Holy Wars And Tribal Identity
Blood bath at Los Angeles Jewish community center provides wake up call for fresh self-consideration.
Thursday, August 19, 1999
The loser who shot up the Jewish community center and killed a Filipino postman in Los Angeles, the cowards who set fire to those synagogues in Sacramento, the pitiful young man who murdered or wounded several pedestrians in Chicago because they were black or Asian or Orthodox Jews--all these small-time terrorists have in common is the spiritual sickness of racism combined with a bizarre perversion of some kind of Christian identity. Though Jesus himself was not a Christian, he and the followers of his deepest teachings would probably forgive these hate-filled individuals as lost souls who know not what they do. Psychologists can explain such violent behavior as a result of a complex of familial and social stresses that end up driving some wretched people over the edge. But forgiveness and explanations, helpful as they may be in the aftermath of cruelly irrational crimes, are little comfort to those of us so-called minorities whose very existence makes us moving targets. These vicious attacks are indeed a wake-up call, not to some twisted holy war but to a fresh consideration of who we are.
As a secular humanist Taoist existentialist who also happens to be Jewish, I seldom dwell on my religious background. I''m a student of the Holocaust and of comparative religion, but I don''t subscribe to tribal identification. As a multicultural American, I place myself in the venerable tradition of non-religious Jewish artists and intellectuals whose work attempts to honor the richest veins of our cultural heritage--the love of books and learning, the hunger for justice, a passion for rational discourse, humility before the mysteries of existence--without using faith as an exclusive club.
Some of my more observant Jewish friends and acquaintances might say, and have said, that in my heterodoxy I''m hardly a Jew at all, or worse, a "self-hating" Jew; but this kind of spiritual demagoguery and righteous one-upmanship strikes me as just the flip side of any other racial or religious intolerance. Let the heavyweight rabbis fight it out over who is or is not legitimately Jewish--to me it''s an academic argument. I know who I am.
It''s a fact that the Nazis did not distinguish between religious and assimilated Jews, but victimhood is one of the most insidious and bitterly destructive forms of cultural self-definition. Virtually every group, at one time or another in its history, can claim its own set of atrocities. This isn''t to suggest all suffering is equal but to question whether special status should attach to those whose ancestors, or more recent relatives, have been subject to one or another kind of ethnic cleansing.
Grudges are understandable but unproductive. If anything, they tend to lead to the perpetuation of the very crimes against which they are reacting. The last time I felt a power surge of distressed Jewish identity was in the early 1980s when the Israeli Air Force was bombing
the bejesus out of Lebanon. The conversion of victims into aggressors is a hideous form of historical evolution, whether it''s Zionists muscling Palestinians off their land or Albanians exacting revenge on Serbs or Hutus slaughtering Tutsis. If we can''t, in the poignant words of Rodney King, "all get along," at least we might make an effort to coexist.
Ironically, the white men who tend to be the perpetrators of most homegrown American terrorism, whatever their individual pathologies, seem to share a self-pitying sense of their own victimization: the perceived threat of being displaced--demographically, politically, economically--by the "minorities" that occupy increasingly visible space in U.S. society. The "Jewish conspiracy" is nothing new; everyone knows that Jews are disproportionately represented in media, finance, the professions, etc. But now Asians and Latinos and African Americans and American Indians are all staking their claims to a share of the collective pie.
It''s understandable how some poor whites who haven''t benefited from their presumed advantages might feel a little threatened. To convert that feeling of insecurity to a deluded crusade of racial self-defense against some alien force they can blame for their own misfortune requires a leap of rage--the kind of leap encouraged by hate groups that use the same electronic information networks employed elsewhere by advocates of human rights. Plugged in, flipped out, armed, depressed, projecting their own self-loathing onto people who happen to look different from them, the ciphers who go on these rampages are inconsolable. The only way they find relief from their pain is by inflicting it on others. Then, as often as not, they put themselves out of their own misery.
The role that guns play in all this madness is a whole other can of worms and worth looking into, but not here. It is the white man''s burden that interests me, the subconscious understanding that victimhood is powerful, that massacres can be justified as battles in a holy war to make the world safe for endangered white guys. Jewish guys like me can take some comfort in the fact that Jews are just one among many ethnic groups deemed worthy of eradication; and when you consider the more randomly deranged killers who don''t discriminate, it''s clear that Jewish victims of these attacks are merely incidental.
Still, it''s unnerving to know that one''s kind has been singled out, even by a marginal fringe of racist freaks, for genocide. Strangely enough, for someone like me, who could pass for "white" if I wanted to and am about as assimilated as one could be in the stew of U.S. culture, to be a member of such a targeted group is a badge of honor. It makes me want to affirm my Jewish identity, not as a victim or member of some pious sect, but as part of a people who--like other oppressed, abused, scorned, rebuked and misunderstood minorities--continue in spite of everything to thrive.
Steven Kessler was born and raised in LA, and is the former editor of the The Sun in Santa Cruz. Today he is a poet, writer, and editor, now living in Mendocino County.