Over the course of my many years, there have been many times when I tolerated what others saw as antisemitism or just did not see the offense that they did.
Barbs, slurs, stereotypes, and noxious generalizations hurled at minorities have a long history. In many cases, what seemed acceptable parlance, even funny in one generation, is today derogatory, identified as a form of hatred. In this, attacking Jews has a long and extensive history.
Although we might like to believe otherwise, recent history shows us that antisemitism doesn’t discriminate between the learned and the ignorant, the secular and the faithful, the wealthy or the poor, the right or the left. Antisemitism can be purposeful or casual, intentional, or spread by those ignorant of their own biases. Antisemitism finds purchase among every possible group, sometimes appearing where we least expect it.
Recently, I was surprised to find a series of troublesome remarks made in the pages of The New Yorker Magazine, which set my own antisemitism radar beeping loudly.
In the January 1-8, 2024, double issue of the New Yorker, there was an article, Winter Sun, by Adam Gopnik about the painter Camille Pissaro, who was Jewish, that was riddled with antisemitic tropes and characterizations, even more disturbing in this time of rising antisemitism, and despite Gopnik being Jewish.
So let me be clear: I don’t believe the New Yorker magazine is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that Adam Gopnik is an antisemite or a self-hating Jew. Gopnik is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the pages of the New Yorker since his dazzling debut in 1986 with an article concerning The Montreal Expos baseball team as seen through the prism of quattrocento Renaissance art; whose dispatches from Paris often made me laugh; and whose piece on Pissaro was informative and insightful. Which makes this offense even more troubling.
In Winter Sun, Gopnik characterizes Pissaro’s Sephardic Jewish parents as having a “typical combination of hyperstrong clan identity and a weak national one.” The claim of Jews being more loyal to each other and their religion than their country is the antisemitic canard Captain Alfred Dreyfus was tarred with. It is a classic antisemitic characterization, and to say that it is “typical” is even more offensive.
This is followed several paragraphs later by the claim that “the Pissaro family, in the manner of Sephardic merchants, were cosmopolitan…” Cosmopolitan is, of course, another code-word applied by antisemites to Jews throughout history to indicate Jewish participation in a global conspiracy.
But it doesn’t end there. Gopnik goes on to point out that Pissaro’s mother was “true to the Jewish mother stereotype, long-suffering and ever-complaining.” Maybe such shtick was once funny, but today it is an outdated, demeaning, and offensive stereotype.
Nor do I get where Gopnik can claim, a few sentences later, that Pissaro’s hair and long beard turning white while still young was such that “his Jewishness endowed him early with a wisdom he did not yet quite possess.” Is this an insult to Pissaro’s Jewishness, his Jewish appearance, or some classic antisemitic trope about the craftiness and cleverness of Jews? Whatever it is, it’s certainly a problematic characterization.
Finally, Gopnik tells us by way of example that “when Charles Dickens crafted the Jewish criminal Fagin he was largely unaware of his bigotry.” Apparently neither is Gopnik in this article, or his editors, or anyone else at The New Yorker. The fact that no one at the magazine found these sentences problematic is, to me, shocking and troublesome. And when I wrote a letter to the editor at the New Yorker, and to the editor David Remnick, there was no response.
It would be easy to say that this doesn’t rise to the level of offense or concern. Certainly, I know that we all have in our lifetimes, said or even written things that others may find offensive (I assume I have). My generation of American Jews did not grow up with the blatant, structural, or state-sponsored antisemitism of prior generations nor the explosion of present-day Jew-Hatred. No doubt, in the past Jews have tolerated and even made jokes about Jews that crossed a line.
But that is no excuse. Were similar characterizations, stereotypes, or descriptions made about other minorities, we would be outraged and rightly so. We cannot in this present climate believe that such deprecations even from Jews are acceptable.
Denouncing antisemitism and demeaning stereotypes about Jews is the obligation of all people, not just Jews. Prejudice is prejudice, no matter how mild or how potent, even when from the most unlikely of sources.