Jews and microaggressions

I've come to the unhappy conclusion that your average American is no longer capable of recognizing even the most blatant antisemitism, which I suppose I might be happy about if it meant antisemitism had ceased to exist and so memories of it were starting to fade.

This is not the case, of course. I shouldn't be surprised, as we're also in an America where a significant number of white people seem sure that racism no longer exists. It just seems to be a matter of course nowadays that if you don't experience a particular oppression, you're sure it doesn't exist, or that it is being exaggerated, and that everybody is too sensitive.

Oppression tends to pass itself off as common sense, masquerading itself as a teller of obvious if unpopular truths. And so it is entirely possible — quite easy in fact — for people to not believe racism exists and yet to be unrepentantly racist.

A lot of public misbehavior takes the form of something called microaggressions. If you think people complaining about blatant oppression are bellyachers, you're probably not going to be keen on this theory, because they describe momentary encounters.  Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, who coined the phrase in 1970s, described them as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership."

They serve as almost subliminal messages, and the messages are never very good: You are not part of our group; we believe nonsense about you; we do not give you the same courtesy; we think your group is comical and ridiculous.

They're typically presented lightly, as a joke or an aside, and their smallness is insidious. It means any reaction to them is going to seem like an overreaction. Never mind that the people reacting are not reacting to a single microaggression, but to dozens, hundreds, thousands, all piled on top of each other, coming at them constantly, all serving as reminders that you are the subject of contempt.

Jews get it too, and if huge, undeniable acts of antisemitism are barely acknowledged, microaggressions against Jews go entirely unacknowledged. Here's a starter list; it is by no means complete, and I may add to it in the future, but these are the sorts of things Jews hear all the time.

1. Telling a Jew that they don't look Jewish

Jews do this too, to the point that "That's funny, you don't look Jewish" is a longstanding, lazy punchline. Jews shouldn't say this, because there is no one Jewish look. Even in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, when Jews were a relatively homogenized population, contemporary writing reveals that there were significant numbers of Jews with blonde hair, blue eyes, Jewish redheads, Jews with very pale or flushed red skin.

In the United States, the community is even more diverse, drawing from Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, among others, as well as bringing in a great deal of variety through conversion and intermarriage. An estimated 20 percent of the American Jewish community comprises people of color.

Since the community is so diverse, when people say that somebody doesn't look Jewish, they tend to mean that somebody doesn't look like a caricature of European Jews, and I will note that this caricature has long history of being weaponized against Jews. It's hurtful when Jews say it, because it feels needlessly exclusionary. When said by non-Jews, it starts to feel like their idea of Jewishness is more informed by media stereotypes of Jews than by actual Jewish people.

2. Using the phrase "rich Jew"

I used to work with a woman who used this construction quite often: "Oh, it's just her and her rich Jewish friends." Then she would look at me conspiratorially and say, "You know what I mean."

I think she meant "You know I don't mean that in an antisemitic way," but in fact I did know what she meant, as I have heard this construction my entire life. It means that the Jewish experience of money is somehow notable and must be commented on, must be turned into a compound word: rich Jew. I never heard her remark on rich Catholics, despite her having attended a well-heeled Catholic college, or rich Irish, despite the fact that the college was founded by Irish millionaires.

I will note that many of the women she was talking about were not actually rich, but, at best, squalidly middle-class. But if Jews dress up a little, participate in society in any way, spend money in any visible way, suddenly they are engaging in the behavior of the rich, they are showing off their wealth.

Discussions of Jewish wealth frequently tip over from microaggression to blatant antisemitism, and making a casual connection between Jews and wealth is extremely troubling. And it seems especially mean-spirited when speaking to a Jew who doesn't actually have very much money, like me.

3. Forcing Jews to be spokespeople for Israel or demanding an opinion on the subject

American Jews are not Israelis and should not be conflated with Israelis. American Jews have complicated and often divided opinions on the subject, and none of this is really your business unless they broach the topic.

When I was part of a local leftist community, and had co-organized a Jewish political group, I was constantly asked to speak on the topic of Israel, a place I have never been, claim no expertise about, and don't especially enjoy discussing.

American Jews are not proxies for Israelis. They should not be asked to speak on their behalf or to answer for the Israeli government. They certainly don't need to account for the behavior of a foreign government on command.

4. Doing Jewish accents, Jewish mother jokes, neurotic Jew jokes, etc

Yes, tese are staples of American comedy and are mostly borrowed from Jewish comedians, but, as a non-Jew, there are probably two things that you are doing wrong when you approach this material:

First, you're probably not doing it very well. I can't tell you how many bad Long Island accents I have heard from people doing Jewish mother characters, and it's grating. People's "old Jewish man" Yiddish voice is general even worse.

Secondly, you're probably missing a lot of nuance. Without the sort of careful observation that makes a joke specific rather than general, there is a real likelihood that you are going to sound like you are just making fun of Jews, that you think there is something inherently comical in the way Jews talk, or the way they experience the world.

That being said, Eddie Murphy's Saul the Jewish Guy from "Coming to America" was very good.

5. Positive stereotyping

I know people think positive stereotypes about Jews must be harmless; after all, you're saying nice things about the Jewish people, aren't you?

And they probably aren't as harmful as negative stereotypes. At the same time, they present an unrealistic view of Jews that is often far enough removed from the truth as to be frankly bizarre. I used to head that Jews made good husbands, which I think would have come as a surprise to the six or seven ex-wives two of my uncles managed to rack up between them.

And it can be genuinely harmful. A positive stereotype of Jews is that we're not drunks, which is simply not especially true. The statistics that support the idea that Jews drink less merely point out that they are hospitalized less and go into treatment less, but that Jews drink about the same amount as everyone else.

There are two possible ways to interpret this: That Jews simply hold their liquor better, or that they don't and there is cultural pressure not to get treatment for alcoholism. Having belonged to a Jewish fraternity and grown up around Jews who drank quite a bit, the latter jibes with my experience.

So by saying that Jews aren't alcoholics, even if it is meant as a positive stereotype, it may help discourage Jews from getting treatment.