By Michael Sirover
When I was a small boy growing up in the Bronx, New York, in the 1950s (a budding yeshiva bocher), I would listen often to my parents’ conversation as well as the other adults in my family. Frequently, they would use the phrase, “Is it good for the Jews?” I did not know then what that phrase meant. I do now.
We were an immigrant family. My father was 3 years old when the family fled Russia after the Pogrom of 1905; “Fiddler on the Roof” was our story. We had our own Tevye and Golda, only their names were Jacob and Yetta. Some of the family did not make it to America. They settled in Poland and were subsequently murdered by the Germans in the concentration camps. Their names can be found on the Yad Vashem website. My wife’s family fled Germany in the 1930s. Most arrived here, some made it to South America.
I do not know for sure what memories my family had of the brutality, terror and death from which they escaped. It was rarely spoken of, at least in my presence. Looking back, I should have taken my aunts’ and uncles’ testimonies as many of them were teenagers when they fled Russia. I do remember my mother-in-law’s pained look when a picture of Hitler, or an actor portraying Hitler, was in a television show or movie she was watching. She had to turn away.
I do know that my family was very concerned about being “strangers in a strange land,” a group of “Wandering Jews” who were lucky to have escaped from Russia. I know that they wanted me to be a “real American” so they did not teach me Yiddish. I know that they were concerned about how the “goyim” perceived we foreigners. Their only frame of reference was the Russian population or, in the case of my in-laws, the Germans. So naturally they were concerned about how the outside community viewed the Jews. Was it “good for the Jews”?
They were also very aware of anti-Semitism in the United States. My grandparents and parents must have been terrified by the sight of the German American Bund goose-stepping down the streets in New York carrying the swastika and shouting “Sig Heil.” They were witness to the heart-rending “Voyage of the Damned” when Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis were denied entry into the United States and had to return to Germany, where many died in the camps. They heard the hostility of prominent individuals like Joseph P. Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh, who said in a speech, “Europe, and the entire world, is fortunate that a Nazi Germany lies, at present, between Communistic Russia and a demoralized France,” lambasting “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration … war agitators who had used misinformation and propaganda ….”
I can only imagine the horror my family felt thinking not only about the loss of 6 million Jews but also their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews who managed only to get to Poland.
Anti-Semitism went underground following the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials: It became “unfashionable.” An examination of anti-Semitism started to appear in popular culture – in books, essays and even motion pictures (see “Crossfire” with Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan as well as “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Gregory Peck, which won an Academy Award for best picture).
Another contributing factor may have been the founding of the State of Israel and her battle for existence in a series of Arab-Israeli wars extending from 1948-1973. The courage exhibited by those Jews mesmerized the world. It was as if, from the dustbins of history, the “macho” Jews of the Bible (Joshua, Samson, Gideon, Saul and David) were reborn. Judah Maccabee once again strode the Land of Israel. Add to this the effect on the American population of the movies “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “Exodus” (1960).
Anti-Semitism again was on the defensive during the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Black and white, Jew and gentile, old and young were united in a righteous cause. Jews were among those who paid the ultimate penalty, i.e., the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. A black man and two Jews killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.
Now, in 2020, I am the last of my family’s immigrant generation. My children and grandchildren do not have my memories or my first-hand experiences. They (and members of their generations) have grown up and live in a bubble of Jewish American history informed by more recent years. It is hard for them to relate to the history described above.
Further, I’m not sure they can understand anti-Semitic tropes like blood libel, the assertion that Jewish money controls the banks and the government, or that heinous book “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” What is their frame of reference?
They don’t know enough about Jewish history generally, including the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry before Torquemada, the Spanish Inquisition, forced conversions, the Marranos and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. During that Golden Age, the notion of its end would have been inconceivable. Similarly, Jewish life in 19th-century France may have been thought of as “pleasant” until the Dreyfus Affair unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism. That carried forward into the 20th century when the French collaborated with the Germans to send their Jewish citizens to the concentration camps. Life in pre-Nazi Germany was also pleasant for the Jews. My wife’s uncle fought in World War I, on the German side. It led many German Jews to have a false sense of security that was destroyed in the death camps. To say that this is ancient history, consider the plight of the refusniks in the 1980s.
Now, in 2020, we may be on the brink of an American civil war. There is a great divide among us politically. Prominent Jews are involved on both sides. Their efforts range from active participation as office holders, as financial contributors or as individuals using social media to voice their support. In each instance, their efforts may spark active hostility from the other side.
This may be especially important given the rising tide of anti-Semitism over the last two decades in America, including increasing harassment of Jewish students on campus and violent extremism resulting in the largest mass murder of Jewish people on U.S. soil. These concerns have been noted by many Jewish organizations and have been noted in numerous editorials. Many individuals say in public or on social media comments about Jews that were voiced once only in private.
It’s over 70 years ago, but even today I can visualize my grandmother sitting at her small kitchen table drinking a glass of tea. I would sit in front of her. What we said I do not remember. I wonder, though, with all she had seen, upon learning about the high-profile actions of Jews in the 2020 election and its aftermath, would she say to them, “Landsman, iz es gut far di idn?”
Michael A. Sirover, Ph.D. is emeritus professor of pharmacology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and was the chair of a National Institutes of Health Scientific Advisory Committee on Cancer Prevention for more than a decade. He served as an associate editor of the journal “Cancer Research” and continues to write scientific articles, most recently for the journal “Critical Reviews in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.”