James Inverne

Trying to tell us something, This American Life?

Was the influential podcast warning Jews to avoid accusing others of anti-Semitism, lest we be unfair or detrimental to our own cause?
This American Life's genial host, Ira Glass

It seems a strange coincidence — as in, those times you say, “Well, that seems a strange coincidence,” when what you mean is, “Someone, with an agenda, planned this” — that this week’s edition of the influential American radio show and podcast This American Life devoted half its program to rebroadcasting a segment about a 1994 anti-Semitism scandal that wasn’t, at Castlemont High School in Oakland, California. This, in the month when US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC to just about everybody) has provoked outrage by comparing Tex-Mex border internment institutions to “concentration camps” and then declined a visit to Auschwitz from a Holocaust survivor. So, again, coincidence?

I don’t know anything about This American Life’s lead-times and maybe I’m willing to say that this was scheduled some while ago, that the AOC thing is a coincidence, but I do know — we all do, surely — that the “You’re just playing the anti-Semitism card” accusation is heard a lot lately. It is heard in the UK, where Jeremy Corbyn’s cohorts use it all the time. It’s heard in the US, not least in response to troubling statements on Israel and Jews by AOC’s political allies Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. It’s seemingly heard everywhere. There are those who earnestly believe that Jews crying wolf, as they see it, over anti-Semitism ironically creates more hatred towards Jews. And certainly, this is one of the morals earnestly (and, I’m sure, sincerely) presented by This American Life.

Let’s take a step back. For those of you unfamiliar with the Castlemont High story (and this would be most people today; after all, it happened 25 years ago), this is it; a group of black and Latino students were taken to a local cinema showing of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. They behaved as badly-behaved teenagers sometimes do, talking and laughing (and, as they tell it, loudly exclaiming when something genuinely shocked them). At a certain point, customers complained, the kids were thrown out, and mayhem ensued. The children were vilified in the press, some received death threats, they were accused of anti-Semitism even after a public apology, and things did not calm down until Spielberg himself visited the school and publicly absolved the students, pointing out that he himself had once been thrown out of Ben Hur for bad behaviour. But. During the time the students were being harangued, some of them started to direct their anger towards Jews in general. If they weren’t anti-Semites before, and we are told they weren’t, they showed anti-Semitic tendencies then (until Spielberg reassured them that Jews can be nice).

Beyond that, both students and the show’s narrator start to question why Holocaust study is privileged over what they call “the black Holocaust.” That question is left open-ended, with the note that while they studied Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, they did not study the same director’s anti-slavery movie Amistad, despite the Castlemont experience being part of the reason the director made that film. Yet it’s a question with a clear answer (not only that Schinder’s List is a far greater film than Amistad) — the Holocaust is a unique event in modern history. Uniquely sadistic, (almost) uniquely focused and uniquely industrial in its genocidal intent. What African Americans experienced is horrendous; it should be deeply studied and the best films about that shown, but it is not comparable to the Holocaust. It’s not a question of one better, one worse. It is simply not comparable. So when AOC compares Tex-Mex camps to concentration camps (and she clearly did mean Holocaust camps, since she invoked the phrase, “Never again,” widely associated with the Shoah), it may not be knowingly anti-Semitic, but it dilutes the truth of the Holocaust.

Do This American Life and its genial host Ira Glass (who is Jewish) intend this story as a warning to Jews today? As a lesson for us to be very, very careful when we accuse others of anti-Semitism, lest we are a) unfair and b) detrimental to our own cause? Regardless, that’s how it comes across on, let’s remember, arguably America’s most influential podcast.

Here’s why I think that message is misguided. We now have widely-accepted international guidelines to define anti-Semitism. We know very well, or should, if and when public figures cross that line (goodness knows, we see it enough). Jews are battling against the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism and the “crying wolf” canard is one of the racists’ major weapons to belittle our complaints. Maybe we are sometimes over-sensitive — the AOC case, for instance, seems to me to be about ignorance (actually, the same false equivalence implied by this program) rather than racism. But very often we aren’t. And we know too, too well what happens when warning signs are ignored.

One thing the story gets right. Those kids did act like morons that day, but then, they weren’t properly prepared, by teachers who should have known the value of history, the way you tell it, and when.

About the Author
James Inverne is a playwright, cultural critic and the author of The Faber Pocket Guide To Musicals. He was formerly the editor of Gramophone Magazine, and performing arts correspondent for Time Magazine. He has written for many publications including the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Sunday Telegraph, and published five books. His play "A Walk With Mr. Heifetz" was premiered Off-Broadway.
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