Crashing Against the Glass Ceiling

During Bernie Sanders’ most recent run for the presidency, the issue of his religious/ethnic background raised a recurrent theme of Jews who are seen as too politically left to rise to the highest levels of the US government. Sanders considered himself a socialist, but his campaign policy positions and history place him in a mild class of political reformers. The major donor class of the Democratic Party would tolerate none of the latter. Those readers with a longer historical perspective will recall John F. Kennedy’s religious identity was brought into question during the 1960 presidential election.  The nonsensical issue of Kennedy’s allegiance to the pope was the issue then.

Jews have long held important positions at all levels of government, but have never been closer to the highest office since the vice-presidential bid of Senator Joseph Lieberman. An argument can be made that Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 was far away from being even close to liberal, but of major party candidates in this duopoly, he got as close as has been recorded.

In a post-election discussion of her multiethnic background, Kamala Harris noted that besides being of Black and South Asian heritage, she is married to a Jew (“Doug Emhoff prepares to brake new ground as America’s second gentleman,” Guardian, November 11, 2020). Her status as a woman also broke through another glass ceiling. Marriage doesn’t count as an attribute, however, since partners in the US can’t ascend to political office.

Trump encouraged and abetted the radical right, some of whom are armed racists and anti-Semites. That anti-Semitic and racist incidents have sharply risen during his presidency is seen in police murders of unarmed Black people, anti-Semitic incidents such as attacks against places of worship and other Jewish institutions, and most notably the massacre at the Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh. The racism and anti-Semitism at the neo-Nazi and white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. Neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us.” (“White supremacy flourishes amid fears of immigration and nation’s shifting demographics,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 20, 2019). These were some of Trump’s “very fine people.”

Growing up in a small town in New England, I never thought much about anti-Semitism. I knew that while the small group of Jews in that town were seen as different, we were not treated differently than other people or other religious or ethnic groups in the community. People got along. There were differences, especially during the Vietnam War, but interactions among people withstood even that tumultuous era. People did not forget their differences, but they learned the very real lesson of forgiving.

Because the issue of Israeli expansionism and militarism in the Middle East was not on the radar during that time, the antipathy of some Jews on the political right vis-à-vis liberal/left Jews who came to support a Palestinian state was not an issue.

The first time I recognized that I was different in a way that implied condemnation was when I joined a peace group on my college campus in 1968. What I experienced at that point was similar to the phenomenon that greeted Bernie Sanders when he ran for the presidency. The majority likes people well enough when a person fits in, but the moment a person steps over the line and is seen as a threatening (politically) Jew, then condemnation will follow. By my senior year, most of my college friends had pigeonholed me in that respect and I was a persona non grata. My best friend in college, who was not Jewish, suffered the same condemnation. The college I attended had a large presence of Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets among the student body. Only a few years earlier, ROTC had been mandatory. I was an ROTC cadet and am an Army veteran, so when I speak of militarism during the Vietnam War and beyond, I know what I’m talking about.

When I went to work in public schools and at my alma mater as an adjunct instructor, the glass ceilings and blocks to advancement in employment were everywhere. It became so extreme that I was denied a position as a school principal after serving for a year as a principal intern at the school where I worked.

The lesson here was to be silent and conform.

The most notable loss of work came after several years in the position as an adjunct instructor at my alma mater. I wrote an article about religious intolerance and fundamentalists in the Humanist (“Chance Encounters With the Moral Majority,” November/December 1994)My teaching assignment was not renewed with the excuse that my course had been assigned to a person from the regular teaching staff, but a friend and professor at that college warned me months in advance that I would not be rehired because of my article. The school where I taught was  affiliated with a major religion.

Living in different neighborhoods over several years, I met with differing degrees of censure, the most objectionable coming in the way of a statement from a neighbor because of a dispute over a barking dog: “I’ve read your writing (referring to my letters and commentary articles that often appeared in the Providence Journal) and I think that Hitler should have killed all of the Jews.”

The community where I now live in western Massachusetts exhibits a different kind of intolerance than I experienced in the past. The town is controlled by politicians who, in some cases, have ties to long-established families in the area. Some of the politicians and town workers depend for their livelihoods on maintaining power. Bucking their interests invites retaliation that can go on for years. I asked the son of a high-ranking town official to consider refraining from a behavior on neighboring land that was annoying and the retaliation continues until today from several town officials. The retaliation has continued for more than four years. That behavior is at odds with the minimally liberal inclinations of most town residents who often settle here after retirement, or work remotely. The town also has a small professional class and tradespeople. Many farms operate in the area.

When I met with a local rabbi, who seemed minimally interested in meeting with me, he stated that I was not the first Jew who had met similar resistance in local communities. He believed that when a person’s interests come into conflict with long-time residents, then anti-Semitism is sometimes the result.

I decided against going forward with a complaint that the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination agreed to file in February 2019, because there was no economic interest or benefit involved in my dealings with the town in which I live, although I was denied a vacant school committee post the previous year. School committee positions are volunteer positions and that places any argument about discrimination in purely economic terms.No money involoved: no discrimintion.

A woman who I know in the town where I live told me that she makes strenuous efforts whenever she employs people to work in her home to show that she is the “right” kind of Jew to avoid others stereotyping her. Another acquaintance, also Jewish, told me that he is fearful of complaining about a neighbor’s dogs (of a breed that is sometimes vicious) wandering on his property when he has a grandchild visit because of possible repercussions.

As a child and adolescent, I did not witness anti-Semitism in my community. Now, hate against people based on race, religion, and other differences has a base of millions of people who have been encouraged by the far right and fanned by hate generated by Trump and his enablers.

US society moves farther to the right along with its neoliberals who hold power at different levels of government. People of color can and are shot almost at will by rogue and militarized police and other minorities crash up against the reality of loose cannons out of control in a political and economic system that enriches the few and the very wealthy at the expense of the many. There are millions of people who will also enable this mayhem. A small minority of those people are well able to plan, carry out, and enjoy murder. Resisting in the face of hate and a despoiled environment, society, and world are more important than ever!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).