Friday, December 31, 2010

Landlords!??

I just received a promotional email from a Sidewalk friend that includes a blatantly anti-semitic statement. Maybe you got the email too. The comment was about Chasidic Jews in Brooklyn who my friend says he refers to generically as "Landlords." My friend says how glad he is to see these folks struggling in the snow and that the blizzard was meant by God to smite these landlords, which is signified by it falling on Christmas.

This friend--whose work I admire--is one who likes to be outlandish and provocative. And there's part of me that wants to let this slide based on my friendship with him and my knowledge that maybe he's just trying to be silly or get a response. But I really can't let this one go because I do think from what he wrote that he was at least to some degree serious. And no matter what, it's dangerous (not to mention offensive) to make statements like these that lump together Jews or people from any religion or ethnic group, as having one generalized trait or quality.

First off, just to state the obvious--categorizing all Chasidic Jews as landlords is inherently prejudiced and bigoted. My main encounters with observant Jews come mostly at B and H Photo, where many of them are photographers who moonlight selling cameras. But suffice to say, Chasidic Jews have many different professions. Further, landlords come in all variety of religions, starting with Donald Trump on down (Donald Trump is Catholic). Does my friend think God is dreaming up schemes to smite all landlords or just the Chasidic ones in Brooklyn? (Not to mention the tenants and everyone else who had to deal with the snow).

Fairly recently I heard another Sidewalk performer-whose work I greatly like-say onstage that the downfall of our economy is essentially attributable to the Jews who were running Lehman Brothers. I asked this performer afterward if he had some sort of statistics as to the number of Jews working at Lehman Brothers or some other evidence that a preponderance of Jews were behind the breakdown in our economy. I would think that the blame for the downfall in the economy, if you were looking for someone to blame, would more logically go to the elected officials who eviscerated most of the oversight of the financial industry--and encouraged the broadening of subprime loans.

I find it striking that at a point when we have seen the pernicious effects of prejudice through history that people still have the need to cast certain groups in the role of "other." It seems to me that people are trying to relieve the anxiety of their own day-to-day lives by finding a structural repository for blame. On one hand the Jews are cast in the role of controlling the money. On the other hand waves of new immigrants, including some who are undoubtedly here illegally, threaten the stability of people who have been here longer.

In Nazi Germany the antisemetism that lead to the Holocaust came from blame ascribed to Jews for the extreme inflation and other economic difficulties in Germany at the time. It really doesn't take too much of a leap to see parallels in my friend's enjoyment in seeing the Chasidic "Landlords" struggling with the snow in Brooklyn that he believes was sent by God to smite them.

One of the things that's perplexing about all of this is how to deal with these types of comments from people you basically like and have spent pleasant times with. It's quite discordant to hear stuff like this coming from your friends and acquaintances. In these two cases I have relayed my dismay directly to each person. I suppose this post will serve to amplify my thoughts.

While these kinds of statements stand out most personally to me when they relate to Jews, I find it just as reprehensible when similar generalizations are made about other ethnic groups, religions, races, or people of specific sexual preference. I think it's dangerous to our society to limit our conception of people based on broad labels. For one, most obviously, it constrains the opportunities of those who are discriminated against--and we've seen such prejudice in the extreme lead to violence or death. Aside from that, it narrows the texture of our society. Think about the white-bread culture that was pervasive in the 1950s. That's what we get when we limit our perceptions of people based on anything other than their real skill and ability. Honestly at this stage of the game I shouldn't have to enumerate the hazards of discrimination and prejudice, but based on the comments I've outlined above, it seems as if unfortunately these explanations are still necessary.

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