Friday, October 8, 2021

Guest Post: Are Jews “White?” by Ivan Hodes, “Known Leftist”

There have been at least seven events in 2021 in which Alaskan antisemitism has been on display: 
1. Anchorage Assemblywoman Jamie Allard defending Nazi-themed license-plates in January.

2. Failed mayoral candidate Heather Herndon complaining about the “Jew Lawyers” like “Jew Dunbar” who control Anchorage.

3. The unearthing of a 2013 Hitler-praising paean by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson.

4. Governor Mike Dunleavy’s early-September comparison of public-health mandates as something out of “someplace in Europe in 1939

5. Rep. Sara Hannan’s bizarre claim that Nazi torture-experiments involving hypothermia “produced results

6. Rep. David Eastman’s posting a link to a Holocaust-denial website in mid-September; and 

7. The aforementioned Mayor Bronson’s defense of the wearing of Stars of David by white people throwing tantrums about masks and/or vaccines[1]
One Hot Mess and other "tart bloggers" often identify what’s happening as “Whiteness” on full display. But what does that mean? If Jews are white—and it sure looks like we are, at least here in the United States-- how can antisemitism be an expression of Whiteness?

Well, it's complicated, so buckle up.  

Growing up in an upper-middle-class milieu in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the 1980s and ’90s, I never thought of myself as anything other than a white kid, although I was always aware of a Jewish identity. My parents were non-practicing atheists, in fact—and therefore so was I. We celebrated Hannukah, mostly as an excuse to spoil me with a present a night; but we also celebrated Christmas, and never went to synagogue. 

Below is my kindergarten school picture. I was a blue-eyed Jew. I was born at Methodist Hospital, played softball in the Tabernacle Presbyterian church league, went to summer camp at the Flat Rock River YMCA camp, and attended St. Richard’s Episcopal School from kindergarten through 8th grade. Being Jewish was different--not as different as the handful of Black kids there; not as different as my Hispanic-American classmate; a little more different than my Hungarian-American classmate—but just a different kind of white kid--although my mother, accurately enough, liked to point out that my skin color was actually “pinky-beige.”

And yet.

There was a country club in Indianapolis, to which a number of my schoolmates’ families belonged, that did not allow Jews.[1] Golf, tennis and swimming—and I should add here that having the social and financial wherewithal to even think about joining a country club was itself an obvious privilege denied to most citizens of Indianapolis—have exactly nothing to do with religious beliefs, and indeed it should not come as a surprise that Riviera didn’t allow Black members, either. Of course, this was true not just at this one club, but vast numbers of country clubs, affluent suburbs, fraternities, and sororities across the country, North and South, East and West. 

This wasn’t about religious practice, it was about racial identity; while Judaism is a matter of faith, Jewishness is a matter of race. So while Jews, while not non-white in the sense that Black Americans are non-white, have never quite been completely white. 

So what are we?

We could start with genetics. Genetic studies show that Ashkenazi Jews (who comprise about 90-95% of American Jews today) have a distinct genetic profile, most famously manifesting itself in a number of genetic disorders to which we are prone. That profile is much more closely related to other Semitic peoples of the Middle East—i.e., to Arabs—than it is to Europeans, which is what you’d expect for a group of people who lived in the Middle East for many thousands of years before migrating into what is now Europe in the 900s AD, and largely frowned on intermarriage.

Therefore, if Arabs aren’t white, then Jews must not be white, either; if Arabs are white, then Jews must be white, too . . . right? So . . . are Arabs white? Sometimes!

The Lebanese-American community, largely Christian and present in America since the 1870s, is mostly seen as white—at least, it was until 2001. Ralph Nader and Casey Kasem are famous members of this heritage). First-generation Muslim immigrants from Egypt are not usually seen as white.

If all these “largely” and “usually” and “until 2001” caveats seem weird for what looks like a yes-or-no question, it’s because whiteness or the lack thereof is NOT a yes-or-no question, and it doesn’t really have much to do with genetics: racial categories existed long before anyone knew what DNA or even a gene was. Race is a social category, not a biological one, and so the answer to the question “who is white?” has varied from time to time and from place to place. 

White people are whoever most people decide are white people.

In the antebellum south, for example, Jews were clearly white: they could (and did) own slaves and vote; the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury was Jewish. In the Jim Crow era, Southern Jews drank at the whites-only water fountains and went to whites-only schools. In America, Jews were occasionally formally (and more often informally) denied access to various things that entirely white people had (like country club memberships), but they could usually gain that access by assimilation: converting to Christianity or at least avoiding the outward trappings of Jewishness. Barry Goldwater, whose father was Jewish but who was raised in the Episcopal faith of his mother, achieved full whiteness via this path. It might have sometimes caused a small scandal and resulted in playground harassment if someone was discovered to have had a Jewish grandparent, but it rarely resulted in legalized discrimination.

In Europe during the World War II era, on the other hand, Jews were very clearly not white. 

The Nazis' insanely baroque racial hierarchy system elevated Aryans as the whitest of white, but other Europeans were still white, except for Slavs, unless they were Slavs who enthusiastically embraced Nazism (like I said: baroque). But Jews were very definitely considered a different race, and were viewed—like Ruma and Sinti people, the only other ethnic groups targeted for outright extermination by the Nazis--as outsiders sojourning in Europe rather than Europeans. 

Converting wouldn’t help; to Nazis, being Jewish was a matter of blood. The 1933 Nuremberg Code, the first legal encoding of Nazi antisemitism (based at least partly on the Jim Crow segregation laws of the American South) stripped anyone more than half-Jewish of their citizenship. In practice, most Jewish Germans who had an “Aryan” spouse or parent survived the Third Reich because they had citizens who could advocate on their behalf; those who were fully Jewish and tried to rely on their neighbors instead of their family for protection mostly met a bad end. And the vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust were Polish and Soviet citizens who never had a chance at all.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, in the decades after Nazism was ground into powder by the Eighth Air Force and Soviet soldiers riding American trucks, the losers’ ideology crossed the Atlantic and grafted itself to the American racial system, which revolved (then and now) around the central axis of whiteness and blackness. Modern American white supremacy/Neo-Nazism is deeply weird and idiosyncratic, and the particulars can vary from loser to loser. 

Some, like Rep. David Eastman, appear to think that the Holocaust is a hoax foisted upon a gullible world (by the Jews, obviously); others think it happened and was great; others yet, unlike the historical Nazis, can square support for a Jewish state in the Middle East with their antisemitism. 

But the basic idea goes something like this: Jews are members of a highly distinctive and white-hating race. Unable to compete with Whitey on the level playing field of a racially homogenous or racially stratified society, the wily Jew manipulates society, controlling the levers of banking and media to promote racial heterogeneity. This, to the white supremacist, is why Jews are the secret power behind the thing that most threatens Whiteness: interracial marriage.

It needs to be pointed out very clearly that when Jews like me and One Hot Mess talk about Whiteness, with a capital W, we don’t simply mean people who belong to the racial category referred to as "white."  Whiteness means actively anchoring your White racial identity to the center of your political and cultural identity; it means believing that providing complete political, social, and economic equality to non-White people is a threat to the White way of life. It means recognizing that the future of America is multi-racial, and instead of celebrating this fact, feeling yourself under siege from the encroaching advance of demographics. 

Distilled essence of Whiteness can be seen here, in this clip from a town hall in Anchorage’s locus of Whiteness, Eagle River, in February of 2021: In response to a complaint about people not wearing masks, a puffed-up and enraged White man demands to know if he is “also too white for you?” These people feel that their racial identity is constantly under assault with,—of course and as usual—surreptitious Jews pulling the strings.

It is hard to logically square this with these same white folk cosplaying Jewish victims of the Holocaust, because this shit is dumb as fuck and not logical at all. But as I learned in Iraq, just because something is dumb as fuck and illogical, doesn’t mean it’s not really happening, and this is really happening. 

The same people wearing and/or defending Stars of David as victimhood cosplay are, literally, the same individuals who defended the Nazi-themed license plates at the beginning of this year: therefore, we know they are not being worn “in solidarity with Jews.” Indeed, comparing routine public health measures to the Holocaust is itself a form of Holocaust denial, because it trivializes and minimizes the actual suffering of actual Jews. If the whitest fear is to be treated the way that Whitey treated Black people, then the greatest antisemitic fear is to be treated the way that antisemites treat Jews. Wearing yellow-star badges is a projection of that fear.

The political power of those who center their own Whiteness has seen a shocking surge in the last decade or so: one of them even became President. Among the least charming developments of my adulthood has been the realization that some appreciable fraction of my neighbors (about 16%, according to this poll)—including at least one state legislator--would throw me in a gas chamber, while some much larger fraction would stand by and do nothing while it happened. 

So although my physical appearance renders me functionally white and I reap the daily benefits of white privilege—I can jog through a wealthy neighborhood without having the cops called on me; I can go to a convenience store late at night without fear of getting shot by cops, and so forth—I, and everyone in this country who identifies themselves loudly as Jews—will never be white enough for Whitey. 

I am excluded from their definition of Whiteness and therefore categorically reject it. I have to stand in solidarity with all the people whom Whiteness threatens and persecutes. Therefore, although I can’t speak for any other member of the tribe, this blue-eyed Jew is not white.

[1] Rep. Hannan has apologized for her comments; Mayor Bronson has apologized for his defense of the Stars of David, but not for his 2013 essay. The others remain publicly unrepentant.

[2] Some Internet sleuthing has revealed that Riviera was opened to Jews in 1981, a year before I was born, as the result of a lawsuit. I nevertheless have vivid childhood memories of my parents telling me that “Rivvy” did not allow Jews at that time.

Ivan Hodes, known leftist, has lived and worked in Anchorage for 16 years. He has a degree in European history from the United States Military Academy and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The views expressed are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components.

Monday, September 13, 2021

This Year Was Different

The fact is I did not almost die on 9/11. I only thought I was going to die, and maybe from a trauma standpoint, it doesn't make any difference. In retrospect, though, I was always going to be okay.

The "TL;DR" version, which I spoke about on the radio last week here in Juneau, and have written about more poetically here, was this.

I was 23 years old and working for a city agency on Rector Street in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks south of the World Trade Center. I was at my desk around 8:30 a.m. or so when my co-worker, Zoe, came to my cubicle and told me a 747 passenger jet had just crashed into one of the twin towers. 

We went downstairs to look, and stood on the street staring up at a gaping hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center. There were orange flames bursting out and papers fluttering down. One of the engines of the first plane was right there on the sidewalk. I overheard someone say not to look over toward West Street because there were body parts there. As we were standing around gawking, the second plane hit the south tower with a huge explosion. At that point, everyone started screaming and we knew it was a terrorist attack rather than an accident. 

We stood around a bit longer watching more papers and people tumble from the buildings, trying to figure out what to do. The only direction to go was east, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. The towers were to the north, and there was only water to the south and west. 

I lived in Brooklyn and so did many of my colleagues. On the short walk to the bridge, people were crying and starting to panic. A woman was having what looked like a seizure in the street. Someone said something about the Pentagon, and I remember being angry that they were spreading rumors. I was with two co-workers, Don and Denise. Denise was able to penetrate the cell phone traffic to reach her mom, who then called my dad to say we were OK. 

We were in the middle of the bridge when the south tower fell. You can see from the picture below how close it was. The arrow is where I was standing. 

The bridge shook and I left my body, to a place of peace and acceptance. I remember asking Denise if she thought we were going to die, and telling her we were too young to die. Time sort of stopped, and I went into what I can only describe as an emergency safe mode where I was able to focus and started to think about what I would do if the bridge collapsed. 

The bridge, of course, did not collapse, and I made it home that day. I shat and puked my brains and guts out the second after I walked through the door and into the arms of my crying boyfriend. A lot of people didn't get to do that, including one of my co-workers, and Bill McGinn, my parents' next door neighbor, who was an FDNY lieutenant in one of the first fire companies to respond to the attacks. My parents spent the afternoon with his wife and 6 and 8 year-old children, waiting for any word from him. He never came home.

In retrospect, I was always going to be fine. That's the thing I keep coming back to. I was never in any real danger. I wasn't in one of the buildings or in the immediate radius of falling debris. The bridge was solid and withstood the brief earthquake caused by the first building's dramatic collapse. 

I think because I later realized that I was always really going to be OK that I shelved a lot of what I saw and experienced and sort of tried to downplay how traumatic and scary it was. The truth is that I didn't feel like I deserved to be sad or traumatized, or to jump out of my skin for a year and a half every time I heard a loud sound. 

For six weeks I did not return to work, but rather helped fill out missing persons and death certificates at Chelsea Piers while the FBI and workers at Ground Zero processed the scene, which included my office building, on whose roof parts of the planes had landed. When we did go back to work, there was so much debris we wore masks at our desks. I worked there for another year and am part of a 9/11 public health study.

This year felt different, I think, because now 9/11 was literally half my life ago. After the attacks, I read the 9/11 Commission Report word for word, trying to understand what happened and why. This year, I've watched TSA copaganda on loop, because it brings me back into that headspace, and as scary as it is, something draws me to go there. 

I can't stop watching. I can't look away. I keep listening to the voicemails of the people on the planes and in the buildings over and over. I commit some of their names to memory. Betty Ong. Brian Sweeney. I keep putting myself in their position, knowing how scared I was in what turned out to be no big deal for me in many ways, and knowing how scared I get flying in bad weather in Alaska, thinking about those moments trapped on a plane when they knew they were going to die. I can’t remember if I was such a nervous flyer before 9/11. I don’t think I was. I definitely didn’t need Ativan to fly, like I do now.

I wonder if it hurt, if they felt the impact, if they were in pain, what happened to their bodies, where the different parts of their bodies went. I think about the people I saw falling out of the windows, and feel grateful not to have witnessed their bodies hit the ground and explode like water balloons, as some of my friends did. I wonder what it was like to make the choice to jump to death rather than burn to death. I was lucky to be on the bridge, as it turned out, and not running from the collapse or leaping into the water to escape the debris, as some survivors had apparently done.

I turn over all of this dark matter, over and over in my brain, and I keep telling myself it was only two hours of my life. I was never going to die. I was always going to be okay. 

And yet I think on some level I have some type of survivor's guilt about that. I feel almost dirty, in a way, having watched so many people die in front of my eyes at once and not being one of them. I feel like I need to put myself into their headspace. Like I need to keep hearing their voices and imagining their last moments, and ponder all the things they have missed out on in the past 20 years, if only because it feels unfair that they had to die this way and I didn't.

I haven't written about 9/11 in five or six years, but this year felt different and I am still trying to figure out why. I guess I will never understand--I mean really, truly understand--why this happened, why I was OK and others weren't, and how it seared itself into my consciousness forever.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Emotional Support Hedgehog

“My Facebook feed has gotten about 40% less angry since Libby Bakalar got that hedgehog.” That’s what someone overheard in Anchorage, according to this week’s Stalker column in the Alaska Landmine.

Since I’m mostly too numb to be offended by anything anymore, I turned this phrase over in my mind a couple of times this weekend: Do I really seem that angry? And if so, wouldn’t it be justified? I mean, look at how the country is behaving, for fuck's sake! Or maybe I just invite the rancor of people who get off fighting with each other online? I rarely wade into that fracas, preferring instead to let my original words speak for themselves, come what may.

Still, I chose to interpret this tidbit of gossip in a flattering light: that my recent blitz of pet hedgehog pictures has, in fact, brought joy to Mess Head Nation™ as my blog creeps from social justice/woke scold territory into the rantings of an Unhinged Crazy Hedgehog Lady. 

The story of Bonbon—a reverse pinto African Pygmy hedgehog (who is NOT a rodent but an erinaceinid, he will thank you to remember) began two years ago with a relentless campaign by my then 9 year-old son. After the “failure” (euphemistically) of two pet parakeets and the impossibility of dogs or cats in light of my troublesome allergies, Isaac had glommed on to the idea of a pet hedgehog as a solution to all of our non-existent pet woes, and the harbinger of new such woes to come.

My first answer, of course, was “no,” my second was “hell to the no,” and my last and final answer was “over my dead body.” 

These solitary, nocturnal, omnivorous spiny mammals are not like bunnies, gerbils, or hamsters. You can’t just walk into PetCo and buy one. Some species are legal in Alaska and some aren't. You have to find a licensed breeder. You have to get a special type of cage and keep it at a very particular temperature and feed it cat food and certain other elements of a low fat, high protein, dairy free diet. They require specific types of bedding and wheels. You have to clip their tiny little toenails without making them bleed (not easy). They are covered in sharp quills and trend to the ornery. The whole thing sounded like a giant, expensive pain in the ass, which of course it was.

But Isaac’s isolation and boredom during COVID and the misfortune of being the youngest child in the family eroded my resolve, and at long last, I capitulated to the hedgehog. Bonbon, as Isaac named him, was 8 weeks old and arrived in a cat kennel on an Alaska Airlines cargo flight from Anchorage about three weeks ago, courtesy of a wonderful breeder from Kenny Lake named Wendy. In researching and purchasing Bonbon, I discovered an entire world of online hedgehog fandom, full of the usual "spirited debate" you've come to expect in any Facebook group, all of which seem to court controversy, no matter how benign the subject.

I had cats, gerbils, hamsters, turtles, guinea pigs, and fish growing up, but never a dog (my parents said they were too much work and it was inhumane to keep a dog in a New York City apartment). Naturally, I assumed Bonbon would be like one of the other rodents I'd bonded to loosely in my youth, but right from the moment he arrived, I forged a different connection to him than previous pets.

Rather than feeling resentful and annoyed about cleaning Bonbon's cage, I found myself fighting Isaac for the privilege of power-washing a raft of shit off his wheel each morning with the garden hose. I carefully measured out low-fat cat food and ground it up in a Ninja behind the backs of my daughter and husband, both of whom are vaguely disgusted by the hedgehog, and needn't know about the dry cat food smoothie prepared in the same blender we use for human smoothie-making and consumption. Isaac and I have been working as a team to clean or change out his fleece bedding and snuggle sacks, scrutinizing the thermometer in his cage to make sure he is living in the requisite 75-80 degree warmth window. We give him foot baths in the sink to get shit off his feet and have long debates over what his "special nighttime treat" should be--egg, a meal worm, or chicken baby food? Maybe one of the less frequent fruits or vegetables?

But most of all, Bonbon is ridiculously cute, and so we vie for his love and affection, neither content to have him sit on the other's lap. "Yes it's your hedgehog, but I want a turn with Bonbon!" I tell Isaac each day after school, which is the time we feel OK about waking him up to play with him a little bit. Indeed, as I write this, Bonbon is curled up on my lap and I'm hiding so Isaac doesn't interrupt my hedgehog cuddle time.

See, Bonbon is surprisingly cuddly for a spiny mammal. Less cuddly than a dog, more cuddly than a cat, and not as sharp (physically) as you'd think, because he puts his quills down when he's happy and relaxed, raising them only when cold and/or in defense mode. He doesn't try to scurry away and escape like a hamster or gerbil, seeming to understand on some non-rodent level that he needs his humans, and is generally calm and affectionate towards us.

And it turns out that a couple of humans needed Bonbon too. Pandemic Puppies are everywhere--so I guess it's not surprising that Pandemic Hedgehogs are close behind. Bonbon is giving me the mommy-son bonding and emotional support hedgehog therapy I never knew I needed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

An Open Letter of Support to Alaska’s Healthcare Workers

Dear Alaska's Healthcare Workers,

Doctors, nurses, therapists, aides, first responders, custodial staff and their families—please know that you are all so deeply appreciated, and very much needed in this moment. You may not hear this often enough, but someone should say it.

You’ve been at this for 18 months, and it has to be exhausting, demoralizing, and depressing. Surely this was not what you signed up for, and yet here we are. Just when it seemed like we were all catching a break, we’re being bludgeoned with another tidal wave of COVID. Politics and misinformation are making it harder than ever to do your jobs.

The Anchorage Daily News is full of story after story about ICU’s filled to capacity with soaring case rates, all amid social unrest and tension around vaccines and masking. It’s clear that all you’re trying to do is get through your shift at work and come home with your sanity and health intact at the end of the day. (Most of us are operating on a short supply of sanity, it feels like).

I’m sure it can be tiring and lonely to do what you do, even under normal circumstances; Alaska’s healthcare infrastructure was always fragile even before the pandemic. It has to be incredibly scary and frustrating, and I imagine many of you feel unsupported by state and local leadership that claims to value human life, but is happy to sideline science for political expediency and "personal choices."

I am sure it is not your first or personal choice to watch young adults die preventable deaths; nor is it your choice to work with a skeleton crew staff, all of which we know trickles down beyond the ICU to the rest of the healthcare system.

Many of us in Alaska see you and your hard work and suffering, and appreciate everything you are doing for us. You are rising to an unprecedented challenge never before faced by humankind. We have never had a pandemic in a world this small and connected. Keeping it contained likely feels like trying to stop a tidal wave with a Dixie cup.

But please know that you are seen, valued, and appreciated by so many of us here in this enormous but tiny state. Alaska is big enough to get lost in, but small enough to make a difference, and you are all making a huge difference every day. I'm reminded of a passage from the Talmud that always lifts me up when I feel like I am fighting a futile uphill battle:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. 
Do justly, now. 
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now. 
You are not obligated to complete the work
But nor are you free to abandon it.