, Robert Gregory Bowers, a 46-year-old white man, shot Jewish congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh. It was the worst attack targeting Jews in American history, leaving 11 dead and seven injured. He subscribed to Gab, a social media platform known as a haven for white supremacists, where he frequently posted about the white genocide conspiracy theory, which argues that there is a deliberate plot, often blamed on Jews, to cause the extinction of white people. 

From October 22 to November 1, a 56-year-old white man named Cesar Sayoc mailed pipe bombs to Trump critics.

The day after the Pittsburgh attack, I told my students I would not be teaching the class as their professor but as a Jewish woman. I laid out the ways in which Trump’s rhetoric about migrant caravans had directly led to the week’s violence. I was later scolded by a supervisor for not remaining politically neutral during class. This while my sister was put on kill lists by neo-Nazis for her ethnographic research on the Proud Boys.

After the Pittsburgh attack, I slept over at my 91-year-old grandpa’s house to feel safe. Staring up at his wall of family photos, I thought about Rose Mallinger’s daughter checking her mother’s body for a pulse. In the news reports on the Squirrel Hill attacks, Rose was described as a vivacious pillar of the community who, at 97, had managed to live through the Holocaust, but not Trump’s America. I thought about the volunteers, waiting to identify the victims and collect the blood and fragments for the burial process to begin. In the Jewish religion, bodies are supposed to be buried quickly – and intact.

Question everything

On Yom Kippur of 2019, I watched a clip of my rabbi telling reporters that the Jewish people will not be intimidated. The video pans across my old synagogue, the same Chabad branch as the one in Poway, California that a white 19-year-old named John Timothy Earnest shot up during Passover services last April. Before killing one person and injuring three, he too posted about the white genocide conspiracy, this time on 8Chan in an open letter which mentioned a “meticulously planned genocide of the European race”.

In the clip, I see the white partition separating men and women. Despite the fact that I am agnostic, despite rebelling against the treatment of Hassidic women, despite debating with my rabbi about fossils and every other thing and once even cursing out his brother as I sat in his wheeled office chair and he rolled me out into the hallway as if I were some kind of demon, I was still given a seat at my Rabbi’s table for shabbos dinners. I still walked to and from the synagogue with his family on high holidays and drank his wine and ate his food and sometimes even baby-sat his children. 

In 2008 – the first election I could vote in – I bumped into him at the polling booth and we laughed. “Oh no!” we both said, knowing how the other had voted. This exchange is what Judaism is. It is a continuum of faith, belief, diaspora, and survival. Judaism is a tradition which encourages its adherents to question everything. Indeed, there is an entire canon of responsa literature (answers given by authorities in Jewish law to the questions put to them) – and, alternately, a deep secular tradition of radical activism. Yes, it is all these things. But it is not a nationality.

Another pogrom

In Washington, DC in December, the president was impeached by the House. Less than two months later, the Senate acquitted him.

At the heart of the impeachment matter sat Ukraine. Parts of Ukraine used to belong to the Pale of Settlement, the land of Tevye and the family I never knew. The Pale of Settlement was a western region of Imperial Russia that existed from 1791 to 1917 and included all of Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, much of Ukraine, parts of eastern Latvia, eastern Poland and some parts of western Russia. It was the area in which Jews were allowed to live and outside of which they mostly were not. 

When Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 400 years ago, tens of thousands (some argue hundreds of thousands) of Jews were killed in the Khmelnytsky uprising, where according to one witness account, live cats were sown into the bellies of Jews before their hands were cut off. This was just one account of one pogrom – a drop in the ocean of the countless pogroms that have taken place across the world and which now seem to have taken root in the US.

Last May the bodies found in Brest were reburied. At work in an artist’s colony, I played the ceremony on YouTube with the speakers turned off. I watched guns being fired, feeling too far away from the home that never was – wishing the sky could spit the bullets back, wishing for a golem – the mute creature created from the clay of the Vltava River to avenge the Jews of Prague and defend them from the anti-Semitic blood libel which accused them of baking the blood of Christian children into Passover matzohs. 

In December, each one of Hanukkah’s eight nights saw anti-Semitic attacks in New York. Jewish men, women and children were slapped, hit and cursed on the streets. Police in New York arrested several pre-teens for drawing swastikas in schoolyards. On December 29 – my birthday – I woke early to the news from Monsey, New York, of a machete attack that left five Hassidic people injured.

An unknowable history

In my rabbi’s synagogue, I learned to treat texts as holy because they were my only links to the unknowable history coursing through me. I did not have the names or life stories of my family who died in Belarus, but I had the songs they sang, the stories they told and the rough shape of the prayers they may have said in times like these – as the twin pestilences of xenophobia and COVID-19 sweep the planet and threaten to kill the last of our storytellers. 

According to my president, I have another homeland. He is right, but it is not Israel. It is language, as the great Polish exile poet Czeslaw Milosz would say, describing the world the Nazis had wrought. 

Art, in any form, is the way we resist the pull of nihilism in times of powerlessness. Wole Soyinka survived 22 months of imprisonment during the Nigerian civil war. “Writers are sorcerers,” I remember him saying, his sonorous, rolling voice, akin to what I imagine God’s would sound like, if I believed. Words are how we create hope from the insufficient materials of our times.

In late January Trump considered putting Belarus on a travel ban, a move that would delight Vladimir Putin, who seeks to annex it from Western influence. As my thoughts returned to Belarus and the blue cloth on the mass grave walls, I thought of bodies floating – their names and language lost in a global timelessness.

And then I thought of the words of Emma Lazarus forever inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Words the head of Citizenship and Immigration Services recently proposed revising in defence of Trump’s latest immigration policies, so that they would read: “Give me your tired, your poor … who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge … “

But as I write this, Lazarus’s words are still holding, have yet to be changed. 

Language, I know, is the only homeland.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.