Jewtropolis: America's Culture War
I was cooking dinner when I first heard it. I was in the kitchen, dicing up some veggies thinking to myself, “This can’t be happening. I must be imagining these noises.” I hastened to the window and opened it – jolted my head outside and to my surprise, I said out loud “No...It couldn’t be. It can’t be. It’s not even December yet!” And then it hit me – as cold as the winter winds on my bare flesh – the rush of the melody on a loudspeaker roughly 100 meters away – “Silent night, holy night….” And then I knew – I knew ladies and gentlemen that Winter was here – Santa Claus had come to Macon.
“All was calm. And all was bright.” Very bright. The Main Street Christmas Light Show Extravaganza (it’s official title) had strung up an adequate number of bulbs on Poplar street that one might think they were setting up for a Pink Floyd laser show. And lest I forget, the siren-like loudspeakers that brought cheerful holiday music right to my very door. Every night. From November 30th until (I kid you not) – January 7th. Each evening the music reverberated through the alleyway and into my window, “Round yon Virgin, Mother, and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.” But sleep I did not. Because this show lasted from 6:00 PM –11:00 PM. And after 39 days of this, all I wanted for Christmas was peace and quiet. I was done “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I was done being “Wished a Merry Christmas” followed by “O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem Come and behold Him Born the King of Angels!”
One night I looked at my dog Charlie and said “No Charlie, we are not in Los Angeles anymore.” But in all seriousness, I was not super thrilled. “This can’t be legal,” I thought. “What about my rights?! Why do I have to listen to this day in and day out? Why do Christian hymns need be blasted in streets like a hurricane alarm?” And trust me I listened for a “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” I sat in my apartment all night hoping for a hint of some Chanukah cheer. But sadly. Nothing. Not even Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song could drown out my frustration.
For weeks I thought about calling the folks in charge and giving them a piece of my mind. Letting my pent-up anger speak to the atrocity that nearly threatened my sanity. And each day, after thinking about it long and hard, I always decided against it. “It’s good for downtown Macon,” I said. “It brings joy to little kids. It puts smiles on the families that see the lights. It gives parents a place to walk around, strolling hand in hand. And plus, downtown could use some love.” But more so than any other reason – Well. You see. I don’t want to be one of “those Jews.” You know. Complaining all the time. Kvetching about this and that. Especially about Christmas…
After all, I didn’t want to be a Grinch. Stealing Christmas away from all the townsfolk. Ranting about in my cast–away shelter with my pet dog – furious at all the happy citizens of Whoville – all of them with their cute button noses and jolly enthusiasm. I even played out this scenario in my mind. All of these Historic Downtown Macon lay-people sitting around a conference table listening to my raving voicemail – I would use phrases like “religious equality” and “consideration for other cultural institutions.” And in this dramatization, they would scoff at my “participation trophy, millennialist, Yankee, micro-aggression snowflake” opinions. “Here we go again,” they would say. “Everyone wants to get rid of Christmas. First, they came for our Starbucks cups. And then it was the holiday greetings. What’s next?! Don’t they have candles to light and potatoes to fry? Why is this such a big deal?”
But don’t get me wrong here folks. I’m not protesting any type of Christmas, holiday joy. While I may not understand the festive “door-to-door acapella performances” and the “bathtub gin, egg yolk milkshakes,” I’m not here to ruin a good time. I just didn’t want to be “that Jew.” Because in my imagination, I would have cast myself as no other than Larry David himself. Just another neurotic, self–absorbed Jew. The stereotypical idiosyncratic, sanctimonious role passed down from Moses at Sinai to Woody Allen and Billy Crystal. Living out yet another Seinfeld episode. Relentlessly picking away at a minor inconvenience. Manipulative and conniving. Always finding fault in the status quo.
And to completely honest, playing the John Stewart of Middle Georgia scares me a bit. It disturbs me. Because it might possibly be putting a target on my head. The news article would read, “Rabbi Sataloff: The Leader of Macon’s War on Christmas.” And you might be thinking, “Okay Aaron. You have a very active imagination. I think you’re blowing things out of proportion a bit.” But let me share with you where I’m coming from.
In the New York Times article, “How the ‘War on Christmas’ Controversy Was Created,” author Liam Stack writes,
“It’s that time of year again, folks. It’s time for the War on Christmas. What is that you may ask? The short answer: a sometimes histrionic yuletide debate over whether the United States is a country that respects Christianity. For over a decade...Many conservative groups have rallied to defend Christmas, lobbying for decorations in public schools or town halls. One group, the American Family Association based in Tupelo, Mississippi, publishes a ‘Naughty and Nice’ list every year to castigate companies it believes are ‘censoring Christmas.’”
“Entries on the 2016 naughty list include Barnes & Noble, Best Buy and Victoria’s Secret. Starbucks has come under fire for several years for seasonal cup designs that emphasize winter weather or social harmony over Christmas greetings,” Stack explains.
I clicked on the “Mission Statement” link on their website. It reads: “The mission of the American Family Association is to inform, equip, and activate individuals to strengthen the moral foundations of American culture. The (AFA), a non–profit 501(c)(3) organization, was founded by Donald E. Wildmon in 1977. [Ever since,] AFA has been on the front lines of America’s culture war.”
“Culture War…,” I thought to myself. That seems like an odd phrase. After all, for there to be a war there has to be at least two competing parties. A territory to be fought over. So I googled Donald E. Wildmon. And what I found was not all that shocking.
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “During a 1985 speech before the National Religious Broadcasters, Wildmon cited a survey of top media executives conducted by two researchers. [He claimed] that the results ‘Indicated that 59 percent of the people who are responsible for network programming were raised in Jewish homes’ [The issue being television sitcoms and their offensive display of sexual content]. Wildmon said, ‘If the people who control the networks in Hollywood were 59 percent Christian and if they were only 1 percent as anti–Semitic as the networks are currently anti–Christian, there would [be] a massive public outcry from the national liberal secular media.’"
But here’s my favorite part…
“The researchers who did the study did not support Wildmon's conclusions, and one of them later wrote to Wildmon and advised him to stop distorting its findings. Nevertheless, Wildmon continued to cite the study for the next four years. He also ignored letters on the topic from the Anti-Defamation League.”
But ever since December, I have come back to this Christmas moment again and again. Analyzing why I dreamt up the scenario of the jeering and sneering. Why I felt so frustrated. Why I was reluctant to say anything. In truth, I’m sure the Historic Downtown Macon lay-members are probably quite pleasant. Maybe they would have understood completely. Even sympathized with my irritation! Or maybe not…
Which is why I’m left with this gnawing feeling of insecurity – this nagging anxiety of being portrayed as something I am not. Grouped together with the rest of the “Hollywood liberals” and the “New York bagel eating socialists.” I fear that the opponent on the battlefield of America’s so-called “Culture War” is Me – that I am the demonstrative, secular force that hates Christmas. I am the eradicator of everything that reminds Americans of Who that Must Not be Named. As if Jesus wasn’t the most famous Jew other than Barbra Streisand (of course).
And then it dawned on me. I suddenly realized that I am the minority. While conscious of the Pew Research Center’s statistic that Jews only make up 2.2% of American adults, it was never all that apparent to me – until now. It’s not that I haven’t just been the minority, but suddenly I feel like it. And maybe it’s just 2018. Or maybe it’s the fact that Evangelical Protestants make up almost 40% of all Georgia’s adult residents.
But let’s be fair. Yes, we are not the same Jews that left Europe. Yes, we have made gallant strides in American society. Given countless opportunities for higher education and professions. Even restrictive Country Clubs eventually let us join. Eventually. So I can say without hesitation that American Jews have been courageous. Defiant in the face of assimilation for safety purposes. No longer cowering from fascist regimes. No longer worried of being ousted by non-Jewish neighbors and captured by a genocidal dictator. After all, engraved on the Statue of Liberty are the words from female Jewish poet Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses.” Meaning, we are ingrained in the fabric of American commonwealth; etched into the framework of this great nation. But in 1883, Lazarus has also been quoted as having written
And thus, the truth remains as it did for Emma – that I still feel like a minority. And it’s not just the Jewish jokes about money that folks tell me are innocuous and playful. It’s the otherness that I feel. It’s the distortion of Jewish culture used to malign Jews whenever it’s convenient. It’s the fact that when I looked up anti-Semitism in Dr. Hasia Diner’s book, “The Jews of the United States,” there’s literally half a page of references. Almost the same amount as references to Jewish communal institutions, Jewish education, New York City, politics, and Jewish publications.
So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I casually scroll past insidious news articles like the Newsweek: “MEMORIAL DAY: HUNDREDS OF GRAVES IN AN ILLINOIS CEMETERY WERE DEFACED WITH SWASTIKAS.” Or just recently in the New York Times: “New York City Is Briefly Labeled ‘Jewtropolis’ on Snapchat and Other Apps
But it’s not just what’s in the media. It’s also the host of politicians who publicly espouses anti–Semitic and white supremacist views. John Fitzgerald, a Republican candidate for the House in California who said on a public radio show, “Everything we’ve been told about the Holocaust is a lie. My entire campaign, for the most part, is about exposing this lie.”
Or Patrick Little, who ran for U.S. Senate in San Diego and was kicked out by the GOP. On his campaign site, his slogan read: “Liberate the U.S. from the Jewish Oligarchy.” Or Arthur Jones, a blatant Holocaust denier and once a leader in the American Nazi Party, who ran a campaign to represent Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District. And all of this was just from this past year. So to flip the script – maybe anti-Semitism isn’t some histrionic debate about whether the United States is a country that respects Judaism. Some melodramatic, exaggerated conspiracy theory designed to attract attention. Because if that was the case, there would be no need for the (ACLU) American Civil Liberties Union or the (ADL) Anti-Defamation League. And you don’t end up on their “naughty” list by substituting “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” You get flagged for spreading bigotry, neo-fascism, and anti-Semitism. According to the ADL:
“In 2017 and 2018, there were 3,023 incidents of extremism or anti-Semitism in the United States. In 2017, anti–Semitic incidents surged nearly 60 percent, according to the 2017 ADL Audit.’ They explain, ‘This was the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.”
And you might want to respond, “But Rabbi. Things like this don’t happen ‘to Us.’ Not here. Not in our community.” And I’ll say to you, Patriot Front: a Texas-based, American alt-right, White Supremacist group. They distributed flyers around Rosa Park Square on January 28th, 2018. The flyers read: "Welcome to Occupied America: Not Here, Not Ever,” adjoined with a picture of an eagle, hammer, and sickle. But their reach is not just relegated to Confederate states. All around the U.S. — in Texas, Maryland, Florida, California, South Carolina, Kansas, and Delaware — identical flyers are appearing, plastered onto windows and light poles.
On Patriot Front’s website, they use phrases like, “Democracy has failed in this once great nation, now the time for a new Caesar to revive the American spirit has dawned. Our national way of life faces complete annihilation as our culture and heritage are attacked from all sides….
They explain that, “The national interest is the interest of the American nation, and thus the American people. This culture and identity have the same fundamental interests as any other: survive, thrive, progress, and ensure a better life for future generations.”
But tucked away under the guise of tradition and heritage - their subliminal language attempts to blur lines with traditional alt-right sensibilities and militia-style armed insurrection. All working to create, as they say, “The new American nation-state.” They espouse that, “A unified culture no longer exists due to replacement migration. Ethical standards no longer exist due to the steady erosion of the history of the nation. In order to survive as a culture,” they say, “a heritage, and a way of being, our nation must learn that its collective interests are fighting against its collective threats of replacement and enslavement.”
So maybe Donald E. Wildmon was right about one thing: There is a “Culture War.” But these people are no victims. They aren’t slaves. They want you to believe that what they seek is cultural continuity, but really what they’re saying is nothing new. It’s the same old rhetoric with a new book cover. The classic Nazi propaganda slogans: “One people, one country, one leader! Blood and Soil!" And then suddenly it’s, “You will not replace us.” The same social science jargon. The same nationalist marches.
We’ve gone through this before. We’ve seen this before…
And it also may be true that we as American Jews aren’t victims either. Maybe we are soldiers on the front lines of America’s cultural game-board. But this past year especially, I felt, was one battle after another. We went from Nazi salutes in Charlottesville to clashes at the Palestinian border, mixed together with the moving of the Embassy to Jerusalem. And now, the U.S has officially pulled out of the J.C.P.O.A. and just last week, cut financial support for the (UNRWA) U.N. Relief and Works Agency. An agency set up to serve Palestinian refugees since 1948.
Just a few months prior, Newspapers around the globe revealed to the world an insensitive, callous Israel. A Jewish homeland where no remorse is displayed for aggressive, senseless destruction. The famous side-by-side pictures of Trump and Netanyahu at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, juxtaposed with destitute, bloodied Palestinian protesters. Meaning that the pot has been stirred. Which is simply to say that Jews are not arbitrarily the passive victims of the American political process. We too have agency. We’ve had agency. We too are guardians against persecution. Because it's not just the “War on Christmas,” were wrapped up in. Its the “War on Hate.”
Also, just for the record, in the end I didn’t make a big deal out of the Christmas Light Show Extravaganza, nor do I ever plan on saying anything. Because I’m not against Christmas. I’m not against joy and the occasional Christmas songs - most of which written by Jews nonetheless. Because if it makes people happy and strengthens our economy, decorate every inch of downtown for all I care. But what does concern me is the the slippery slope from the “War on Christmas” to “culture war” to subversive statements like, “Our national way of life faces complete annihilation as our culture and heritage are attacked from all sides.” It’s that fine line between saying, “Jewish people” to “those Jews.” Then we simply become another ethnic slur for xenophobic nationalists, canvassing for politicized hate groups. Then our religious identity becomes a code word for something toxic, dirty, and sinister.
I’m sure what many of us wanted to hear this new year was uplifting message about “New Year! New You!” Forgiveness. God. Tzedakah. But unfortunately, that’s not what we need to hear on the day that marks the new world ahead of 5779. Because this year our shofar blasts are indeed an alarm - “Wake up!,” they say. “Wake up! Things are not okay.”
There’s a Latin phrase used by psychoanalyst Carl Jung originally coined in The Alchemist – “In filth, it shall be found.” Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto translates this to mean, that frequently “What you most want to find will be found where you least want to look - where you least want to find it."
Dr. Peterson references this idea in relation to the Book of Jonah. The story most often read on Yom Kippur. In Jonah, God comes to the prophet and tells him to go to Nineveh to speak out against their wickedness. Instead, Jonah flees to Tarshish. He attempts to hide from the task of telling off the townsfolk. But his apprehension, his stubbornness, and his refusal to prophesize against Nineveh, is derived from an anxiety over being criticized. Or even worse. Not being taken seriously. But ultimately, Jonah finds his way to the sea, gets swallowed by the whale, and then spit back out. And in the end, Jonah goes on to pursue a path he persisted on evading. A path that he didn’t want to walk down because it was difficult.
What this means for us, is that in broad strokes, there are parts of Jewish identity that are often buried from our awareness. Truths that are hard to grasp. And frankly, we would rather do most anything other than admit they exist. Or we simply avoid dealing with them altogether. But today we did just the opposite. Today we looked under the back seat cushion in our Jewish Minivan. That dark secret place where crushed pieces of Goldfish, graham crackers, and filth slip between the cracks.
Anti Semitism isn’t new. It’s ingrained in our history. It’s a part of our cultural identity. Whether it was Pharaoh in Egypt, Haman in Ancient Persia, Antiochus IV under Greek Rule, Emperor Vespasian and Titus ransacking Jerusalem under Roman Rule, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition, or Hitler’s reign of terror in Germany.
But in every age, there always been a valiant Moses. A brave Ester. A courageous Judah Maccabee. A brazen Bar-Kochba. A stalwart Haganah - an Israeli Defense Force. And thus, when we encounter this fear that’s out there, we will encounter our true selves. Because only when we can recognize fear, do we begin to recognize reality as it is. And frankly, the reality that’s out there today is indeed scary. Which is all the more reason why it’s incumbent upon us to say to ourselves – to say to one another: I’m going to face this. I’m going to walk towards this with conviction.With pride. No, I don’t have to be “that Jew.” I don’t have to be a caricature, a badly drawn rendition. But I will not turn away from being the Jew that God has called me to be – From being the Jew that God has commanded me to be. From being the Jew that the millions who perished in the Holocaust, hoped that I would be. It is for them that I will not be silent. It is for them I will not let this happen again. It is for them I will not forget. Not now. And not ever.