Friday, March 30, 2012

Sanford and Toulouse

I'd been thinking of the Trayvon Martin and Toulouse cases, how they relate, or don't, in terms of parochialism in emotional response to crime (the "update" here), in terms of anti-Semitism as force of nature rather than variant of bigotry, and in terms of Jews and other groups as intermediaries. When Obama spoke out about how if he had a son, he'd look like Martin, I thought about how if I had a sister, she'd look like one of the girls they kept showing sobbing in Toulouse. I thought, more specifically, about how it's the kind of thing I'd be reluctant to remark on, because it seems so parochial, so exactly what Jews always stand accused of doing. And I'm not even in some kind of position of influence. I also thought that perhaps I'd been wrong, before, when saying that parochial-emotional responses shouldn't ever dictate policy. In a case like the Martin one, you get to see precisely why it can matter (although we must await the whole fallout) to have a black president.

To preempt comments along the lines of, 'but the cases are not analogous,' and just generally to provide an overview, consider the following:

Similarities: Both were, it appears, racially-motivated murders. In both cases, the 'justification' was a broader grievance against Group X, one that it should be obvious in no way excuses the act (the relative rate of violent street crime among young African-American boys and men, and the more questionable aspects of Israel's relationship with the Arab world, respectively), but one that impacts how these unthinkable crimes are reported. Both killers acted in ways that suggest disgruntled-white-dude but are/were themselves members of marginalized groups-of-origin (Latino, Algerian), albeit not the one that was the historic Other of the place where the crime occurred (blacks, Jews, what with slavery and Jim Crow, Dreyfus and the Holocaust).

Differences: Zimmerman lives on, claims - however implausibly - self-defense. Merah, dead, was fairly undeniably a terrorist, and there's no suggestion that he was acting in self-defense, except in that abstract sense of 'defending the Palestinians,' somehow, as a non-Palestinian, in France, some of whose young child victims happened to have dual citizenship with Israel. Zimmerman, though not a police officer, claimed to act in the interests of the state, kind of, and thus has come to represent police brutality. Merah represented, it appears, al Qaeda. Zimmerman's only victim was Martin, making this a story about black teens and young men. Merah's rampage was at its most gruesome once he got to Jews (again, young children), but because he killed adults of other backgrounds first, it becomes easier to describe the final crime as something other than anti-Semitic.

And it's that last bit I kept coming back to: why are sensible people able to understand that from what we know about it, Trayvon Martin's killing was a straightforward example of anti-black racism, but not that a guy going into a Jewish school and killing young children, whatever else was on his agenda, was kind of bigoted against Jews? Why do we keep hearing - even in the Forward - about what the crime means for France's Muslims? Not that anti-Muslim bigotry shouldn't be combatted (much like anti-Latino bigotry at home), but a bunch of Jewish kids were just murdered. Might that merit a moment considering how French Jews are responding?

Before I'd had a chance to think all of this through, Michael C. Moynihan did, for Tablet. Moynihan... says just about what I was going to say, but concludes that what we must do is fight anti-Jewish ideology among Islamist extremists. While this isn't too controversial, it would seem that the issue extends far, far beyond anyone who gives a hoot either way about the Palestinians or Islam.

What it is, more generally, is an issue of Jews being understood as a group people talk about when they really want to be talking about something else, something real. No one sensible disputes that in the U.S., anti-black racism is a key part of our history and present. That is the story, and the Martin affair is hardly a distraction from it. Meanwhile, in France these days, much as in French-colonial Algeria, the story is culturally-Catholic, militantly-secular France versus culturally-North-African, Muslim 'foreigners,' plenty of whom are multigeneration French, but who's counting. With anti-Semitism, we are always asked to look beyond the narrow question of Jews being under attack, and to focus on the real issues - economic, post-colonial, etc. Jews, we're meant to understand implicitly, are pawns. It is always fundamentally misunderstanding a case of Jews being under attack as about Jews. If you want to sound intelligent, bring up some historical or recent event generally thought to be about Jews, and explain how the real stakes had zilch to do with Jews.

All of this leaves the bigger question, namely why, but my dissertation and related tasks await.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is there anyone who has a son who looks like Zimmerman? If so I guess they are silent.