Monday, November 21, 2016

Musical Monday - Fiddler on the Roof Pogrom Scenes

I'm going to talk about anti-Semitism.

There isn't really any music in this week's Musical Monday, although these scenes are drawn from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The musical itself focuses on the life of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living somewhere in Russia some time between 1900 and 1905 (I believe one of the climatic scenes in the movie takes place during the 1905 Rebellion) with his wife and five daughters. Much of the play revolves around Tevye's attempts to secure good marriages for his three eldest daughters, and how the changing world around them comes to affect their little village and how his daughters rebel against their traditions.

Lurking in the background of this more or less happy story about how a poor man weaves his way through the traditional strictures of Jewish life, fantasizing about being wealthy enough to pray and study all day, and his daughters get progressively more headstrong, is and undercurrent anti-Semitism. Key in this part of the story is the figure of the Constable, who shows up in the very first sequence in this video, first to congratulate Tevye on the impending marriage of his daughter Tseitel, and then to warn Tevye of an impending "unofficial demonstration". When one watches this sequence, one can see the differing reactions - Tevye is horrified by this news, wondering if this means a pogrom is on the way. The Constable, on the other hand, doesn't think that the impending trouble is anything to worry about. The difference here is that Tevye's friends and family are threatened by the coming wave of violence, while the Constable's are not. This is relevant to the current United States: White citizens can afford to be sanguine about the prospect of a Trump administration overrun by "Alt-Right" fascists, while Muslim, Hispanic, Jewish, and African-American citizens really cannot.

The deeper truth revealed in these scenes is that the Constable does not think of himself as an anti-Semite. He likes Tevye, and says so. He thinks to compliment Tevye by saying he is a good person despite the fact that he is a Jew. The Constable doesn't want there to be trouble between Christians and Jews, and imagines himself doing a good deed by warning Tevye of the fact that trouble is coming. The harsh reality is that even though the Constable doesn't see himself as an anti-Semite, he is perfectly willing to go along with anti-Semitic orders to keep his job. After leading his men to attack Tseitel's wedding and engage in some vandalism (destroying some of the meager possessions the mouse-poor Jews in the story own), the Constable attempts to evade responsibility for his actions with a sheepish, "Orders are orders, understand?" The Constable still doesn't see himself as an anti-Semite, but to the people he attacked, does that distinction really matter?

Very few racists view themselves as such, just as very few anti-Semites see themselves as such. The Constable clearly doesn't regard himself as an anti-Semite. The Constable probably even thinks he's helping his Jewish neighbors by tempering the violence of the pogrom. The trouble is, he is still complicit. He still participates. He still lends the action legitimacy. He still condones it by implicitly saying that his job is more important than his neighbors. Further, his reaction when Tevye says it is too bad the Constable is not a Jew is revealing. He is an anti-Semite, he just isn't as much of one as other people - obviously he's not as bad as the official who shows up and orders the demonstrations to take place. But he is an anti-Semite just the same, both in thought and more importantly, in deed.

On a side note: Notice that Tevye doesn't challenge the Constable at all. Even though the Constable makes more than one comment that is clearly anti-Semitic, Tevye never speaks up, because it is clear that Tevye believes that doing so would be hazardous. It is better to let the Constable think you regard him as a friend instead of a rather dangerous predator. The Constable walks away from that first interaction thinking of himself as a great friend of Tevye, and despite the obvious anti-Semitic remarks made by the Constable in the exchange, Tevye lets him. When people who are racist, homophobic, or xenophobic assert that they can't be any of those things because their African-American, Gay, Lesbian, Muslim, or other minority friends have never called them out, realize that this is probably why. Minorities understand that their position is precarious, and it is often better to stay silent and just accept the kind of casual bigotry exhibited by the Constable rather than run the risks of confronting the bigot.

I believe this is going to be an issue a lot of people in the United States are going to have to grapple with in the next few years. We've already had a major news network air a program in which they talked about American fascists raising the question "Are Jews people", and the hosts of the show did not immediately condemn the question and answer, "Of course they are". Already, they have failed the test the Constable faced. I foresee that many Americans will face the decision that the Constable faced, and the question is how will they respond. Already millions of Americans have said quite loudly that they are willing to condone racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in a political candidate. How will Americans react when told to organize a registry for Muslims? Or to deport millions of their neighbors? How will Americans respond to the racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia of a nativist white supremacist movement empowered by a Presidential administration that has placed some of their people in positions of power? How will you respond? Will you be the Constable, and go along with the horror to get along and keep your position? Or will you choose a better, braver path?

I hope Americans rise to the occasion, because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

Previous Musical Monday: Anthem by Kate McKinnon
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Greatest by Sia Furler

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