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Ask a Jew: Why don’t Jews “play the Holocaust card”?

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By Neal Schindler

Hello, I’m a fellow Jewish man and I was wondering why Jews always move forward and never play the Holocaust card such as black people with slavery?

Dear fellow Jewish man,

I would like to propose a reading assignment for both of us — you and me. For years now, I’ve been wanting to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ celebrated 2014 article for the Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.” In the online version, the text just below the title reads as follows: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” Coates’ article is famously long, so I don’t expect either of us to zip right through it. However, even that brief introduction goes to the heart of my response to your question.

The trauma that follows genocide doesn’t just disappear. It doesn’t disappear in one generation; it doesn’t disappear in five generations. I sincerely doubt it disappears in 10, or even 20. It may be less acutely felt after a couple hundred years, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Its aftereffects may still impair a significant portion of the traumatized group’s population. You can’t snap your fingers and, poof, eliminate slavery’s impact. You can’t do that with the Holocaust, either.

African men, women, and children were forcibly brought to the U.S. to be slaves. Tens of millions of black Americans are living in the same country that enslaved, raped, tortured, and murdered their ancestors. And just as the trauma caused by genocide doesn’t vanish into thin air, neither do countless institutional and societal structures that were developed, during and after slavery, specifically to be racist. Many Americans still think the Confederate flag, statues of Confederate leaders, and a president who calls Haiti and African nations “shithole countries” are all fine and dandy.

Slavery in the U.S. was one of history’s most blatant examples of one people group treating another as subhuman. If you remain in a nation where atrocities happened to your forebears, you don’t just shake that off. Police brutality, drug arrests, and incarceration all disproportionately affect black Americans, and particularly black American men. When black Americans talk about the transgenerational effects of slavery, it’s not a card to play — it’s the reality on the ground. After generations of being told your people are inferior due to the color of their skin, you can’t simply expel that idea from your psyche through sheer willpower.

A second article for both of us to read: Glenn Loury’s “An American Tragedy: The legacy of slavery lingers in our cities’ ghettos,” published in 1998 by the Brookings Institution. At the start of the article, Loury observes that

for black Americans the end of slavery was just the beginning of our quest for democratic equality; another century would pass before the nation came fully to embrace that goal. Even now millions of Americans recognizably of African descent languish in societal backwaters. What does this say about our civic culture as we enter a new century? 

Article No. 3 for our reading list is Tori Rodriguez’s 2015 piece “Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones,” written for Scientific American. Fellow Jewish man, you may be, like me, the descendant of a Holocaust survivor. If so, then perhaps you, like me, have struggled for decades — the majority of your life — with anxiety and depression, both of which have been crippling at times. Maybe you’ve had to endure another malady — say, anorexia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder —on top of your anxiety and depression. And maybe this oppressive symptomology is not wholly disconnected from your identity as the child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of a Holocaust survivor.

I have observed about myself that I am risk-averse and find change difficult, even on a small scale. I worry about my safety and that of my loved ones more than is reasonable considering the level of danger that exists in my neighborhood and in Spokane as a whole. I am not convinced that my fears and anxieties are entirely unrelated to my grandmother’s time in a Nazi labor camp and the psychological scars that experience inflicted. I don’t see this kind of hypothesizing as “playing the Holocaust card”; rather, I see it as an exploration of why I am the way I am that has compelling empirical support.

On that note, I think we should read Natan Kellermann’s scholarly article “Transmission of Holocaust Trauma,” which looks at multiple models of transgenerational trauma transmission, and the 2015 Guardian article “Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes.” When you think about it, it’s no surprise that our genes may contain trauma residue. Our ancestors fled Hitler’s nightmarish Reich to a country —the U.S. — that didn’t welcome enough of them when they needed refuge, a country in which individuals and institutions discriminated against them for decades.

But at least we aren’t living in a place where genocide happened to us. As a people, we got the benefit of a fresh start in a new country. Descendants of slaves don’t have that luxury. Also, the majority of American Jews can pass for white, however they may choose to identify themselves. Black Americans don’t have that option. And despite absurd claims to the contrary, President Obama’s election neither ushered in nor reflected anything close to a “colorblind” American society.

Rather than singing our praises as people who “always move forward” and accusing black Americans of playing the slavery card, I would encourage you to join me in reading the articles I linked to above. I would also urge you to reflect upon the differences between American Jews’ trajectory from hellish inferno to prosperity and black Americans’ journey from hellish slavery to a freedom that, even today, can reasonably be described as incomplete. The slavery card, as you put it, doesn’t seem like a card to me at all. It seems more like a horrifying, undeniable page torn from the book of our nation’s history — a page that black Americans, who still encounter so much discrimination and bigotry, don’t get the privilege of ignoring or forgetting.

So let’s read those articles, you and I, and I’ll look forward to hearing from you later this year. Maybe you’ll have some articles to recommend to me.

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