The Other 'N' Word

A number of years ago, a prominent member of congress, a Christian, was a guest at our seder. Though he was a friend, we had assumed that he would never make it past dessert, if that long. Over the years, plenty of Jews had politely excused themselves as the afikomen was being passed around just before midnight, gently shaking their heads while a bunch of still wide awake kids continued to sing out loud and strong in way-past-everybody's-bedtime territory.

But our politician friend surprised us. He energetically participated in the discussion, and he was still standing as we began to clear the tables around 1am. He nearly begged to help with the cleaning, but we thought the kashrut issues too difficult to explain to a novice in the middle of the night, after all that wine. Still, he insisted.

"At least let me load the dishwasher."

Not wanting to expound on the laws of the holiday, I demurred. "Oh, no," I assured him, "Even I'm not allowed to load the dishwasher." I gestured towards my husband. "He's the dishwasher Nazi."

I hadn't thought much of it, exhausted and slightly tipsy as I was. But I looked over at the Congressman. He was white as a sheet. Oops. Seems I had used the other 'N' word. How to fix this?

"It's OK," I assured him. "They killed my whole family. I can use the word whenever I like."

Indeed, there is an undercurrent in contemporary Jewish life, a kind of gallows humor. We use the term Nazi in order to belittle the institution itself. As though if the Germans had been told that the enemy of National socialism was an improperly sacked set of bowls, they would have been just as likely to try to rid the world of caked on grease.

As such, 'Nazi' is little more than a punchline, which only tangentially hearkens back to its original usage.

Then a couple of months ago, I wrote what I thought was a very innocuous piece after the terrorist attack in Sydney. Within a couple of days, I found myself on the receiving end of a huge number of disturbing and nasty tweets and messages. It was so out of the ordinary that I investigated. It seems that a prominent right wing activist -- the very same one who recently put ads on New York City busses, calling prominent liberal Jews names, had written an article about me.

And she called me a Kapo.

My instinct was to entirely ignore it. Not to call her out, not to complain, not to take her seriously. To treat her like a joke. A bad, tone-deaf Nazi joke.

But she wasn't joking. And the thousands, the tens of thousands of Jews who read her vitriol every day, they do not think it's a joke. So what's a Jewish community to do? What responsibility do we have in the face of people who claim to represent us?

Maybe, possibly, the best response to extremist bloggers and inciters is to ignore them. But what to do when someone claims to speak for all Jews, and then says something that makes us want to cringe, or worse?

Prime Minister Netanyahu is the democratically elected leader of Israel. Inasmuch as any such leader can claim to speak for the citizens of their country, he speaks for Israel. And Israel is the center of the Jewish people, in more ways than one.

But on election day, when Netanyahu warned that the Jews better get out and vote, because the Arabs are voting in significant numbers, and we don't want that, it had the whiff of racism about it. Maybe a little more than a whiff. And though Bibi has lately claimed to represent the entire Jewish people in the larger world, in this he does not represent me.

And if other diaspora Jews feel the same way, they need to shout it from the rooftops.

Jewish leaders who use coded (or not so coded) racist language, who call other Jews Nazis -- and mean it -- when they do this, they leave a whole lot of us behind. Many Jews outside of Israel hear something else in the soft echo of what the Prime Minister said to his supporters. How would we react if an American politician urgently implored Christian voters to come out because, "the Jews are all voting," and that would be devastating?

In a couple of weeks, Jews all over the world will be overindulging while celebrating our historic transition from slavery to freedom. But even Jewish tradition understands that the transition from slavery did not mean that we were free to live in a world of anarchy. A short seven weeks later came the events at Sinai, where we were presented with an astonishing number of rules to follow.

Jewish leaders, opinion makers -- in a free society you may say what you like. But you are not free from answering for the ramifications of hateful speech. You are responsible for your actions. And you cannot hide behind me for cover if and when the 'Nazi' hits the fan.

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