Last year on September 11, I chatted with students about the day's significance. These students were majority minority: African American, Hispanic, and Asian, with a few whites. Some were born overseas, in Africa and the Caribbean. All were young, in their late teens or early twenties. Most came from New Jersey cities like Paterson, Passaic, Newark, and Jersey City.
None of my students identified Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden as the author of the 9-11 terror attacks.
A few mentioned Jews as the planners and perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks. Others agreed. None objected.
"Yeah, I heard that," one volunteered, as if offering multiple sourcing as support towards a potential assessment of the attribution of guilt for 9-11 to Jews as verifiable.
"No Jews went to work that day," another said.
Some thought George Bush was responsible. Others identified shadowy, legendary conspirators, like the Illuminati.
Of course I felt sad. I wanted my students to know the truth. They didn't.
I certainly label these views as anti-Semitic. I don't label the students themselves as anti-Semitic because I don't think they have a grasp on what antisemitism is, or even what a Jew is. I think they're totally blind on this matter, and innocently parroting rumors that have been represented to them as fact. I don't think they know why one should question such material.
I do know why one should question attribution of 9-11 to Jews. I do know why such a statement is abhorrent. I am aware of wider narratives, of circles of atrocity and responsibility, of webs of meaning. My students are oblivious to all of that, from the Holocaust to Heinrich von Treitschke to Leo Frank to the Munich Olympics to Klinghoffer the man and Klinghoffer the opera. I know about that. They don't.
Their parents, who, for the most part, are struggling to survive in low-wage jobs, don't know about these things, and never passed on awareness that they don't have.
In telling this anecdote, I could handle it in various ways.
If I wanted to prove that Americans are anti-Semitic, I could use this anecdote.
If I wanted to prove that Blacks and Hispanics are anti-Semitic, I could use this anecdote.
If I wanted to prove that Blacks and Hispanics from Newark and Paterson are ignorant or poorly educated, I could use this anecdote.
If I wanted to prove that Jews carried out the 9-11 terror attacks, I could use this anecdote.
I don't want to choose any of these listed options.
Here's what the anecdote says to me.
My students have been poorly educated in New Jersey's underperforming high schools, which do cluster in Newark and Paterson, inter alia. New Jersey's high school ranked as worst performing is in Paterson, as is its fourth worst performing high school. Five, six, seven, eight, and nine are in Newark. Ten is in Paterson.
My teenage students can hardly be blamed for the caliber of schools they have been forced to attend.
Conspiracy theories have flourished in recent years for a variety of sociological and political reasons. One cause is Political Correctness which seeks always to place blame on America. The single-minded "Blame America First" approach encourages tortured logic and excuses anyone who isn't American or Western.
National Public Radio celebrity and pseudo-intellectual Karen Armstrong said that when she learned of 9-11, she concluded "We did this." Well, if Karen Armstrong is a member of Al Qaeda, that's absolutely true. Otherwise, it is exemplary of politically correct hogwash.
Newark's current mayor, Ras Baraka, is the son of another PC celebrity, Amiri Baraka, New Jersey poet laureate and PEN award winner, winner of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim. Amiri Baraka's poem "Somebody Blew Up America," implicates Jews in 9-11.
A good number of left-wing professors contribute to ignorance because certain truths are not congenial to how they want to interpret history.
Another factor: Paterson has a large Muslim population. Many Muslims do attribute the 9-11 terror attacks to Jews. Recently an imam insisted on Egyptian television that Jews created ISIS. I know that some-not-all Muslims share anti-Jewish conspiracy theories with others who are not Muslims. They have shared these conspiracy theories with me and my students.
I mention all this because I love my students. I see them in all their humanity. They are lovable.
I know when I say "Black kid from Paterson" my interlocutor is likely immediately to imagine a mugger or a juvenile delinquent lounging on garbage-strewn streets. Mentally, the person to whom I mention a Black youth from Paterson will immediately lock his or her doors, roll up his or her windows, and step on the gas.
The negative stereotypes of my students are already there.
If I casually toss in a story about Black and Hispanic kids from Paterson attributing 9-11 to Jews or the Illuminati … well … I'm basically squirting kerosene on an already smoldering dump of stereotyping.
For that reason, when I tell these stories, I tell them carefully.
I emphasize my students' native intelligence, their hard work, their eagerness to do the right thing in a world that doesn't love them enough to communicate to them exactly what the right thing is. I state over and over again, not to be nice, but to tell the truth: I have an MA from UC Berkeley, a very good school (and an even better school when I attended than it is now), and a PhD from Indiana University, another very good school, and my students are every bit as smart as the smarty pantses I've rubbed elbows with. The difference really is, all too often, money, or luck.
In short, I tell these anecdotes carefully. I strive not to add to stereotyping.
I recently blogged about Shelley Salamensky's New York Review of Books blog piece about the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. Shelley's piece ends with an anecdote about Poles saying obnoxious things about Jews, specifically that Jews stole money from the Polish treasury, and that Jews have large noses and forelocks.
I took exception to the New York Review of Books ending a piece about a museum of global importance with an anecdote about obnoxious Poles. I wrote to Shelley Salamensky and to my surprise Shelley wrote back. Her note was entirely gracious and generous and she showed awareness of, and concern for, negative stereotyping of Poles.
I felt guilty for being so critical about Shelley's piece. But…
Do such obnoxious things get said? Of course they do. I never heard the specific conspiracy theory that Shelley mentions – that Jews stole all the money from the Polish treasury – but I've heard other offensive things.
Like all offensive commentary, I think that the statements I have heard from Poles are complicated texts that need to be understood. In the same way that I need to work to understand why so many young people from Newark and Paterson, who are themselves members of stereotyped minority groups, have accepted outlandish conspiracy theories about Jews, I need to understand why any Poles in present day Poland would say that Jews stole all the money from the Polish treasury.
I think Shelley would agree with me on this. I will invite her to speak for herself and to do a guest blog entry on a topic of her choosing. I think that would be great.