Sandi Bachom, Wikimedia

First Person

Photo by Sandi Bachom, Wikimedia

We May Have Won, But History Always Repeats Itself


Reveling in our hard-won victories in the White House and Senate is complicated for those who truly “never forget” and can recognize the fungibility of American democracy.



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My maternal great-great-grandmother buried her daughter in a shallow grave of dirt with only an air hole for her mouth before she was raped and blinded in one eye by Russian Cossacks during the Russian pogroms, violent anti-Jewish riots that began in the 19th century. When that daughter, my great-grandmother was in her 20s, she fled to the U.S., arriving at New York’s Ellis Island carrying a silver-plated samovar, a pair of damaged brass candlesticks, and a gilt-and-paste locket—her only valuables—hidden in her skirts. My great-grandmother had two children with her, and one suitcase that got stolen as she searched the docks for her husband who had emigrated earlier. She refused to speak Russian or learn English, communicating only in Yiddish. For most of the rest of her life, she tried to kill herself.

My paternal great-grandmother died in an institution of “melancholy,” as it was called then, but most likely she suffered postpartum depression after giving birth to seven children in nearly as many years. My grandmother confessed, at the end of her life, that she had lied about her mother’s death from tuberculosis. She was too embarrassed to admit the truth. The women on both sides of my family have a tendency to rewrite the bad parts of our history, recasting them into something bearable.

Both sides of my Jewish family escaped the pogroms; other relatives escaped the Nazis. Like many of my Jewish peers, I grew up knowing my ancestors’ stories, learning at a tender age about the worst atrocities of the Holocaust. Seeing the evidence in black and white is to understand that even assimilation makes us neither invincible or invisible. Assimilation is acceptance. And surviving and internalizing past atrocities do not prevent nor protect us from future ones. Trauma is passed down like a gene, sitting in the bones waiting for a trigger, a moment when, like madness, it becomes impossible to ignore.

For many Jews, watching this present-day assault on democracy, decency, and truth, is to witness history repeating itself, from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms to the Holocaust. The defacement of Jewish gravestones never went away, nor did the graffiti on the synagogue walls or the torching of the buildings. Watching white supremacists in Dockers carrying tiki torches, shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” is just a new iteration of an old trope. But, we never get used to these horrific incidents of anti-Semitism—and this past year, there have been a record number of them. We hate not feeling safe. We hate the feeling of paranoia that envelops us during the high holidays, when millions of Jews all over the world gather, the thought creeping into many of our minds: What an opportune time this would be to destroy us. Just having that passing thought would make my grandmother spit away the evil eye.

Today, I am privileged. Though I may not be a descendant of Torah scholars or educated gentry, I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in America—right? I am a mere two generations removed from abject poverty, ignorance, and fear. I am lucky that my parents turned things around for themselves and for me. But what if you don’t grow up in one of America’s “safe” spaces—a city with a big Jewish community? What if, from age 6, you’re told you’re going to hell unless you believe in Jesus, and you’re frequently asked: Is this the holiday where the Jewish people drink the blood of baby boys? Can you show me our horns? Do you Jews still do sacrifices like in the Old Testament? Or told: Of course Jews run the world—everyone knows that. Or, Jews run the media. Or: You all are responsible for getting the U.S. into the Iraq war and don’t deny it. But don’t be fooled, anti-Semitic incidents even happen in areas with large Jewish communities—consider Pittsburgh and New York City, and, well, everywhere. When you’re a Jew in much of America, you have a choice between assimilating and being quiet or accepting the noise you are making as your birthright, knowing how much you’re rankling, even infuriating people, for speaking out. Being othered means you never quite fit in.

Is that why I so often feel that I’m not safe? Why I persist in a sort of dream-state anhedonia? I can’t feel true joy at the new presidential administration because happiness, like sleep, is not something you can really catch up on. And because I know what lies beneath this nascent happiness: the possibility of this happening again. Evil can overturn good in what feels like a millisecond, men of conscience can be defeated by men of amorality if there are enough of them. We know our democracy is fungible in its newness. 

New conspiracies grow like dandelions, shedding their spores to the winds. Former President Trump did not create all this discord, all this ugliness, but he stoked and incited the racism, misogyny, and bigotry until those evils were fat and happy, sleek and acceptable. And his minions enabled him.

***

I cannot say I anticipated the assault on the Capitol or the potent rise of QAnon and its tentacles. But I was warned—and I listened.

In the summer of 2015, my husband and I traveled through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary. I had avoided Germany for many years out of fear, but I was ready to face my family history. After time in Berlin, we spent several days in Dresden and Nuremberg. Nuremberg’s quiet beauty was impressive, until we walked through the Hitler’s parade grounds and into the Documentation Museum, which presents a clear and terrifying timeline of the rise of the Nazi Party. This history was hardly new to me, but learning that Hitler had been considered a joke for years before being taken seriously enough to change the world rang alarm bells. That summer we were in Germany, Donald Trump had just thrown his hat into the ring for the GOP presidential nomination. Here was a man who was regarded as much a buffoon as Hitler, until, like Hitler, he wasn’t; a man who would transform from the comical to the lethal in a very short period of time. I remember telling friends that summer that Trump was a clear and present danger. Everyone told me I was being hyperbolic, super sensitive, paranoid. Something akin to Hitler’s co-option of the Germans couldn’t happen here in the U.S.! Until it did. And Godwin’s law was put to rest forever.

Donald Trump’s more than 30,000 false or misleading statements covered a range of subjects, but each was meant to gaslight the American public, telling us that what was happening wasn’t. As of this writing, more than 420,000 people in the nation are dead of a virus he insisted would “disappear” months ago. His ongoing rhetoric about the election and his “win,” despite all evidence to the contrary, whipped up a frenzy among his supporters who have a cultlike belief in him. In addition, lawmakers in both houses of Congress support the lie and refuse to legitimize the recent election. The disinformation campaign is familiar. Hitler, while jailed after his putsch, penned Mein Kampf and completely rewrote himself, offering a bible for the Nazi movement whose “truths” are still being read by white supremacists today.

The recent insurrection in our own country may have failed, too, but there are those who cling to it as if it were a roadmap for the next one. There are those who participated who deny their involvement. Half a dozen people are dead, hundreds wounded, and members of Congress came close to being assassinated, yet we are being told to move on. But this is not a time to forgive, nor is it a time to relax our vigilance. A putsch is like a storm that almost breaches the levees: The sea walls need to be fortified, not left broken and damaged.

While those most responsible for the ongoing assault on our democracy, for the lies and attacks, for the willful ignorance, continue in their denial (“We were just doing our jobs”; “We were just following orders”) and try to keep the power to terrorize as if it were something necessary for them only, the rest of us breathe a collective sigh of relief that it didn’t get any worse. Why? We know how quickly things can escalate. This is not the time to revel and relax.

There is something profoundly surreal about doing something banal and normal like preparing dinner during a violent assault on our Capitol, the kind of violence we are too used to ignoring when it happens elsewhere. And then, two weeks later, to watch as our 46th president and vice-president are inaugurated, having to be protected by 20,000 members of the National Guard because we feared, following the January 6 insurrection, that something unspeakably awful might happen. How can we call this a “return to normal”? 

Yet, we are being told by GOP lawmakers that we’re being divisive for holding them accountable? That this is the time to step back? Isn’t it true that if we absorb the various terrors as my ancestors did, they will just get buried permanently in our blood and skin? Are we to actually believe, to trust, that the attack was an anomaly? A one-off? Not until there is justice and accountability, no. Not until no one can ascend to leadership with such megalomaniacal urges.

Barely weeks after a seditionist mob stormed the Capitol, tried to murder congresspeople, and erected a gallows intended for now-former Vice-President Mike Pence, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was still trying to hold the new administration hostage with threats over the filibuster and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was meeting with Trump about fund-raising. Each day, the guilty try to massage their reputations, while insisting that impeaching the Master Inciter of the Violence is divisive. The elections, the runoffs, the inauguration ceremonies may have sparked small moments of joy, but there is no return to normal, not even a new kind of normal. Things have fallen apart. In the midst of a raging pandemic and an attempt to take over our government; any sense of “normal” is relative and fluid. 

I hate being proven right. I hate how close the U.S. has come to falling apart. I hate that I can’t celebrate slaying one Goliath when many more are already rising, like golem, from the dust. I want to be happy but I wait. I want to revel in the victories of winning back the White House and the Senate, but it is tempered. I do not wish to be governed by fear, but I recognize how fragile peace is, how frail alliances can be. The U.S. is still cracked and can be shattered. All it takes is enough people to deny how brittle our nation is.

 

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