This essay is the second installment in a three part series. The first installment, Dead or in Jail: Ferguson and the Bounty on Black Life, can be read here. The third and final installment can be read here.
On Monday night, a ninety-year-old woman named Hedy Epstein in Ferguson, MO, was arrested wearing a t-shirt that said, “Stay Human.” This was the tenth day of protests over the murder of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Epstein, a Holocaust survivor and a Jew, said of her arrest, “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I’d have to do it when I was ninety.”
Epstein is a resident of St. Louis and a peace activist who, besides opposing the killing of Brown, opposes Israel’s occupation of Gaza. About her opposition to the occupation, she says, “I’m not anti-Israel…I don’t hate myself. You’re allowed to criticize every other country, including the U.S., but not Israel, why is that?”
What does it mean to “stay human”? I think it means to keep in touch, emotionally, with our ability to empathize with others, and therefore to reject injustice wherever it appears. To stay human is to reject ideology in our appraisals of human value: to see the protection of all humans’ rights as equally necessary, and to resist the rationalizing force of ideology that says there are certain reasons, certain contingencies, that make some lives more disposable than others. For example, that Michael Brown had smoked marijuana. Or that perhaps he had robbed a store. Or, on the flip side, that this was supposed to be his first week of college, and that he was loved. Is any of these more or less reason for an unarmed kid to get shot and die? “Stay human” means every death is an equal tragedy. There are no weighted scales.
When Jews talk about Israel, on one side of the weighted scale is the “existential question”—the question of Israel’s very existence, of whether we might one day not exist. Behind the fear that Israel might not exist is the fear that Jews might not exist—a fear rooted in trauma, a fear stoked by calls by Israel’s enemies that Israel, and Jews, still should not exist. When Jews defend the shelling of a ghetto they created, it is often because they are traumatized by loss, by the memory of those who fell on the wrong side of the existential question mark. Sometimes trauma makes us do the thing that hurt us.
When I traveled through Europe in the summer of 2010, I did what all Jews are compelled to do when they visit Europe for the first time: that is, visit the Jewish Museums. There was at least one in every city I passed through, each housed in an emptied synagogue whose congregants had, mid-century, been gassed. In all of the museums, there were maps of centuries of Jewish migration. In Toledo and in Istanbul, the maps began with the Spanish Inquisition, and arrows showed what sea routes the expelled Jews had taken from Spain: north, to London and Amsterdam; and through the Mediterranean, to Tripoli, Athens, Jaffo. In some of the museums—in Krakow and Berlin and Prague—the arrows pointed inwards, to Germany and Poland: these were the train routes that brought the Jews to the camps.
And in every museum exhibit, at the end of a series of cartographic placards, was a poster about the founding of Israel. Finally, after horror, a refuge. After abuse, empowerment. Finally somewhere we could go and be safe.
In the eleven days since Michael Brown was murdered, we’ve learned of the long-simmering tensions that led to his death. We’ve learned about Ferguson, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis with no previous homicides this year. Alongside talk of Brown’s college plans, we’ve learned about his school district, Normandy, and that in 2013 it was merged with another of the poorest, most heavily African-American districts in the area. We’ve learned that Ferguson residents had voted to raise their own taxes so their kids could attend a decent school. We learned how this school district lost its accreditation, then had it reinstated after its all-black student population had begun attending the largely white high schools in neighboring towns.
We’ve learned how this zip code was like a trap with no trip wires, limiting residents’ movement and potential.
On the fourth night of protests, after the over-outfitted local police fired tear gas on peaceful protesters, there began surfacing on Twitter messages from Palestinians in Gaza about how best to avoid and treat tear gas.
These tweets were the punch line of a joke that did not have to be made, the same joke Egypt made when it encouraged America not to use excessive force on protesters, the same joke made when people asked What country is this? and when tweeters pointed out recent calls for freedom of the press in Russia and Ukraine.
In the days since Ferguson there have been a smattering of articles about what white people should do. How to support racial justice, how to talk about it when it’s so much easier to stay silent.
Whiteness is tenuous, for a Jew. As a little girl Hedy Epstein wasn’t white, to disastrous effect, and neither were my grandparents, already in Chicago, insulated from the violence that raged in Europe. There is still a shadow on our cheeks, a color that can flare up in the wrong light. A woman whose children I nannied once encouraged her daughters to measure my nose at the dinner table. Privilege evaporates in the face of physiognomy.
In the backlash against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, one of the arguments that has been leveraged against critics is that Israel has been subject to undue criticism, more criticism than other countries waging other terrible wars. The implication is that criticism of Israel stems more from hatred of Jews than from an even-handed concern with global justice.
It could be. For some people, it probably is.
In some of the shrieks for Palestinian justice we hear a long-suppressed disdain. Don’t pretend you don’t hear it. It’s what scares us the most: that we thought we’d made it, become normal, only to lose it again.
Maybe whiteness is what we’re clinging to, when Israel answers the existential question with bombs. Whiteness: the right to bomb where you want when you want to, then not be called out for it.
The word ghetto from the Roman geto, you know, where they kept the Jews.
Like many formerly unpopular people, Israel has a conflicted relationship with normalcy, an ambivalence which dates back to its founding. In dreaming of a state, early secular Zionists sought “normalcy”—statehood like all the other peoples—as well as what David Walzer calls “the most abnormal of all conditions: redemption,” that is, the fulfilment of Messianic promises.
A few years ago my uncle said something very funny. It was a holiday—Thanksgiving, maybe, or Rosh Hashana, the two holidays we celebrate in my parents’ house. We were at the end of the table, where my uncle always sits, because he is big and loud. He was defending the West Bank settlements. He said, “What are they going to do, give it back? That’s like saying we should give back California.”
Israel’s folly looks a lot like America’s: thinking it’s destiny because the maps look good. Thinking we earned Hawai’i because 50 is a round number.
I don’t know if we were prepared for the fact that Israel is a country. Not a dream, or an idea, or even an event. Not a religion. A country. A country with borders and border-guards, with ministers of transportation and health, with a military in which citizens are required by law to serve, with a GDP and a tech sector and a tourism bureau. A country where everyone speaks Hebrew and the national day of rest is Friday and Yom Kippur, not Christmas, is a national holiday. A Jewish state.
Countries are warlike. They defend borders with force. Some countries wield their force more judiciously than others.
Israel wants to be normal, but it also wants to be redeemed. Redemption means an escape from history—a triumph over it—but, unfortunately for us, history lumbers on. It will judge us. The founding of Israel was the beginning of a story, not its end. Museum placards may stop at 1948 but time itself has not.
It’s hard to accept criticism when everyone’s screaming at you. Now you have picketers yelling “Support Darren Wilson.” The new how-to guides for white people dealing with racial justice say, “Don’t be afraid to be unpopular.” It seems crazy to admit our failure in a moment of anti-Semitic attacks. The impulse is to double-down.
We want to wait for the fury to fade, so we can repent in peace, without everyone looking at us. That’s why they say Michael Brown had it coming. So it won’t be our fault. So the protesters will put down their signs.
But they won’t be quiet. We better hope not.
Like it says in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you will live, and inherit the land that the Lord has given you.”
You have to earn it, you know?