Fear and Hope in the Age of Rising Neo-Nazism
At sixteen, I travelled with Jewish South Africans on the March of the Living to commemorate sixty years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. No one enters and exits the concentration camps of Poland without the manifestations of its horrors etched in their memory - the walls of the gas chambers dotted deep blue by Zyklon B; the glass containers satiated by the collection of shaved hair; the creased shoes of the prisoners stacked in their thousands. Most vividly, I recall the visceral sensation that washed over me as our bus pulled off from Majdanek. Rather than set in an isolated location, this extermination centre was within the bounds of the city of Lublin. This meant that those in the neighborhood would have continued their lives - walked to work; read their books; rinsed their dishes; put their children to sleep, while smelling the stench of smoke from the crematorium chimneys waft nearby. As the rhythm of Let Go by Frou Frou hummed through my headphones, this realization dove me into my earliest stunned process of reckoning with the base of humanity.
The recurring themes that have since stirred within me relate to indirect complicity - the inaction of bystanders in the face of glaring injustice – what it entails, how it’s cemented, whom exactly it implicates. Simon and Garfunkel’s poetic warning that silence ‘like a cancer grows’ speaks both to its encroachment into various conventional and private institutions, and to its potency. In fact, the precise power of collective silence is rooted in its ability to numb those beneath its heft; convincing legitimacy in (in)action. As encapsulated by author David Grossman; "Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends - and if it never ends, at least we'll have suffered a little less, developed a useful dullness, protected ourselves as much as we could with a little indifference, a little repression, a little deliberate blindness, and a large dose of self-anesthetics".
Herein lie the prospects for racist coalitions and structures to spawn their politics of fear to wholly dehumanize, humiliate, demonize and scapegoat the marginalized others as a homogenous bloc. It must be noted that victims are never ethically faultless, but that this process naturally works to exploit the failings of certain victims to prove a point about the collective. Silence - or entrenched complacency - also offers degrees of material and symbolic privilege to its target audience, while restating threats against those daring to act out of line. These intricate tools act as ancillary to the status quo, as they generate the thoughts and feelings that reinforce a sense of acceptability in complicity. Unmistakably, they also allow those in power to exculpate their own wrongdoing.
Though no situation is equivalent and additional factors must be taken into account; regrettably the key reference points for these processes abound, whether in relation to enforced separation, xenophobic and racist state violence, or mass atrocity, as most recently demonstrated in Aleppo. Most trust their immunity to these processes; perceiving them as theoretical risks relegated to a distant time, space or group. An intersectional understanding reminds us however that given our multiple identities, benefitting even in part from social structures of privilege means that we must identify our complicity with, and blindness to forms of injustice as a result of our own positions of power and prejudices.
Some time ago, I turned my attention internally to ruminate over the production of privilege, denial and fear in my own experience. Like most other Jewish South Africans, my ancestors were predominantly Ashkenazi Jews that sought to flee the pogroms and Nazis of Eastern Europe. The Afrikaner National Party - the South African opposition from 1933-1939 and subsequently the first official party to implement Apartheid - was deeply sympathetic with Nazi Germany. It exhibited its anti-Semitism in myriad ways, including through its endeavors to see an absolute ban on Jewish immigration; a freeze on the naturalization of Jewish permanent residents in the country; and a barring of Jews from certain professions. Yet the aspiration to strengthen the power of the white minority saw it taming this approach once in power; integrating Jews into the upper-echelons of the racial hierarchy. After their acceptance into acceptable whiteness, the Ashkenazi Jewish community could reap similar benefits of safety and privilege as other white people, from the system that was built on colonialism, exploitation and oppression of black South Africans.
The fact that there were Jews who opposed Apartheid - like other white individuals - is beside the point: what matters is how collectives get co-opted into racist structures, even when they may have suffered themselves and even when the structures may be designed to despise them. The consequences of these privileges undeniably remain intact today in a country that is, as a friend of mine put it, a walking Apartheid museum.
Until a few years ago, I also loosely accepted - or rather, opted not to interrogate too intensively - the assumption that the safety of Jewish people is contingent on national state protection. Moreover, I didn’t realize – or chose not to face – the fact that the very state ostensibly guaranteeing my safety as a Jewish person who was also born in Haifa, is dependent on the historical and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians: those of 1948, those under Occupation and blockade, and those that are stateless or descendants of refugees. Accordingly I started to unpack the tools that were used to bind my Jewish identity to a Nation State, as well as those that used fear to dehumanize the other.
Moreover, as I learnt about the structural tools utilized by this state – its policies and practices of segregation and oppression, its walls, mass surveillance, and military – I came to grasp Edward Said’s powerful reiteration that the trauma of Zionism on Palestinians has seen them become victims of victims. I thus concluded that silence in this case is not an option: the lessons from the past too persuasive, the persecution against Palestinians too opposed to Jewish humanist values.
I didn’t opt to reject the assumptions of Zionism without re-imagining the expansive possibilities for its alternative. Firstly, to affirm the forms of safety and varied Jewish identities dissociated from nationalism. Secondly, to see the resolution of a just peace wherein all are granted equal rights, humanity and dignity. This assertion in particular is not - and never will be - extreme; in fact, the notion that it’s still treated as fringe by the mainstream establishment is. Yet it still warrants the ‘self-hater’ branding as well as more startling rejoinders; a member of my community insisted that it indicated “my colonized mind” akin to that of a “'perverse and extreme sexist Rabbi”. On the other end of the alarming spectrum, individuals have casually conveyed to me - as if offering a form of flattery - that I’m a “good Jew” needing to convince those believing in the ‘Holohoax’ that “my types exist”.
Our history and the current reality therefore reflect certain undeniable factors: Jews have experienced severe pain, and are now undeniably facing resurgent threats as the specter of Trump consolidates neo-Nazism across America and Europe. The swastikas emblazoned across the walls of schools, the self-assured Hitler salutes, and the probes into whether Jews are people are mere indications of this danger. Simultaneously we have benefited – white Ashkenazi Jews in particular - from serious race, class and through Israel, religious-ethnic privileges.
The endorsements and silent acceptance by institutional Zionist organisations of Trump, Bannon, Breitbart and their ilk, and the passing of bills to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, perfectly crystallises our warped reality – a nation state and collusion with whiteness is being prioritised over concrete, dangerous anti-Semitism. In the words of Michael Jackson: They Don't Care About Us. Moreover, they don’t care about others - those who are also shaken by the grip over nationalism that is tightening, and the torrid fusion of neo-fascism, neo-Nazism, white supremacy and Islamophobia attempting to take hold across the board. Those who are receiving flyers printed with the words, "He's going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews”; those who face increasing deportation and detention; those who are facing racist attacks at an even higher rate than before.
In reclaiming the Jewish identity I relate to, I’ve gained inspiration from the Yiddishkeit workers, anti-fascists and intellectuals of the past, who defied General Franco and the Nazis from the Warsaw ghettos to Petrograd. I’m also stirred by the voices of the movement of Jews who are becoming more vigorous each day in defying the establishment: from those dedicated to inculcating an alternative diaspora identity such as Jewdas, to human rights collectives such as Jewish Voice for Peace; South African Jews For a Just Peace; If Not Now; the international Jewish Network SEDQ, to campaigns such as the recent running of Eran Cohen – a non-Zionist Israeli – in the Union of Jewish Students elections in the United Kingdom.
Now more than ever, we as Jews need to work together – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Jews of color, secular, Orthodox and Reform – to continue building alliances with our Palestinian, Muslim, Black, Arab, undocumented, women and LGBTQ+ allies. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:
“Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.” Vitally, our resistance needs to be rooted in the endeavour to attack and transform the architecture in various contexts that aims to both implicate and affect us in varied ways, at the expense of the most vulnerable. Concurrently it must also be restated that resistance requires consistent self-reflection, for as Maya Binyam highlighted in ‘Watching the Woke Olympics’: “The most pernicious racism is unrecognisable precisely because it is that which binds. It’s difficult to name a racist when you yourself are bound up in their racism — either because you are the object of their hate, or because their hate has a history with which you are aligned”.
We all have work to do - on ourselves, for ourselves and for all who will face the wrath of the times ahead. Strength: toward equality and justice for all.