Кроме евреев (“Except the Jews”)

Your reporter was a student at the Talmud Torah of Fort Tryon Jewish Center, Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan in that bygone year of grace 1969. Only a small handful of kids had stayed on to study once our Bar Mitzvahs were over and done with. Our melammed, teacher, that particular year was Mr. Vilner, an Orthodox Jew who made the hours-long round trip by subway from his home in Brooklyn three times a week because he believed it was important to teach us Torah. He was from Minsk, and spoke a beautiful, flavorful Russian.

One day he brought in a cartoon from an Israeli paper: it showed the big Russian bear swaying drunkenly in front of a mountain of vodka bottles and shouting “Shame on you, you drunkard!” at the cartoonist’s personification of Israel— a little boy in a kova tembel (kibbutznik’s sun hat) holding a small glass of wine. “But Mr. Vilner, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a peace-loving country, the homeland of all the honest laboring workers and intellectuals of the world, where racism is prohibited by law and all the happy nationalities live together building a bright future,” I said as solemnly as possible. (In retrospect, there is much to miss about the old Soviet Union; I was and am a Russophile. Must be influencing people’s elections! Horrors! Get outta town!)

This mischievous chiding had the desired effect on my beloved teacher. Rising to his full five feet in stature, his index finger trembling in prophetic rebuke, his voice outblasting the shofars of Sinai, he boomed: Бей жидов, спасай Россию! (“Beat the Yids, save Russia!” a slogan of the pogromists of his childhood). The boys giggled. “Whenever the Tsar passed a new law granting the people a reform, something nice,” Mr. Vilner continued, “it always added, Кроме евреев, ‘Except for the Jews.'” “Of course, Comrade Vilner, honored teacher,” I replied. “But that is what the Great October Socialist Revolution led by the great Lenin and the Bolshevik party, which is the vanguard of the proletariat and of class-conscious peasants, put and end to.” And so on. Eventually we would move on to the Parsha and Rashi. Mr. Vilner, who was very old even then, must have gone on to the Yeshiva shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Academy, long ago, and when my time comes I hope to merit joining him there. He was a Tsaddik, a righteous man. I bet a whole lot of Old Bolsheviks are studying Gemara and davening alongside him.

One thinks of his reference to the exclusionary clause Кроме евреев these days. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, an immigrant to this country from war-torn Somalia, a country ravaged by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, has used her bully pulpit in Washington to broadcast one anti-Semitic slur after another. The general theme was that the Jews control the US with their money and are disloyal. Her Democrat colleagues were dragged kicking and screaming by their leadership to pass a mealy-mouthed resolution criticizing her, that did not mention her by name and was in fact so bland and vague in its wording that if one had not read her remarks beforehand one would have no idea what the resolution was talking about.

Then there’s the irrepressible Linda Sarsour, national Democrat Party leader and inveterate hatemonger and Jew-baiter, with her latest assertion that Jesus Christ was a Palestinian. Really? The fact is that he was a Jew, learned in the Torah and its commentary, a follower of the Commandments. He never once said he was anything other than a Jew. All his disciples were Jews. The country he lived in was called by its native inhabitants Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. During his lifetime the country was under Roman occupation, and was called Judaea. It wasn’t called “Palestine” and nobody who lived there called it “Palestine”. When the people rose up in a hopeless, desperate rebellion against the Romans, the latter commemorated their victory with the Arch of Titus, showing the Menorah of the Temple they had destroyed, and  with coins bearing the legend “Judaea Capta”. After the suppression of the second uprising, that of Bar Kokhba, the Romans renamed the province Palestine, after the ancient pagan Philistine enemies of Israel— it was an act of derisive contempt, in effect an anti-Semitic toponym. And so it is today. The word Palestine as used in modern political discourse seems to me thus to be a tool of hate speech and historical falsification, in that it is employed often as a coded term to imply deligitimization of Israel, denial of Jewish religious and cultural roots there, and consequent refusal to the Jewish people of the basic human rights to life, a home, and self-determination.

Sarsour’s lie has historical depth and resonance. The Nazi Deutsche Christen, about whom Prof. Susannah Heschel has written superb scholarly work, fostered a kind of mendacious pseudo-scholarship advancing the fiction that Jesus was an “Aryan” Galilean, and not a native of Judaea or a Jew at all. When I was very young, the kids from Champlain Colony, a complex of summer bungaloes on the lake shore, used to borrow books from the school library of Crown Point, NY. One I remember was a learned volume entitled Jesus Was Not Jew. It advanced the fantasy from a lily-white, right-wing perspective. (Another classic on the shelves of that godforsaken library, Red Something-or-other over America, went to great lengths to demostrate the mortal danger posed by “bloody little Israel” and its American fifth column. Israel was not exactly a Soviet agent. But the truth, gentle reader, is the first victim…) At Columbia in the ’80’s an Arab student club put up a poster in the notorious Middle East department, where I worked. It depicted an Israeli soldier bayoneting the crucified Christ. (We are Christ-killers; Jesus is a Palestinian. Get it?) Nobody except me seemed to find it at all offensive. And in Bethlehem, at Catholic midnight mass on Christmas 1992, I heard the local Archbishop sermonize in Arabic-accented French that “the murderers of Jesus are once again crucifying his people, the Palestinians.” I turned to an Israeli TV film crew: “You’re actually broadcasting this?” They shrugged, as if to say, “What else is new?”

Israel is the only country in the Middle East with full civil and human rights for gays. The Minister of Education said he thought counseling gays could make them heterosexual. He wasn’t talking about violent conversion therapy— the involuntary electro-convulsive shock treatments, for instance, that my partner of forty years was subjected to when he was a child in the American southwest. He meant speaking with fellow Orthodox Jews wanting to raise a traditional family. OK, I don’t agree with him. It was proper for Prime Minister Netanyahu to criticize his statement. But the fury around him is all out of proportion, and now we learn the gay Prime Minister of Luxembourg, a man who has no problems cuddling up with the regime in Iran, you should excuse me, has boycotted a farewell party for the Israeli ambassador. A double standard? The idea is that every blood-stained homophobe in the Middle East gets a pass. Кроме евреев. Except for the Jews.

And this whole country is up in arms because of what Trump said about four Congresswomen who are, at the least, not friends of the Jews. For the record, I think it was improper to tell them to go back where they came from, even if for one of them that’s the Bronx, a borough I love and where I spent my happy high school years. And if I met the four ladies I would treat them with the respect their office requires and the courtesy and kindness one owes another human being. But is the President a racist? Spot the racist, and here’s how: a real racist is anyone who minutely parses and self-righteously condemns any remark whatsoever that might be construed to criticize any group (in fashion) at all, Кроме евреев. Except for the Jews.

Except for this difference: we’re no longer the subjects of the Tsar, or the various kings and churches. So to Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, the PM of Luxembourg, and the rest of the “except for the Jews” crowd, on both the left and the right— Israel isn’t going anywhere and we Jews answer to no one except the Master of the Universe. Take a hike.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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