Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The theme of today is Everybody Hates the Jews

I spent nearly the whole day immersed (and immersing others) in French-Jewish history, first the nineteenth century, then the early twentieth. One common running theme of all discussions was that when it comes to Modern European Jewish history, not everything is anti-Semitism. Or, even if everything is anti-Semitism, everything is still capable of simultaneously being about something other than Jew-hatred, such that it is possible to look at things other than just how much Everybody Hates the Jews.

Then, coming home with my groceries and mega-backpack (shlepping, dare I say), I noticed a tiny slip of paper near my building that read "Kill Jews." There's good news! To think how just a few hours before, I was offering the class my interpretation of the 1898 Dreyfus-era cries of "A bas les Juifs." It's always easier to gauge significance in hindsight.

I feel as though something like this should be reported... but to whom? It wasn't directed at me personally - I don't know for sure, but I suspect I am not the only Jew living in Battery Park City, although I might be the only one with a poster of Herzl and three heads of Golda Meir (long story). It seems hate-crime-ish, but was not graffiti, and in all likelihood will be long since in the gutter at the time of my posting this.

Anyway, I am now particularly grateful, I suppose, for the security procedure I went through earlier this afternoon to get into a Jewish-history center downtown. Guess they know what they're doing!


PG said...

You're right, it's not a hate crime unless it was directed toward an identifiable person or persons. Threats against a very general group (like Jews) aren't hate crimes and are protected as free speech. (Except for the littering.)

Out of curiosity, was it a printed or handwritten, on colored or white paper, and was "Kill Jews" the only thing printed on it?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I think handwritten, on a tiny slip of yellow paper. Nothing else on it, unless it was folded and there was more within.

Is there an action one is supposed to take finding something like this, agreed that 'hate crime' isn't the legal term for it, and that there's the First Amendment? Post my own tiny sheets of paper that say, 'On second thought, let Jews live'?

David Schraub said...

Not a hate crime; still kind of freaky. If this was the UK, I'd say the CST would be the folks to go to, but I don't think there is really a parallel American organization.

Anonymous said...

I think blogospheric Francophone Zionism is a good start, and I say that without a trace of sarcasm.

I mean, what else can one do? The theme you speak of is thousands of years old.

PG said...

I suppose as the folks in Montclair did, you should report it to the police. Sounds like the same thing.

Britta said...

Um, actually, it might be a hate crime (or at least if coupled with another illegal act, like vandalism). Since this isn't, it might not count, though you could claim it was an act of inciting violence (not covered under the 1st amendment). If you want to do something, you could call 311 and just report you found it. They probably won't do anything, but it wouldn't take very long and might make you feel better.

Matt said...

Whether it's a crime or not, the police might still be interested to know about it. But also the ADL, no? They won't do anything but count it in statistics, but that's still important.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I tend to agree with Daniel Goldberg on this. A constant background of low-level (or level-impossible-to-assess) Jew-hatred is something of a constant. The main advantage I can see in reporting it is that, when historians one day study American Jews of 2009, they can speak with delight of our non-passivity.

That, and if there really is a big wave of these little pieces of paper, it wouldn't hurt to get to the bottom of it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, don't misunderstand me, Phoebe. I certainly wasn't suggesting that nothing can be done; only, as someone reasonably well acquainted with Jewish history, expressing my skepticism that a theme so deeply rooted in Western civilization is going to fade from the social and cultural fabric.

While I am cognizant of the problems with the mentality of victimization, this history is ever-present in my mind. While at a conference in Germany over the summer, I met a kind, interesting scholar from Mainz, and my immediate reaction to hearing his place of residence was this.

FWIW, my own response to situations such as the one you encounter is exactly "to delight [in my] non-passivity."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I can't get to the second website you link to...

As for passivity versus agency... I do see the point in speaking up, as I did thus far on this very blog. But I suppose I don't know what ADL counting anti-Semitic acts really adds up to, anyway. There are constantly anti-Jewish incidents in France, yet because the sense of France as anti-Semitic is so strong, it's now common enough for those who study French Jews/are French Jews to say that it's not really that bad, because other times/places were/are worse, or because what does graffiti matter? Everyone who speaks up comes to be seen as hysterical, when the reality is that Jews just don't know what's 'nothing' and what's 'something.' This is my point re: the Dreyfus Affair - we know now that it was something, but, as my professor helpfully discussed with us yesterday, French Jews at the time couldn't have known, even if some, in what at the time may have seemed like paranoia, guessed right.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the dead link. Here's a better one, and it is actually perfectly appropriate to your latest post, as well. (As a small Jewish man, I cannot entirely relate to your sense of physical vulnerability, but do nevertheless suspect I share some of it).

You are of course correct to note that those in the contemporaneous flow of lived experiences will have epistemic limitations that succeeding generations may not; that's one of the challenges in thinking seriously about social history, IMO. But it is no accident that a very old Jewish joke -- attributed to Groucho, but reflective of much, much older sentiments -- is that just because you are paranoid does not mean everyone is not out to get you.

My mentor is a psychoanalyst and a Freud scholar, and we have discussed on numerous occasions the idea that no one acquainted with some of the ideas we are discussing in this thread should be remotely surprised that a Jewish scholar in fin-de-siecle Europe attributed so much mental and emotional angst to neurosis.

In a realpolitik sense, the epistemic problem is very much why I, like you, happily self-identify as a Zionist. There is only one thing that can prevent the worst, if in fact the darkest fears are borne out, and that is a home for Jews and a capacity to fight back.

On the daily level, however, there is no real answer to the epistemic problem, no way to erase the ambiguity. Partly because I am deeply cynical about humans in general, and partly because I know Jewish history, as a heuristic, I tend to take most anti-Semitic occurrences as "something." Small things often feed larger social and political events, and in many ways the work of a social historian ought to be to tease out what some of those small things were and how they fit into the larger contexts of the time and place in which they occurred.

But I readily acknowledge doing so only feeds paranoia and the victim mentality. Like I said, no easy answer.

PG said...


The very fact that the Montclair incident got noted in the news, where I otherwise would not have known of it, seems to me an argument in favor of your also reporting to a government authority. Evidently the police there took it seriously enough to make a record, even if there was no prosecutable crime involved, and you should provide the information necessary for the police of the NY/NJ area to track this. See something, say something.


Inciting violence against a huge group where one's words do not pose an imminent danger is still protected by the 1st Amendment. Someone grouching on his blog, "We should kill all those Wall Street bankers," is not posing a sufficiently direct threat to any identifiable persons that he can be prosecuted. We don't have group threats any more than we have group libel.

Britta said...

That is true, though there is also a sliding scale in what poses an imminent danger, and saying "kill group x" actually can and does, in certain circumstances, count towards hate crime conviction if coupled with other actions or if deemed a plausible enough threat. I don't think that is true in this case, but one could not entirely implausibly attempt to argue that, taken in the imperative sense "kill Jews" is an incitement to act. It's a long shot, especially if just written on a piece of paper.

PG said...


Sure, yelling "kill all the honkeys" while beating up a white kid would provide the evidence of mental state to move the assault from "regular crime" to "hate crime," but I'm talking about the point at which speech itself without any further action on the part of the speaker can be criminalized. Certainly if someone tries to hurt Phoebe and that someone is tied to the slips of paper, then the attempt to hurt her would probably be a hate crime.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

This plus the Yale murder made me realize how in my life thus far, if I've ever felt threatened with violence, it's been 99-plus% as a tiny woman and some impossible-to-measure trace amount as a Jew. Obviously it's different for those with identifiably religious garb - or the 10% of the NYU undergrad population wearing an IDF t-shirt on a given day. But when I'd walk back alone at night in Hyde Park, my concern was never, 'gee, I hope there aren't any anti-Semites roaming the streets!' Not that I don't think there's some truth behind Everybody Hates the Jews. And I do think Jews fall somewhere between a visible and an invisible minority. But tiny woman, for me at least, is the issue here.