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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

KKK for peace and understanding
I’ve always been confounded by racism. I mean, I understand the urge to mingle more with people who look, talk, and act like you do, but hatred of other people based on race pretty much baffles me. The kind of racism that I find particularly incomprehensible is anti-semitism.

Anti-semitism as a concept has been cropping up on my attention radar more than usual over the past few days. Yesterday on NPR I got to hear a good chunk of the interview with Sacha Baron Cohen, the man behind the characters Borat, Ali G., and Bruno. Part of the discussion revolved around anti-semitism in the movie Borat, which features Cohen as a naive reporter from Kazakstan. Borat is ridiculously and beknightedly anti-semitic, with such medieval views as that Jews have horns and can change their shape. On the radio they played a clip of Borat in a bar, playing and singing a song called “Throw the Jew Down the Well” and, disturbingly, many people in the bar singing along and clapping. Afterward Cohen and the interviewer discussed whether or not this actually reflected anti-semitic sentiments without really coming to a conclusion.

I’ve spent some time in London, more specifically in the Imperial War Museum. I went with my friend Andrea, and we took several hours to go through it mostly because we spent so long in the Holocaust exhibit. One display in this exhibit, which takes up an entire floor of the museum, is a timeline charting the development of anti-semitism in Europe. It’s a very long and exhaustive timeline, but after reading all of it I still didn’t feel like I understood. I understood about medieval superstition, lending laws imposed by the Catholic church, the wealth that granted to some Jews, and the ensuing jealousy of their Christian neighbors, but I still didn’t understand how 20th century Europeans could turn on their neighbors, or turn a blind eye as the SS hauled their neighbors away. And nothing I'd seen or read since then offered any more of an explanation. I could almost understand if it was about religion, but Hitler’s laws applied even to totally non-practicing Jews.

And then a friend of mine loaned me a book called Girl Meets God. It’s the spiritual memoir of Lauren F. Winner, who converted to Orthodox Judaism in college at Columbia and then to Anglicanism during grad school at Oxford. She says that her conviction that Jesus is the son of God was her primary reason for her second conversion, but she admits that dissatisfaction with Orthodox Judaism also drove her away from that religion. Winner notes that her experience with Jewish culture was limited to the high-class New York Jewish community, especially the community in and around Columbia University, but she talks about how she, as a convert to Judaism, was often snubbed in various ways by those with a more complete heritage. Pondering this, I felt like I finally perhaps had a slight glimmer of insight into the roots of anti-semitism.

Perhaps this very human tendency to draw lines, to create an “us” and a “them,” this tendency to want to preserve the purity of your own line, the same tendency that created aristocracies and led to inbreeding in the monarchial families of ancient Egypt, perhaps this can explain a few things. It seems that Hitler and the KKK didn’t make up the concept of racial purity. Maybe the idea of Aryanism came from the same place in the human psyche that all desires for blood purity come from, in almost all cultures, including some segments of the Jewish culture. Maybe Aryanism was even in some small part a reaction to other groups' desires for purity. The rebellion of the “out” clique in the cafetiria.

This isn’t some new or groundbreaking idea; it’s just something that I, in all my egalitarian American ideology, never really thought about before. I’ve found it rather enlightening.


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