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If there’s one theme that runs through the emails I receive in response to this newsletter, it’s gratitude for addressing questions that people were afraid to ask. When you cover a lot of controversial topics, as I do—from race to religion to geopolitical subjects like Israel-Palestine—you soon discover that lots of folks are confused about them, but worry that if they admit their confusion, they will be branded as benighted or bigoted.
But life doesn’t actually work that way. No one is born knowing everything. We all have blind spots about issues and communities that we haven’t encountered. Seeking to understand what we don’t know is not a failing; it’s how we learn and grow. A society that discourages such questioning is one that functionally fosters ignorance.
To take an obvious example: Jews constitute just 0.2 percent of the global population, which means that most people have never met one of us. This means that what they know of Jewish people typically comes from cultural stereotypes, television, and the internet. You can see how this could go wrong. The reason so many people are susceptible to anti-Semitic ideas is because they lack reliable sources of information about Jewish people. The only way to rectify this situation is for people to meet and read real Jews, and find answers to their understandable questions about us.
Today, especially on social media, it’s common for people to pretend to already have all the answers. But what we really need are safe spaces for well-meaning people to discuss complicated issues and areas of ignorance without feeling belittled. I hope this newsletter can be that place for many of you. And I want to highlight some readers who have leaned into this idea.
Untangling Race and Jews
Unsurprisingly, readers had many thoughts about Whoopi Goldberg’s misguided remarks about the Holocaust not being “about race.” Javier writes about how the controversy helped him finally understand the racialization of Jews that he witnessed as a child:
My friend Jimmy lived a few houses down. My parents didn’t like him, called him “El Amarillo” because literally he was yellow: Yellow hair and jaundiced skin. One day when we were playing in our yard (my poor mother’s garden which we mercilessly destroyed), he offered me this piece of wisdom. (I paraphrase.) “Do you know why Jews have such big noses? It’s because air is free and that way they can consume more of it.” It’s pretty remarkable that after 65 years or so I still remember that. In any case I knew Judaism was a religion and that Jesus was a Jew (we were very devout Catholics). That was the extent of my knowledge of Judaism. But still even as a 9-year-old that was a truly puzzling statement. How does a religious belief affect the size of your nose? I don’t recall having said anything in response. Maybe my sense of gringoness was too precarious to make a completely logical observation.
65 years later, your comments on race and Judaism finally provided some context.