Saturday, July 13, 2024
InternationalReligion & Faith

Let’s Not Spray Paint Swastikas on Synagogues. Okay?

The year is 2024 and I can’t believe I had to type out those words.

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a fierce advocate for justice. While I am limited less by righteous rage than by the number of waking hours in a day that I can commit to the pursuit of justice, it will perhaps be unsurprising that I’m not terribly picky about what kind of justice. Environmental justice. Transit justice. Housing justice. And, of course, most generally, the pursuit of the building of a better world for you and me and everyone we know. In the past six months, this has meant vociferously criticizing the right-wing extremist coalition government running the state of Israel. Under the leadership of this regime, the military has engaged in a campaign of carnage in Gaza that has, most recently, involved the country admitting to its tactics of cutting off food to force the surrender of Hamas militants. (This, notably, is a war crime). So, imagine my frustration with my fellow leftists when they started defending an act of vandalism that spray painted a swastika on a suburban synagogue in my home state.

Let’s not do that.

If we refuse to differentiate [the right-wing extremists in Israel from the right-wing extremists of the Third Reich], then it invalidates the Israeli people as a whole, including the millions of Arab citizens as the millions of Israelis who actually believe in a vision for peace rather than a vision of ethnic exclusivity and ethnic cleansing of anyone else.

Hate Symbols: Illustrative, But Not Good

The problem with hate symbols is that they’re hate symbols. They don’t illustrate a political point– they are emblematic of a host of not only ideas but also the atrocities committed under the banner of those ideas. The swastika is a signifier. The signified is the totalitarian state, with its clearly stated objectives of ethnic supremacy, its push to consolidate political power and dismantle the separations of powers, its inclination to often violently stifle dissent, its stated goals of annexing lands that rightly belong to it. Its push to say that “we’re better than the other guys because we’re a certain race.” Its inclination to get in bed with other really, really bad people because of a common enemy. Its mysterious drive to brag about how much it emulates whiteness and how that makes it virtuous.

Wait a minute. Does that sound an awful lot like a certain Middle Eastern banana Republic that’s currently engage in a war with its neighbor?

It sure does!

But it’s not the same.

Because the swastika doesn’t refer to Israel. It refers to the Nazis. If we refuse to differentiate the two, then it invalidates the Israeli people as a whole, including the millions of Arab citizens who live there as well as the millions of Israelis who actually believe in a vision for peace rather than a vision of ethnic exclusivity and ethnic cleansing of anyone else. There is an enormous amount of infighting among the Jewish left over the topic of historical interpretation of the Holocaust. When I say “interpretation,” I don’t mean “whether it happened”– but rather, whether it is appropriate to use the Holocaust as a sort of trump card.

Norman Finkelstein, indisputably a giant asshole of a man (for a number of reasons that would span multiple articles) and frankly off-base in a lot of his conclusions (but sound in the quality of a lot of his actual scholarship), wrote a 2000 book about the exploitation of Jewish suffering to consolidate especially Israeli political power and American capital interests to support Israeli political power. Finkelstein makes good points in his book (even though I strongly disagree with a number of his conclusions).

But one thing that I find unavoidable is the fact that the Holocaust was, in the words of Dark Brandon, “a big fucking deal.” So, yes. I get a bit frustrated with Jews resorting to the rallying cry of “six million Jews!” as though there weren’t, you know, ten million plus other people who died in the Holocaust, or as though that monumental atrocity somehow excuses, well, any number of war crimes perpetrated by the state of Israel. But I am similarly frustrated with the casual use of “Nazi,” to say nothing of the act of vandalism.

More Analogies to Modern Fascism

The best analogy I could come up with is if someone spray-painted the N-word on Clarence Thomas’s church. Clarence Thomas (who is Black, in case you were unaware) is, objectively speaking, what’s wrong with America (among many other of his ilk). He’s corrupt. His wife was involved in engineering a violent insurrection at the United States seat of government that left several people dead. He appointed his adopted daughter as a clerk. He is instrumental in the rise of American fascism. But none of those things are the fault of him being Black. Sure, most Black people seem to disclaim him as a race traitor owing to his politics of advancing the interests of the white Republican and working to systematically dismantle the interests of the Black American. Or, you know, hiring a clerk who once said, well. So, if someone were to spray paint the N-word on his church– a church that is probably flagrantly in violation of the prohibition on political speech, I’m guessing- would that be okay?

I’m not sure how you could have come up with any answer other than “no.” Americans are particularly sensitive to this– even people like my racist father-in-law who would never use the N-word- because, racist or not, he, like many other Americans, has lived, if only peripherally, the experience of a society fractured by race riots, restrictive covenants, and the legacies of centuries of genocidal exploitation of a race. To know that this isn’t okay.

No number of someone’s crimes make that sort of thing okay. Bad people are bad people. Evil people are evil people. I think that Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and anyone who doesn’t think they aren’t all awful people, probably all should be fired into the sun. But that doesn’t make them deserving of being hate crimed. Even if these people don’t even believe in hate crimes. Worse than that, it’s not as though this synagogue was Itamar Ben-Gvir’s synagogue, or any of the other fascist politicians who are literally gunning for a genocide in the Gaza Strip. It was just random people.

I don’t care if Itamar Ben-Gvir was at this synagogue personally conducting a blood sacrifice to resurrect Menachem Begin’s corpse to bomb Arabs like he was doing in the 1940s— you don’t fight bad people by channeling worse ones because that makes you accessory to the bad-ness of either or both. Even if the Israeli coalition government was worse than the Nazis, it wouldn’t be an acceptable response. Kind of like how it’s not an acceptable response to obliterate an entire city and starve millions of people in response to a terrorist attack that killed 766 civilians in your country.

There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed for a variety of reasons.

Decoupling Israel From Judaism

This discourse becomes ever more complicated in many ways when we acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to be Jewish in America in 2024 and even be publicly critical of the state of Israel. There is this notion that we must all stick together or we will all die at the hands of The Nazis, whoever the Nazis of the time are. It’s an inward-looking, paranoid sort of tribalism that has both protected the Jewish people since the Jewish people have existed and undermined our ability to progress as members of a pluralistic human race (that has, on quite a few occasions, attempted to exterminate Jewish people).

Our synagogue here has a giant Israeli flag in the front. It also has a giant American flag in the front. I guess I get why the American flag, as this country was founded with religious pluralism in mind. The history of American Jewry goes back to the 17th century, predating the United States itself. I’m not sure why it has an Israeli flag. If I’m being totally honest, I’ve been made deeply uncomfortable in my otherwise very progressive Torah study group when a couple of people said stupid stuff like, “well, you know leftists love terrorists!” or “you’re not allowed to be gay and Jewish anymore! Because of the leftists!” I didn’t go for a few weeks after this because I was incensed. Because I thought that both of these things were insane things to say. It is insane for a religious group to demand fealty to an ostensibly pluralistic state. The Torah commands loyalty to God, not to the State. The Torah also commands Jews to fight injustice. To protect life. To, as I am fond of saying, tikkuning the olam (technically not the Torah but the Mishnah in גיטין, Gittin).

But you know what? We can maybe make some progress by engaging with people who say stupid stuff in our Torah study more easily if we draw firm lines. For me, those firm lines include things like, “it’s messed up for this collective group to demand that I swear unwavering loyalty to a government of right-wing extremists,” just as drawing a line at a much simpler truth like, “it’s messed up to spray paint a swastika on a synagogue.” Neither of these should be remotely controversial.

Let’s not promote racial hatred. Let’s work to end racial hatred. Let’s work to end the carnage in Gaza. Let’s not do that by bringing about more destruction or by starving people to death. Let’s bring the hostages home. Let’s hold the right-wing coalition accountable for their crimes.

And folks? Let’s not spray paint swastikas on places of worship.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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