Antisemitism : It is all about “us versus them”

2 Jan
us vs them

In September of 2015, my work took me to the New York area as the Kansas City Royals prepared to play Game 5 of the World Series against the New York Mets at Citi Field in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.

The Royals were ahead in the series 3-1, and I realized that this game could be THE game – the one in which the boys in blue would finally become the World Champions for the first time since 1985. With some help from stub-hub, I was able to find an affordable last minute ticket, and so, proudly donning my KC cap, I hopped on a train from Manhattan with just about 90 minutes to go before game time.

As the train got closer to its destination, I found myself treading water in a sea of blue and orange wall-to-wall Mets fans. At one point, I made eye-contact with one of them, sitting about 20 feet away, toward one end of the subway car. He starred and pointed. I stood like a deer in oncoming headlights – no where to go, no time to avoid what was coming next.

“Look at what we have over here, ” he yelped, so that everyone could hear. All eyes looked my way, accompanied by a kind of spontaneous escalating vocalization that sounded like a shoddy chorus of singers groaning an entire octave of notes, from low to high, increasing in volume as they increased in pitch.

“A Royals fan on our train! What the f**k?” I heard coming from over my shoulder. To say I was scared would be an understatement. The train was moving fast, no expectation that it would making a stop any time soon.

“So, who’s gonna win the World Series?” asked the one who had outed me to the rancorous crowd. In that moment I thought that if I told them what they wanted to hear, what kind of Royals fan would that make me? And if I told them what I thought, I imagined an underground lynching might have quickly ensued.

“It’s gonna be close,” I offered, hoping that was ambiguous enough for him and the others. It seemed to work. They took it to mean that I still thought those Mets had a fighting chance (which I secretly did not for a minute believe).

Just when I thought it was behind me, the same guy walks across the car and asks me, “So where you from, Kansas City?”

Feeling empowered by my earlier verbal victory, I decided I was on a roll, and told the truth. “Well, I used to live there, but now I live in Israel.”

As the words “I live in Israel” rolled off my tongue, I kicked myself for such hubris. What was I thinking? Why did I feel the need to wear my proud Zionism on my sleeve and risk yet another round of “us versus them?”

I was prepared for the worst, when the tall, loud NY fan put his hand on my shoulder, smiled and looked me in the eye. “You Jewish? I’m Jewish too.”

Wow. In those few minutes, a lot had transpired. The two of us were just two minutes ago anonymous adversaries, two men whose paths had never before crossed, and yet, by dint of our sports allegiances, were mutually suspected arch-enemies. There was a palpable resentment bordering on hatred brewing between us – or to be more exact, between me and a packed subway car full of my nemeses. A shrewd answer on my part had avoided conflict. Risking another round of “us verses them,” I had shown my hand, revealed my ancestry, offering information that I could just as easily have kept to myself, tempting fate almost irrationally.

Instead, in that split-second questionable decision, I had actually succeeded in completely quashing the us-versus-them vibe between us, converting it into a “just us,” or “we’re on the same side” dynamic that led to another 20 minutes of Jewish geography and Hebrew schools reminiscences.

We arrived at the stadium. Still tripping as I was on the amazing turn around of that train ride, and before climbing the steep stairs way up to my “cheap” seat, I decided to make a stop at one of Major League Baseball’s only kosher hot-dog stands. The line was uncompassionate in its length and snail pace, but I was looking forward to that feeling of being again with “us,” standing on line with “my people.”

In a matter of a seconds, however, I realized that as the only KC fan in that long line, I was about to become the “them” for all of these hungry, anxious, trailing 1-3 kosher-observant Jewish Mets fans. Quite the opposite of many Orthodox Jewish travelers today, I contemplated taking off my baseball cap, and revealing my knit kippah! Looking around, I could see the people checking me out, wondering how this poor KC fan managed to get into the wrong hot dog line. (Of course, their natural animosity towards me made them incapable of even suggesting I might be in the wrong line and pointing me in the right direction for a short-line treif hot-dog.) I was once again “the other,” and if I did keep kosher, maybe even suspected of treason!

Just then, I looked around and saw behind me in line – lo and behold -another kosher KC cap wearer! Of course, standing there in the depths of New York, my first thought was, “this poor KC fan is standing in the wrong line, I should tell him.” However, upon closer examination, I realized that I knew the guy – he had grown up in the KC synagogue where I had served as rabbi in the 1990s. I left the line to gladly take my place again about 10 people back form where I was, considering that a small price to pay to once again feel a part of “us,” rather than “them.”

Psychologists speak of the “us versus them” phenomenon in human existence. It is a primal instinct, a carry-over from back in the day when human survival was tied into tribal unity. Those not immediately identifiable as members of the tribe -those who looked differently, or dressed differently were de facto suspects, until proven otherwise, the result of a built-in human defense mechanism that served to protect individuals from and their tribes from the “others,” those people whose otherness made them potential threats to my clan’s existence.

They say that this behavior is a natural human survival instinct, and instinct that can never be completely eradicated, no different than fear of the dark. The only way to neutralize the instinct is to take the risk of getting to know the individual before you, finding out that s/he is actually as much or even more a part of “us” than “them.”

Judaism in its expression – by ritual, by dress, by language, and by worldview – defacto turns its followers into “the other.” In a climate where people are inclined to first get to know you, before casting judgment, these differences are not threatening – they might even be considered enriching or interesting! However, in a climate of polarization, where everything is about drawing lines and defining people based on their political positions, and labeling them with denigrating names – in such a climate, antisemitism is bound to flourish.

When people are empowered to activate their tribal impulses and refuse to speak with those who don’t see the world as they do – in such a world, antisemitism will flourish, no matter what rights are guaranteed by the legal system wherein Jews are living. For Jews have, since the time of the biblical Gentile prophet Bilaam and before, been perceived as “a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)

And so, it is “us versus them.” Period. And frankly, wearing a baseball cap wherever we go is not a solution – only an adaptation. In my estimation, there really is no permanent solution. No protest march, no lawsuits, no reinforced law protection is going to stem the tide of antisemitism. It will only be a new global spirit of trust and common-cause – or, God-forbid, a common threat of global extinction – that will , in my opinion, serve to neutralize it. The Holocaust created a 70 year old bubble, a global moratorium on antisemitism in the wake of never before witnessed atrocities. However, it seems that it had only receded into the background, awaiting the chance to raise its ugly head again, once a large portion of the world was prepared to once again retreat into tribal survivalist thinking.