Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

Memorial Day, anti-Semitism — the best and worst of times

Memorial Day always is complicated.

It is possibly the most solemn day on the American civil calendar, honoring the memories and sacrifices of the service members who died protecting the rest of us.

It’s also the unofficial start of spring, marking the season when we can back away our thick coats and wool sweaters and lined boots in favor of light fabrics and bright colors and sandals; the days are long now, and the evening light is molten magic.

Both those things are true, even though they seem mutually contradictory.

That’s what’s going on in the news now.

It would be foolish — probably dangerous — not to pay attention to the nasty rise in anti-Semitism that surrounds us. It’s coming from both sides now; the sewers holding far-right white nationalists crested and burst five years ago and have been spewing ever since, and now the far left’s reflexive anti-Semitism and the accompanying anti-Zionism — because sometimes correlation is causality — has become visible as well.

Watching as the New York Times — which I read religiously, and which has been a basic part of my home décor for as far back into early childhood as I can remember — decides to ignore what’s going on is enraging. A google search reveals what people have told me but I believed only reluctantly, despite the evidence of my own eyes — the Times is reporting far less about the anti-Semitic incidents in its own city than the Washington Post, which is as significant a paper as the Times but calls Washington, not New York, its home. It was not until May 27 that the Times deigned to include a story about it — perhaps the cliche about it should be better late than never, but what came to mind instead was too little too date.

Listening to the New York Times’ generally wonderful podcast, the Daily, as it presents an entire podcast devoted only to the horror of living in Gaza just now — called “Nine Days in Gaza” — which undoubtedly is true, but is presented as if there is only one side to this story. As if the pure, blameless Gazans are being invaded by Visigoths. The next day’s podcast was “Netanyahu and Biden”; I don’t like Bibi, but I do not think that he and we are solely responsible for the situation. Wednesday’s “Daily,” about Hamas, white-washed and both-sided disgracefully.

Listening to Abe Foxman, who survived the Holocaust as a small child and believed that the only path history possibly could take from there is upward, but who has started worrying over the last few years, as he struggles to keep his native optimism from being overcome by his observer’s-eye pessimism, is scary. If Mr. Optimism himself is worried, so am I.

But — or perhaps more accurately and — we are now living through a massive revival of hope and life that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. If we are alive right now, we have survived a pandemic.

Last week, I walked from the Upper West Side to Gramercy Park; my husband and I met for dinner with good friends whom we had not seen for more than a year. My walk took me through Central Park, which was bursting with appropriately unmasked life; through midtown, which wasn’t empty, as I had assumed it would be, but seemed to have attracted tourists; and then through the downtown neighborhoods, full of gorgeous architecture (that hadn’t changed) and lined with tables and tents and igloos and all sorts of outdoor dining opportunities.

During the winter, people ate outside, but it looked grim. They shivered as they ate, even as they were roasted under hanging red lights as if they were hot dogs. Now, it’s festive. People were eating out not because they had to but because they wanted to; because the breezes were exhilarating and the smell of food was exciting and the sound of so many voices, after so much quiet time, was enchanting.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, Dickens told us. He was right. Of course, “A Tale of Two Cities” ended with the French Revolution and the self-sacrifice of the main character (and I admit to crying, just a little, as I just reread the book’s last few paragraphs. It’s truly a tear jerker, and I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that).

So let’s hope that the best of times prevails, but until then let’s fight as hard and with as much clarity of vision and of purpose as we can manage.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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