(Continued from last week)
The skinheads are so ridiculous, both in the way they present themselves and in their social views, that it is easy to caricature and dismiss them. But that would be a mistake. The skinheads are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. If at one time they were a fringe group within prison,that is no longer the case.
I grew up in a Chicago suburb, Evanston, Ill., next door to Skokie, the infamous site of an attempted march by Nazis in the late 1970s through a city with a large Jewish population, including a high number of concentration camp survivors. Because Evanston and Skokie shared a high school, I knew many of these survivors, whose children were friends of mine. When the Nazis threatened to march, these were the people who were prepared to take their places on the front lines, baseball bats in hand, ready to meet the fascists. There is no question in my mind that the Nazis ultimately backed down at the last minute not because they were put off by the Skokie City Council when it hastily enacted an ordinance preventing the march, nor because the Anti-Defamation League made the Nazis “irrelevant” by advising people to ignore them, nor because the ACLU helped the Nazis “make their point” that free speech is allowed and this made the march moot. Rather, it was because they were afraid of the Jewish and other anti-fascist demonstrators who organized against them and made it clear that they were going to offer armed resistance. The Nazis knew that if they came to Skokie, no amount of police protection could keep them safe.
This was the climate I grew up in. My parents were left-liberals, one-time fellow travelers of the Communist Party who had become more conservative over the years but in whom political activism, especially against fascism, was instinctual. And it was one of their guiding principles that there is no debating with fascists. Fascists are not interested in ideas but in political power. So every time the Nazis did publicly organize since then, I was there to oppose them, not with the force of my intellect but with the strength of my fists.
But despite my lifelong opposition to Nazis, this opposition stemmed from political, not religious, considerations. I grew up with essentially no identity as a Jew. My father, while of German-Jewish origins (and a World War II vet), was a stone atheist and a scientist, and my mother, while being a little fuzzy on the God question, sided with my father in not providing my brother and me with any religious training. I did not attend shul on the high holidays or go to Hebrew school. Instead, I went to socialist summer camp where I was taught that the most important spiritual value is “thou shalt never cross a picket line.”
Nor did the neighborhood I grew up in or the schools I went to do anything to confer a sense of Jewish identity on me. Although Evanston was not as heavily Jewish as Skokie, my neighborhood was at least a third Jewish and the high school even more so. But being immersed in a heavily Jewish environment did not have the effect of enhancing my identity as a Jew; if anything, it made being Jewish taken for granted and therefore largely irrelevant. Jews were everywhere and represented all perspectives. We were jocks and nerds, boozers and freaks, businessmen and scientists, Republicans and radicals. Our Jewishness was not a common denominator to us (because it was too common a denominator) and therefore being Jewish was no big deal.
Similarly, when I moved to New York City after college, I lived in a heavily Jewish city in which I was part of the majority. If it was something of a thrill to be living in a city where everything shut down on Yom Kippur, the main identity I felt as a Jew was no identity: being Jewish was as common and therefore as taken for granted as finding a taxicab on Fifth Avenue.
I suppose this paradoxical lack of a Jewish identity in people who live in an overwhelmingly Jewish environment is characteristic only of those for whom the environment is a privileged one. When Jews living together is a feature of their oppression rather than privilege, such as in the case of those who were forced to live in the shtetls of Russia or in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, Jewish identity becomes something that is not shunned but clung to. The practice of Judaism now becomes a raison d’etre, a thing which gives life meaning. If you are oppressed because of your race, religion or national origin, you seize that heritage as something bigger than yourself to give you the will to go on.
When I went to prison, it was the first time in my life that I really stood out as a Jew. Jews are virtually unheard of in the state prison system, and if going to prison was a cultural shock and eye-opening experience for me, meeting a Jew was a cultural shock and eye-opening experience for a good number of young men on the yard, some of whom had never traveled more than 50 miles from their backwoods homes. I suppose it should not have come as a surprise to me, then, that anti-Semitism would be so rampant. Nevertheless, I was shocked by the blatant hatred (and misperceptions) of Jews. All the old stereotypes — of Jews being stingy, greedy and dishonest, of Jews controlling the world’s money supply, of Jews running the entertainment industry and establishing the cultural standards of the world (thus allowing the proliferation of homosexuality and interracial relationships); in short, all the old stereotypes about Jews which I never really believed existed — were in full force and effect on the yard. I have been able to remain safe, but only because I reached an accommodation with my Nazi tormentors limiting my presence and activities on the yard. But the bottom line is, I am, and will remain, a pariah.
Thus, it was precisely my own oppression by skinheads and others when I went to prison that has caused me to discover a Jewish identity and has allowed me to come into my own as a Jew. I had dealt with Nazis before, as I mentioned above, but only in the aggregate, when I was part of a large force opposing a clearly unwelcome and alien presence. But on the prison yards, if Nazis are not in the mainstream, certainly hatred of Jews is taken for granted. And for most of the time I have been in prison I have been the only Jew here. As a result, the isolation and extreme prejudice against Jews here has finally forced me to consider myself to be, for the first time in my life, fundamentally a Jew; that is, I am a Jew before I am a socialist, an activist, a lawyer, a convict or a musician.
When I first came to jail, I tried to hide my Judaism. I even thought about changing my name so it would sound less Jewish. Not any more! The oppression I suffered, the alienation and loneliness I felt, and the spiritual thirst that is starting to be quenched, have caused me to finally come into my own. I am a Jew! And this has become my fundamental defeat of the Nazis. Because I have finally come to this bone-deep understanding, I will walk out of the prison gates as a changed man, a man who has returned to the mark after having strayed for so many years. I will have finally come home.
Reprinted with permission from the Southern Poverty Law Center