Being At Home in a Hateful World

In the age of social media it has not only become more normal to demonize people who are “different,” but to cage and kill them as well.  Through the prism of ever-expanding white nationalism, Others are characterized as sub-human beings whose very presence represents an infestation that must be quarantined or better yet, exterminated.  Intolerance of Others has reached epidemic proportions.  The white nationalist killing of 50 Muslim innocents in New Zealand is the latest grim reminder of what social life has become in a homophobic and misogynistic world in which Muslims, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have become targets of Neo-Nazi white supremacists. Mosques have been fire-bombed and defaced.  Jewish cemeteries have been frequently desecrated and synagogues now routinely hire armed guards to protect sabbath worshipers.  Forcibly separated from their families, Latino children languish in cages like animals. Police routinely shoot unarmed African American men.

The details of these mind-numbing atrocities are well known.  But in such a heinous climate, both in America and Europe, how can minorities—the non-white population, which now includes Muslims, Jews, Latinos, Asians (south and east), Native Americans, Africans and African Americans, adjust to a hateful world that denigrates their ethnic origin, their religion, their sexual orientation or their race? 

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem Photo by Paul Stoller

To ask an anthropological question:  can minorities feel at home in contemporary America?

The concept of home is deceptively simple.  Home is much more than the dwelling where you and your family reside. Home is more of a feeling—of unstated peace, of normality, of feeling comfort in your skin.  Home is often defined through our senses. It is the smell of baking bread, or the aroma of grilled meat spiced in a certain way.   Home is reflected in the quality of light, in vistas where the sky meets the horizon, in the bite of the wind in your face, or the intensity of sunlight on exposed skin.  Home is about how life is lived—slow, fast, cool and hot.

In a contemporary America filled with so much hate, how can the aforementioned minorities adjust to a place where a shrinking yet still powerful majority makes you feel stressed and unwanted? I cannot speak for other minorities but can reflect directly on my experiences as a third generation Jew in America.  My grandparents, Jews from Latvia (maternal) and Lithuania (paternal) immigrated to America toward the end of World War I.  My parents grew up in Jewish enclaves in Washington D.C.  They never felt comfortable living among non-Jews.  My brother and I also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood.  In high school almost everyone I knew was Jewish.  That was good for me because non-Jewish classmates often taunted me about my difference—both physical and cultural.  On one occasion, a gang of teen-aged gentiles attacked me in a school bathroom.  My parents had warned me about the pervasiveness anti-Semitism.  They told me I had to be careful.  They said that I should not bring too much attention to myself.  As I got older the sting of anti-Semitism became less intense.  In time, I went to college and graduate school and became a university professor of anthropology. Like all people I’ve had my share of disappointments and challenges, but knock on wood, I have a good life, a wonderful family. I live in a nice house–not situated in a Jewish enclave.  You could say that I feel at home in the world, but that would be too simple.  Far in the background of my consciousness I fear that there are gun-toting white supremacists who wish me physical harm just because I am a Jew.  In Trump’s America I am an Other.

It is exhausting to be a progressive Jew in contemporary America.  We are potential targets of right-wring white supremacists. We are also subject to critics on the left who make simplistic claims that American Jews profess an allegiance to Israel’s Trump-supporting right-wing government, the very antithesis of a progressive politics.  Consider the discomfort of Max Sparber writing in the March 9 edition of the Forward, a newspaper my maternal grandmother liked to read in Yiddish.

“I’ve become convinced that the most important image of early twenty-first century Jewry is a screengrab from YouTube purportedly taken from an introductory Yiddish lesson.

‘The Jews are tired,’ it says.

And right now, just this very moment, we’re not just tired. We’re exhausted.

It’s never easy being a Jew, but at this moment, stuck in a now near-continuous Ilhan Omar news cycle, being Jewish feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the rock being the whole gentile world and the hard place being every other Jew.”

So how would a progressive Jew, who thinks it is wonderful that two outspoken Muslims are members of the US Congress, respond to Representative Omar’s references to Jews, the Jewish lobby, the hidden power of the International Jewish Cabal that seeks world domination, or the presumed allegiances that American Jews have to Israel.

As an anthropologist, I would caution Representative Omar about essentializing Others.  Can anyone say that all Jews owe blind allegiance to Israel, that all Muslims are terrorists, or that all Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers.  Any trope that underscores this kind of essentialism is not only wrong but dangerous. It wittingly or unwittingly fans the fires of hate.  In some respects, I agree with Representative Omar.  Like her, I disagree with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.  I disagree with the Israeli Government’s discriminatory treatment of its Arab citizens.  I believe in a Palestinian Statehood. The list goes on and on.  Even so, I cannot bring myself to essentialize Jewish people whether they live in Israel, the United States, France, or Argentina.

Here’s the rub.  Can a progressive Jew like me feel at home in an ever-growing hateful American society?

I never much thought about being at home in the world until colleagues invited me to present a lecture at Tel Aviv University in 2016.  Like many American Jews, I had never been to Israel. Given my objections to the Netanyahu Government, I expected to find a violent and deeply racist society.  Instead, I felt immediately at ease.  At Ben Gurion Airport, the border agent, who was the spitting image of a younger version of my first cousin, looked at me, smiled, and said: “Welcome home.” 

Everywhere I went I saw “familiar” faces from my past and present.  Could some of these people be long lost relatives?  The way people smiled at me on the Tel Aviv University campus and in Tel Aviv neighborhoods created a kind of unspoken bond of kinship.  The pace of life, the food, the smells in the street, the movement of people all flowed effortlessly into my being, which filled me with wonder. 


Aromas of Social Life in Old Jaffa Photo by Paul Stoller

I wondered about these feelings of connectedness and how they underscored my own insecurities about being an “Other” in America.  My brief sojourn in Tel Aviv did not convince me to move to Israel or to pledge my allegiance to the Israeli State.  Spending time in Israel, though, taught me about the importance of being at home in an imperfect world–in my case being at home in the United States.  Having sensed the existential significance of being at home–even as an Other—has compelled me to do everything I can (mentoring students and colleagues, presenting public lectures, writing blogs, essays and books) to promote a more inclusive, more egalitarian, and more just America.  In a world saturated with chaos, hate and division, the task is to create spaces in which more of us feel the wonderful sense of existential comfort that comes with being at home in the world. Is it not our obligation to make sure that we bequeath that comfort to our children and grandchildren?

2 thoughts on “Being At Home in a Hateful World

  1. Good blog post! I am not Jewish but I visited Israel in 2000 and it does have a flowing, relaxed feel from the coffee to the food, to the street culture. Regarding the gun toting folks. I feel this same sense of existential dread and I wrestle with suicidal feelings minute by minute. I’m using yoga to help me. I feel partly the hatred comes from impoverished imaginations. Just need simple solutions excluding diversity. I just live each hour, each day. My own blog is quasi anthropological http://www.fallingleaves.blog

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Paul. They do resonate with me. I’m a brown immigrant who migrated to the US after living in many other places over the course of my life, and I have found myself increasingly plunged into that space of not-home even as I continue to try to build my home and my life here with my American husband and baby. The sense of alienation, of othering, has only been increasing as the years have rolled on. I too am an anthropologist and I’ve read your work deeply, thank you. However there seems to be a vast silence (even in this age of social media that allows so many clamouring voices), around the effect that the anti-“immigrant” white supremacist and facist culture is having on even the privileged or model immigrants to the US. Perhaps I’m just not reading the right places. Or perhaps the anti-intellectual culture of the present, and the lack of spaces/roles for public intellectuals is showing now. I’m not sure if I can be hopeful for a future in which there is a swing in the opposite direction. I feel guilt at the thought of leaving so many battles to be fought by my child. How do you suggest we negotiate such feelings/realities from a position of lesser power and privilege?

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