It was the 1960s in San Francisco, and almost everyone thought of themselves as cultural and political progressives. My young wife and I didn’t want to send our children to any regular school, public or private, and there were a lot of non-traditional schools, including Waldorf Schools, open classrooms and educational experiments of every description; but we decided on a private but affordable school that was based on a multicultural model, a school that taught mainly in English, but also did language instruction. The four languages they taught were Cantonese, Hebrew, Spanish and Swahili; for us the core language instruction would be Hebrew, since my wife was Jewish. (You got lowered tuition under certain conditions, and we qualified for that.) We signed up our son for preschool and our daughter in the equivalent of elementary school, as I remember; and since it was in part funded by a local Jewish Social Service agency, and located on the grounds of a former Jewish orphanage, it had very good and well-attended Hebrew-language instruction. It was, in everything but name, a Hebrew school that also taught a smattering of other languages.
The school got its Hebrew-language teaching materials from the American publisher of such materials, which I later learned was owned and managed by right-wing Zionists. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. Most of the Hebrew was taught at this school by an individual who had lived in Israel, and had perhaps been born there—he had a thick accent, and clearly hadn’t learned English as a first language. He seemed like an efficient but businesslike young man, with nothing extraordinary about his personality one way or the other. Later on there were other teachers, all of them rather uncommunicative. My guess is that they weren’t getting paid that much. They weren’t particularly interested in talking to parents, either.
My wife and I thought of Hebrew-language instruction as a great opportunity for our two children to learn a second language early in life; an added incentive was that some kids received scholarships that made it quite inexpensive. (I can’t remember whether this scholarship was offered for all kids learning languages, or wholly or mainly for the Hebrew students.) The school also taught some Jewish history and culture, all from a secular point of view. I was reading Yiddish authors in translation, and often found myself wondering why the children were being taught Hebrew instead of Yiddish, since Yiddish had, after all, a much larger literature than Hebrew. What I kept hearing from people in the school was that Yiddish was a “dead language,” whereas Hebrew was the language of a vibrant young country that was increasingly influential in the world.
I remember that my wife hadn’t liked the Israelis she’d met, and I distinctly remember her saying that she found them “arrogant,” and not to be trusted. As for myself, I simply accepted all the things that Americans were being told at that time about Israel, beginning with the idea that Israel was “a land without people, for a people without a land.” Founding a new country seemed an incredible accomplishment, all the more compelling since it had been brought about in large part by refugees from the world’s worst genocide.
I came from a progressive middle-western tradition that began in 19th-century Kansas with my great-grandfather, Cicero Demosthenes Swaim, a vigorous Democratic legislator who cooperated with the populists and fought the eastern banks on behalf of the farmers. My grandfather and his many siblings were stalwart supporters of the New Deal, and both my parents were liberal Democrats who pulled themselves up from the rock-bottom poverty of the Depression. They were fanatical believers in education, which they saw as the key to a better life, and a better world; my father, amazingly, earned a Ph.D. at Kansas University attending mainly night classes. My mother was a gifted composer and piano teacher who held piano recitals every couple of months at our house, with catered refreshments afterwards.
My wife, the scion of progressive German Jews, greatly admired my parents and held them up as examples of what Christians ought to be. She was more than willing to raise our children as Episcopalians—odd, given her identification with German-Jewish culture—but I insisted that they ought to have some idea of the Jewish part of themselves. They would get most of their Jewish values by osmosis, through the attitudes and ideas of their mother; still, I thought it a sound idea for the kids to have some practical Jewish education to put it all into historical perspective. So the Hebrew instruction continued apace at the multicultural school, along with all the other kinds of instruction offered there.
The problem arose when my daughter, a bright and very savvy child, showed me some of the school’s Hebrew-language instructional materials. One book featured cartoons and illustrations of scowling, hook-nosed Arabs engaged in plotting mayhem against Israeli Jews. Another—this one was actually on the cover of one of the Hebrew-language booklets—showed an equally hideous Arab throwing a bomb into the United Nations. (The bomb was one of those round jobs with a lit fuse, like 19th-century newspapers used to show anarchists throwing.) Apparently the main occupation of Arabs was throwing bombs and scowling threateningly, and their main feature was their huge hook noses. My daughter was delighted to show me this exercise in stereotyping, partly because she lived for any opportunity to challenge the adults; but also because she never doubted for a moment that there were better Hebrew books out there, and that I could get some for her class. She was simply alerting us to the inappropriateness of the current books, so that the responsible adults could find better ones.
“Daddy, look, that’s racism, isn’t it?” she asked triumphantly, pointing to an illustration of a threatening, hook-nosed Arab.
What I didn’t know at that time was that she and the other children were discussing this dire situation among themselves; and some of the others were even starting to talk to their parents. One must remember that these were precocious children whose parents thought of themselves as progressives, liberals and radicals, many of them in the arts; and here we were, smack dab in the middle of the 1960s. The kids listened to their parents, and in objecting to the racism in the Hebrew books they accurately reflected the political and cultural values their progressive parents had taught them.
“Yes,” I said,” these cartoons are without question racist. It’s statistically impossible that all Arabs could look so hideous, harbor such evil intentions, or have such large noses. Clearly, by disseminating such a cartoon in a Hebrew-language book, the people who created these materials sought to create negative thoughts and feelings about Arabs, and to suggest that they are all fundamentally violent.”
“They’re making people hate Arabs,” my daughter said. It was open and shut to her. “Why do they always show Arabs doing bad things in this book?”
“Probably because they want to make people afraid of Arabs, so they’ll be prepared to fight them.”
I explained what little I knew about the problems faced by the Israelis, but my daughter wasn’t having any of it: “Some of the Arabs may be bad, Daddy, but not all of them. That’s what you told us: that there’s good and bad in every group. So why do they always show Arabs as bad?”
My daughter was awash with glee, in the manner of precocious children of all times and places who are able to confound their parents regarding something important. Also she didn’t, for a moment, see why the persecution of Jews should justify racism against Arabs. “Aren’t they doing to the Arabs what the Bad Guys did to them?”
I had no idea that most of these “Arabs”—whom we today call “Palestinians”—had actually, many of them, become refugees when they were systematically driven out of their villages, farms and neighborhoods. That would not become known until the 1980s, when the Israelis opened up their military archives and the New Historians began to write about it. And it would continue to be vehemently denied by many Jewish leaders, except in Israel, where everybody knew the truth.
My wife remarked that it served mainly to confirm what she had always felt about Israelis. As for myself, I tried to find out more about the language materials. Very shortly after this first discussion, I sat down and went through all the booklets the kids were using. They were filled with the most racist kind of propaganda imaginable. I would find out decades later, speaking to Noam Chomsky when he was a source for a story I was writing, that these Hebrew-language materials were widely acknowledged to be outrageously biased against Arabs and Palestinians; but they had never been challenged publicly, apparently because everybody was afraid to talk about it. (That is, Jews were afraid of being called self-hating Jews, and non-Jews were afraid of being called anti-Semites.)
And there was something else. These Hebrew instructional booklets constantly encouraged the children reading them to write a letter to an Israeli soldier, praising him for his bravery on behalf of Jews everywhere. The publishers would even deliver the letter. But why a soldier? Why not a dentist, a farmer or somebody’s grandmother? Or a writer, a poet or a musician in the Israeli symphony? Best of all: why not have children studying Hebrew write to other children living in Israel? That seemed like a much saner approach than haranguing kids to write a letter to an Israeli soldier, with whom they had nothing in common. In fact, everything in these Hebrew-language booklets seemed to be nothing more than a particularly transparent form of ideological indoctrination, with a heavy dose of militarism; and—worst of all—the most blatant kind of anti-Arab racism. It was all the more reprehensible, I thought, since it was aimed at children, and was supposed to be part of a classroom teaching experience in a multicultural school.
What was immediately noticeable was my daughter’s touching tendency to repeat exactly the same things—often using the same phrases—her mother and I had taught her regarding racial and religion stereotyping. But as far as my daughter was concerned, the question always came back to this: Why was the Hebrew school using racist instructional materials, and when would we get materials without hateful cartoons of buffoonish Arabs, and without the noxious right-wing ideological hard-sell? In the meantime, there had been a mini-revolt at the school. Children using the Hebrew-language materials were rebelling against the painfully obvious bigotry in the text and graphics of the instructional materials. The kids knew what was being done to them, and they were mad as hell about it. It was the parents, teachers and administrators who were befuddled and unsure about what to do about it.
I went out of my way to talk to other parents about the anti-Arab racism in the Hebrew-language instructional material, but they seemed oddly evasive. Anybody who has had this experience will know the creepy vibes that immediately manifest themselves when anybody tries to talk about Israeli racism. Even allowing for some subjectivity on my part, it was obvious, almost from the beginning, that the subject made everybody uncomfortable, and that I was to some extent seen as “causing trouble” by bringing it up. The Jewish parents at first agreed with me that the cartoons and graphics were racist; it was sad, they said, but look at what the Israelis were going through. After all, they had never done anything bad to the Arabs, and the Arabs attacked the Israelis solely because they hated Jews. Considering that, the racist illustrations, while not admirable, were at least understandable, the Jewish parents seemed to be saying. These conversations were accompanied by a distinct undertone of resentment that I had brought it up at all, and continued to bring it up.
It wasn’t going to go away by itself, I thought, any more than concerns about fascism and Stalinism had gone away in preceding generations; and sure enough, most of the parents now began to internalize (or “contextualize,” as they might have said) the racism of the instructional Hebrew booklets, through the expedient of a thousand and one rationalizations for it. Now I was starting to hear the parents and teachers say things like, “Yes, of course it’s bad, but since when was the world fair? Isn’t fighting segregation in the American south and stopping the Vietnam War more important, because they’re so much more immediate? Isn’t it likely that the Israelis themselves will come to terms with their own racism someday?” And so on.
The Hebrew-language materials were cheesy and biased against Arabs, I kept hearing from parents, but what choice did any of us have? “We’re lucky to be getting language instruction so cheaply,” I heard from many parents, including those whose children were receiving instruction in other languages. (I have to admit that the same thought occurred to me.) But why had my wife and I wanted our two children to be conversational in Hebrew to begin with? Because we wanted to open up to them the world beyond our little neighborhood in San Francisco (Potrero Hill), but at the same time we wanted them to envision a world based on what we would today call universal human rights. Yet here we were, sending our kids to a so-called multicultural school, where they were being indoctrinated with what seemed like an almost medieval form of ethnic hatred. Putting up with that, it seemed, was the price we had to pay to stay in the school. (After all, we couldn’t expect our kids to suddenly start studying Cantonese, after making a good start on Hebrew.) Furthermore, a great many people I respected made weird excuses for the instructional materials, for reasons that didn’t make sense to me.
I gradually became aware that the other parents didn’t want to think about the Hebrew books, and at a certain point they politely refused to talk to me about it. The demonstrable racism of these Hebrew instructional booklets was different than any other form of racism, it seemed, and for that reason had to be justified with complicated excuses and explanations—in other words, denied. It was about this time that uncritical American supporters of Israel began to call anybody who was critical of Israel anti-Semites. (This may have been one reason why the parents didn’t want to talk about the racism of the Hebrew books, that they didn’t want to be denounced publicly as self-hating Jews and anti-Semites.) Compared to the fate of being stigmatized in that manner, racism against a bunch of Arabs didn’t seem so bad.
It was different with the kids. They continued to be offended by the Hebrew books—they could see exactly what the materials were trying to do, which was to indoctrinate them with a really dumb racist ideology, which they didn’t like. (Why? Because it was radically contrary to the values they had learned from their parents—or at least, the values their parents had verbally espoused).
So, I took it up with a couple of the people in the administration of the school. They seemed a shadowy bunch, not because they consciously kept a low profile, but because—like so many other things in the sixties—they were making everything up as they went along, with the school seemingly lurching along from one carefully-cultivated donor to the next. Such policies as they had arose from intense ad hoc discussions among whoever happened to be on staff at the time; people came and went.
Finally I got an interview with a woman whose face I cannot recall, almost surely because I have since repressed it; but I remember well the nature of our discussion about the Hebrew-language teaching materials. “Yes, some of the pictures and text are undeniably racist, from our middle-class American point of view,” she began. “But the Israelis, you know, don’t have the luxury of being nice to their adversaries. It’s not like in America, where the whites are in a large majority, and are therefore in a position to make significant concessions. In Israel, the Jews are a small minority in the Middle East, surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs, who are already on record as wanting to push them into the sea. The Arabs hate Jews, and would gladly wipe them out if they could. So it’s understandable that the Israelis would portray them as less than friendly.”
It occurred to me that if the Israelis were surrounded by millions of Arabs, they might wish, eventually, to integrate themselves into that part of the world; and I couldn’t see how this kind of cartoonish bigotry against Arabs could help them lay the groundwork for that.
“The Arabs aren’t portrayed as less than friendly,” I said, “they’re portrayed as violently evil, people who are almost exclusively engaged in scowling, throwing bombs and lurking about in the shadows waiting to kill Jews.”
“Don’t they, to some extent?”
“Some, maybe,” I said, remembering how I had taught my children not to generalize about an entire group. “But I don’t believe all Arabs could be that evil. Besides, isn’t it possible that the Israelis may have been less than friendly to them?”
She bristled. “What? Israeli Jews never did anything to the Arabs. The Arabs are poor and backward. After all, didn’t most of them leave Palestine at the first opportunity, when the Jews set up the state of Israel?”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t know the history. But I know racism when I see it, and it is invariably contemptible, and indicative of unresolved emotional conflicts in the personalities of those that disseminate it. There’s always a kernel of truth in stereotypes, but only a kernel. Do you think Jews should put up with pictures that portray them as having huge hook noses, throwing bombs and hurting people?” (I was especially appalled by the hook noses, since it was looked so much like anti-Semitic newspaper cartoons from Europe in the 1930s.) “Someday the Israelis will want to make peace, if they have any sense, and integrate themselves into the rest of the Middle East. This kind of hatred and venom surely isn’t going to make it any easier. How can the Israelis have peace someday, when they disseminate these kinds of inflammatory gutter images in their Hebrew books?”
At this point she drew herself up. Here it comes, I thought, even though I didn’t yet know what was coming. “Surely you must be aware that Jews have suffered the most devastating genocide in human history. I refer to the Holocaust.”
“I know what the Holocaust is.”
“You must realize that Jews have been persecuted forever in Europe, and the Holocaust was the tipping point.” Now she began to talk at length about the Holocaust, and what it meant to her, and what it meant to the world, and what it ought to mean to me. I can’t remember all that she said, but it was mainly about the power of the Holocaust; and the gist of it was that the Holocaust had changed everything, and now everything we thought about right and wrong had to change.
We now had to do things that may have seemed wrong before, but now that the Holocaust had happened, we had to do those wrong things anyway. “Jews had to find a way to protect themselves, and having their own country was the only way to do it. The creation of the state of Israel was a historical necessity. Yes, I’m sure people get hurt in such a process, I’m sure that have been excesses throughout this historical process, and still are—but Jews have the right to defend themselves, don’t you see?” In her tone was absolute moral certainty. “They have done wonders with the land, too.”
“But these Hebrew booklets studied by the kids are still full of racist propaganda.”
She sighed. “It’s inevitable that such feelings would be present so soon after the founding of a new country, particularly when you consider how much opposition there’s been. I’m sure that the more extreme feelings will fade after awhile.”
Even then I knew that racism and religious bigotry are like an addiction, and that addictions always get worse unless confronted directly. And even then, although I was young and somewhat immature, I knew that what you had to do with racism was simply not cooperate with it, despite all the mitigating circumstances that might be trotted out to justify or explain it. That was what briefly living in the south as a teenager had taught me.
“What if these more extreme feelings don’t fade after awhile?”
Now she was starting to get impatient. For her, the conversation was already over, now that she had made her main points. My role was to understand the emotional verisimilitude of what she was saying, agree respectfully, and go away. “That’s up to the Israelis themselves,” she said firmly. “If you don’t share the same dangers and problems of the Israelis, you can’t judge them. Anyway, who knows what the future will bring?”
“Can’t we look for better instructional materials, materials that don’t portray Arabs in almost exactly the way that people in Europe used to portray Jews?”
“We have to use those particular materials, because the company that produces them is the only Hebrew-language publisher in the USA.”
That thought alone was terrifying. I had a sudden vision of tens of thousands of kids studying these booklets, and actually internalizing the racism that they contained. “Look, I just don’t like my kids using these materials.”
“Do you want to withdraw your children from the Hebrew class?” she asked after a pause.
I asked to talk with my children about it again; but my daughter felt strongly that it was simply a case of finding Hebrew-language materials without racism. Except for the lousy instructional materials, the kids were enjoying learning Hebrew—along with the smattering of other languages the school taught—and they had made a lot of friends in the multicultural school.
What to do?
The people in the administration at the school, at least those that I talked to—as well as almost all of the other parents—now began to bring up the Holocaust every time I pointed out the undeniable racism in the Hebrew instructional materials; the idea that I kept hearing was that Jews had been persecuted more than any other group, so they had to take extraordinary measures. Although the Israelis weren’t crazy about Arabs, they said, such racism was understandable, or perhaps even necessary, in the short run. It seemed that the Holocaust was a kind of emotional and social Kryptonite that had completely turned the world’s understanding of morality upside down. No longer was there such a thing as right and wrong, at least where the thought, speech and behavior of Israelis was concerned. Because of the Holocaust, you had to support the Israeli state, no matter what it—or its proxies—did or said, even when they were clearly wrong.
If the Holocaust had that kind of power, it seemed to me, it could be used to inspire hatred of anybody, and not just Arabs.
I quickly learned that the Holocaust was still going on, in the form of a traumatic memory, and that it was a profound emotional and social force; and that it was kept alive by people who wished to use it to enhance their personal power, usually by suppressing discussion. Most of all it gave them the right to exist beyond good and evil, beyond the normal moral reference points. References to the trauma of the Holocaust had to be invoked whenever the Israeli state did something violent, or when those violence things had to be rationalized. The lady I talked to at the multicultural school was clearly under the influence of it; I could tell by the way he voice dropped and her eyes widened when she talked about it, and she always talked about it when she was trying to justify the racism in the Hebrew instructional materials. It was like a drug, this traumatic memory, which could make people say that black was white, that right was wrong, that up was down; specifically, in this case, it could justify racism because the almighty Israeli state said so.
I knew that this particular drug had to be terribly addictive, no matter how much you tried to rationalize it; and I thought my kids were spot-on right to challenge it, when it appeared in their instructional materials. As for the adults, there was something grievously off-balanced and skewed and just plain wrong in the thinking of just about every person I talked to about it. There was a tremendous tendency to try to justify the racism when Jews did it, even when it was clearly despicable. Yet when my kids, especially my daughter, complained about it, I couldn’t seem to do anything to change the situation myself. This odd inability to think, speak or act also appeared to drive the attitude of the school’s administration: it was sad, the racism in the Hebrew books, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And after all, when you got right down to it, the Arabs were a little backward, weren’t they?
Now I wish more than anything that I’d simply taken my kids out of the school, and gone public to all the other parents about why I was doing so. I think maybe I would have done that, eventually; but I’ll never know for sure, because the problem was resolved for all of us in a manner nobody would have anticipated.
The problem was resolved by the implosion of the school, brought about by a sensational but pitiful sex scandal that shook San Francisco to its foundations. A well-known, married San Francisco Supervisor was found to have been having a torrid affair with an equally well-known woman involved with the Jewish organizations that funded the school. Furthermore, the two lovebirds had been meeting on the mainly abandoned grounds of the Jewish orphanage, where the multicultural school was located; and the kids attending the school, it turned out, had known about their supposedly secret get-togethers long before the parents and administrators did. (As I said, the kids were a precocious bunch.)
There were public charges and counter-charges from the stricken and infuriated adulterers, who had declared war on each other; the married Supervisor hinted darkly that his lover had been unduly influenced by, and perhaps sleeping with, a “progressive Arab” man (I’m not making this up), since apparently that was the most damaging thing he could think of to say publicly about her; and the whole ridiculous, ugly mess ended up on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The school announced that it was sorry it was closing, but that it would certainly notify us when and if it re-opened. Our little family’s experiment with multicultural education and language instruction was finished, terminated, kaput, verschimmelt.
The experience also taught me, for the first but not the last time, about the power of the Holocaust, and the power of systemic evil. Most terrifying was the manner in which people used the Holocaust to justify new evil, to virtually guarantee that the circumstances that first created the Holocaust—-nationalism, patriarchy, racism and militarism—-would be replicated and acted out in new venues. What I was learning was that those who were most traumatized and disoriented by a shared memory of the Nazi Holocaust were often the most likely to identify with the negative social dynamics that had first caused it.
It is perhaps this same dangerous psychological tendency that causes the West to stand by, as it stands by today, while the Israelis continue to conduct their slow and tortuous ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, whose main crime is mainly to have the wrong religion, and to have been born into the wrong ethnic group; although the West sees the horror of Israeli apartheid, it refuses to act. Perhaps it the same moral distortion that allows Americans to accept the fact that a majority of their elected legislators receive money to vote as the Prime Minister of Israel wants them to. It is an odd and malignant kind of moral autism that grips all Western societies, and particularly America: those who see corruption most clearly are often those most likely to make excuses for it. Having nothing to lose, the children at the multicultural school in San Francisco saw evil, and rebelled against it. In so doing, they raised a troubling question: if children could see evil and rebel against it, and their much more educated parents couldn’t, what exactly is the good of education, any education?
What few of us really understood was that we’d run smack up against the simultaneous operation of some highly emotional and unpleasant realities. First, we were being confronted by one of the most powerful and dangerous ideological systems of the last part of the 20th century, which was the religious nationalism inherent in Zionism. (Granted, it happened to be a particularly right-wing form of Zionism, but that was the only form that these children were likely to encounter, at least in their Hebrew instruction.) Secondly, we were witnessing—-and to some extent participating in—-an attempt to systematically corrupt the entire Jewish people, a corruption that continues today. Third, we were witnessing a major corruption of American thought and sensibilities, by the dissemination of an anti-Arab fantasy that would someday encourage Americans to embrace the most loathsome kinds of Islamophobia, religious nationalism and gutter racism. I would not know the true malignancy of this until much later, when—-with a different partner-—I became the parent of a Muslim daughter.
Fourth, we were seeing the opening rounds of the degradation of American religion generally—-social-justice Catholicism would be swamped by Republican bishops, liberal mainstream Protestants would be overwhelmed by right-wing evangelicals, and the G-d of the Torah would be replaced in many Jewish sensibilities by the worship of the Israeli state. Finally, we were experiencing the fallout from the West’s unwillingness to unpack the causes of the Holocaust, and grapple meaningfully with the violent contradictions within Christianity that caused antisemitism to arise in the first place.
But for those young students of Hebrew, sorting it all out was a lot easier. They knew that the racist pictures and texts they’d been given were stupid and wrong, and they responded by protesting against them. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of them; I think also of the parents’ moral paralysis, in which I include my own. Now certifiably old, and speedily approaching the wild dotage for which I have so long waited, the powerful memory of those amazing kids looms larger each day. Across the half-century that separates us, I salute them for their clarity and courage–-they saw the evil, and they denounced it. A child can’t do much better than that.