By Arthur Z. Schwartz
I have struggled throughout my adult life with the question of the Jewish religion, and the “proper” parameters of a Jewish identity. With a name like Arthur Schwartz, I will never get far from those ancestors who escaped the Russian Czar and arrived in the Jewish diaspora of NYC. I was born in 1953. World War II had ended only eight years earlier, and at a young age I learned about the massacres of millions of Jews by the Nazis. But here in the safety of NYC I thought that I was safe from the hatred that had driven the Nazis and the vast majority of the German population. To me most of what I knew about being Jewish was the happy side of Fiddler on the Roof, the family traditions, a strong moral code, respect for family and scholarship, the (Eastern European) food, the frequent holidays (and days off from school), singing in my synagogue choir, dances at the local Federation of Jewish Philanthropies youth center, and the joy of Chanukah (although I believed in Santa too).
It took till I was 11 to realize that it was weird that my classes were 95% Jewish, my teachers, too. The Italian kids in my neighborhood went to Catholic School, and the Black kids, who lived in the housing projects three blocks from my house, went to their own school. And then one day I was walking home from school and a bunch of kids drove their bikes down the street where I live and started calling me a “kike.” I didn’t even know what the word meant, but I knew that it was bad.
And then I came of age and learned more about the American brand of hatred. Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney were kids barely older than me, who went to Mississippi to join the Freedom Riders and found themselves dead. I learned that the Klan hated Jews as much as the hated Blacks, and 50 years ago they appeared in numbers and spewed their bigotry and were not afraid to spew it. Black people, they said, were just pawns of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, funded by the Rothschilds, to destroy Western culture.
After the 1960s the open sowing of racist, anti-Semitic hatred became less public, but Jews have never been far out of the cross-hairs of racial prejudice. And now, Donald Trump, despite his Jewish son-in-law and Jewish grandchildren, has encouraged the politics of resentment, and public statements of that resentment are no longer considered verboten. And the politics of resentment always lead back to the Jews. Trump and his ilk have substituted George Soros for the Rothschild family. And to men who feel put upon by the #Me Too movement, and the public comeuppance of Bret Kavanaugh, Trump blamed mobs of women with signs and busses paid for by George Soros. And George Soros, he says, is funding the caravan of poor Guatemalans and Hondurans winding its way through Mexico, actually, his surrogates say, handing out cash.
So now 11 peacefully praying Jews have had their lives taken by a “nationalist,” who like Trump, saw himself as standing up for American values, and taking on the Jews who are funding the attack on “our” traditional American values. But his acts, to me, make me more proud to identify as a Jew with strong moral values, and a belief in defending all of those who are considered “others,” including the Palestinians who are treated so horrifically by the Israeli state.
And I smiled broadly, the night of the Squirrel Hill shootings, to see hundreds of Jews standing in a vigil in Union Square, with organized Muslim youth groups standing guard.
Yes, Greenwich Village is as Jewish as Squirrel Hill, and what happened there could happen here. And after spending October 28 mourning, I decided it was time, again, to fight like hell for the living.
Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village.