Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Obama and the Jewish Question

Obama’s election was liberating in many ways for all of us. For me, as an American Jew, there was a surprise. I had long held a secret resentment of African Americans, secret even from myself.

I grew up in Georgia during the civil rights movement. My mother was critically involved in the desegregation of the Atlanta school system. I befriended the first black kids to enter my elementary school – and was beat up for it, too. I’ve had close black friends throughout my life. As a Jew, I felt empathy for a brutally oppressed minority, not guilt. And yet there was something that held me back from fully absorbing the African American narrative. Oh, I knew my own racism, had confronted it and wrestled with it. When Barack Obama was elected it dawned on me. There was something else here besides racism. It was narcissism. Here, in the new world, it wasn’t all about us, the Jews.

In the old world it really was all about us--God’s chosen people. From Pharaoh’s Egypt to Hitler’s Germany, through the Babylonians and the Greeks, the Roman Empire to Mohammed and the rise of Islam and the Crusades, to 1492, when Columbus sailed and our expulsion from Spain began, we were the little bit of yeast that Western Civilization got a rise out of stomping on. Every religious war, every conspiracy of Jews and Masons, communists and bankers and elders of Zion, at every turn- there we were. Oh sure, there was a Greek narrative, a Roman narrative, a Spanish narrative, a French narrative, an English narrative and so on. Each, in their brief time, absolutely convinced it was all about them- that they were the chosen ones. It was the Jewish narrative that connected the dots, that persisted and prevailed. Monotheism? We invented it. Christianity? Invented it. Capitalism? Invented it. Socialism? Invented it. Psychotherapy, relativity, the bomb? Invented it. Gutenberg’s Bible? We wrote the book! We defined Western Civilization and ultimately, in the holocaust, demolished its cherished premise of superiority, of even being civilized at all. And for all the suffering we endured, for all the wisecracks asking why couldn’t God chose someone else just once, we loved it. It validated our absurd sense of self-importance and sustained our narcissism, indeed, our very existence.

Not so in America. Here, from Crispus Attucks to Barack Obama, from the civil war to civil rights, from gospel to Jazz and R&B in all it’s permutations, from Birth of a Nation to the Jazz Singer and beyond, from Jesse Owens to OJ Simpson, the critical narrative thread is black. Yes, there’s a raft of powerful immigrant narratives that make up the gorgeous crazy quilt that is the fabric of American life. Of course there’s the Native American tragedy and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their pioneer saga; the heroic founding fathers—with their dark and dirty secrets. But we cannot even think of the American dream without reference to King’s speech and the parallel nightmare that has been so much of the black experience. What drives the American narrative, what ties it together and gives it a pulse, what defines the relationship between our ideals and our reality in starkest terms of black and white, what makes it compelling and as great as the greatest story ever told is the African American narrative. American Jews have had a wonderful supporting role. We can be proud of the fact that at the moment of truth Jews voted for Barack Hussein Obama by a greater percentage than any other ethnic group in America, except black Americans. The African slaves recognized themselves in us when they first read Exodus. Now, we recognize ourselves in them.

And to every nice Jewish boy suffering from a messiah complex; that secret nagging dread and masochistic desire that the impossible burden of saving this world’s sorry ass from itself will fall on the narrow shoulders of some poor descendant of the House of David who will most likely be crucified for his efforts, I have just one thing to say. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last!

1 comment:

Greg said...

What a great post. I learned and had my thoughts changed for the better. Well done.