People Love Dead Jews: Exclusive Interview with Award-Winning Author Dara Horn

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November 20, 2022

19 min read

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The provocative scholar’s views on Kanye, effective responses to antisemitism, and being Jewish in a non-Jewish world.

Dara Horn is the author of New York Times Notable Book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. She is a critically acclaimed novelist and scholar of Yiddish literature.  She is the recipient of numerous prizes for her writing, including two National Jewish Book Awards and most recently a Kirkus Prize for People Love Dead Jews.  Her provocative book could not be more timely. I recently had a wide-ranging, thought-provoking discussion with Dara. Here is an edited version of our interview.   

Saj Freiberg: What are your thoughts on Kanye West and the response to the companies that dumped him?

Dara Horn: Oh, man. I hate that I have to have an opinion about Kanye West. This is unfortunately not an uncommon sentiment along a lot of people. And I'm not the first person to notice that he has twice as many followers online as there are Jews in the world. This is unfortunately a hugely influential set of beliefs, which is not so surprising. And it does have a real world impact. I live in New Jersey and it was a couple days after that that somebody was making credible threats against synagogues in New Jersey, which it sounds like was encouraged by this. There's been vandalism on Jewish cemeteries that says, "Kanye was right." And this is disturbing. Credit to these companies that dumped him, although they may have been looking for other reasons to dump him.

Saj: Do you feel the response was appropriate?

Dara: Actually, I know people are complaining that it came a week late or something like that. I was pretty impressed that anybody would respond in that way because I think we usually don't see that kind of response to antisemitism. So, I found that kind of encouraging.

I think the guardrails have come off on what's considered acceptable. And there's this level of outrage that's sort of very common now. This stuff used to be more filtered. I'm 45 and I'm old enough to remember before the internet, there were celebrities who would say crazy things, but there was a gatekeeper who was keeping these people in check and you wouldn't necessarily hear all of the things that they were thinking when they were on the toilet at 2:00 in the morning. You didn't really need to hear that.

There's are a lot of outrageous opinions that are now considered acceptable.

There's this rising level of antisemitism, which is not deniable, but I sort of wonder if it's rising levels of acceptable antisemitism. When I was in college, I spent summers working at magazines. I would read the letters to the editor and decide the 12 out of hundred that they should consider printing. And then the editor would pick the four that they would print. We got the crazy letters. We got the antisemitic rant, conspiracy theory. We got the whole racist garbage. Those people were always around. They were always were writing to magazines but we didn’t print them.

In the past a celebrity had a platform but you're not hearing their unfiltered musings. They'd have an interview and then it would be edited. Like Tucker Carlson edited his interview with Kanye to make him a little less crazy that he apparently is. So, some of the crazy was less visible. What the problem is though is that this is sort of creating a standard for what's normal in public discourse. And the standard is going so far down the tube and that's disturbing. And that's a larger problem that goes beyond antisemitism. There's just a lot of outrageous opinions that are now considered acceptable.

Saj: Did you watch Dave Chappelle’s monologue?

Dara: No, I was overseas this past weekend and didn't see it. But I guess I should go watch it. I think the whole discourse around racism in this country makes it harder to respond to antisemitism when it's coming from people in the Black community, because there's so much tangled up.

I think that what's interesting about that is that it does illustrate how antisemitism really differs from a lot of other forms of racism because, I wouldn't just say, "Racism." Most forms of bigotry are, you say like, "Oh, there's this group of people over here that I feel are inferior to me." And that's the way we're taught to think about the way racism and prejudice in general work. And antisemitism does have an element of that. But antisemitism is less a social prejudice and more like a conspiracy theory. And the thing about a conspiracy theory is that instead of saying, "I'm punching down at, oh, there's this group of people who I believe are inferior to me," not being logical because it's a prejudice and prejudices aren't logical, it also includes this idea of there's this group of people who are superior to me, that these people are evil supervillains who are manipulating things behind the scenes.

Antisemitism is less a social prejudice and more like a conspiracy theory.

And that belief makes it so universally appealing for people from many different backgrounds to get behind this because it gives you this feeling of, "Oh, I'm not being a bigot. I'm speaking truth to power." I'm dismantling this power hierarchy. And unfortunately there is a power hierarchy in our society. It is real and it is tied up with the history of racism in this country. All those things are true.

The problem is if you're looking at the world just through that lens, you're very susceptible to falling face first into antisemitism because if your belief is that there's this group of shadowy elites behind the scenes who are running things and maintaining this unequal power structure, and that's a core belief of the conspiracy theory of antisemitism -- Jews have too much power, Jews have too much privilege, Jews are overrepresented. Jews need to be taken down a notch from this power that they have.

That's the Book of Exodus. That's why the Egyptian Pharaoh enslaves the Jews. It's like, "Oh, they have too much power, they have too much privilege, they're overrepresented."

I'm not claiming that Kanye West, who's a bajillionaire is in the lower strata of society. He is not. But there is this idea that the purpose of antisemitism is to deflect the anger of people on the bottom of the power structure towards someone who isn't them.

Saj: Your book, People Love Dead Jews – that’s a shocking title. It seems aimed at getting people to understand something new about antisemitism. What is it that you feel often gets overlooked?

Dara: I didn't feel I was writing this book saying something new. I just felt I was saying something kind of obvious. When you say this title is shocking. I mean, yes, it’s provocative. The reason for this is because I feel there are Jews in non-Jewish societies who are accustomed to erasing themselves in order to make other people feel comfortable.

Saj: What do you mean by that?

Dara: One of the things that I've learned in my 20 years as a published writer is that when you approach a topic and you start feeling like, "Oh, I really don't want to go there," that's when you're about to learn something that you didn't know before.

Saj: And you feel that Jews themselves are avoiding those uncomfortable moments?

Dara: Yes. And there are certain emotions that you're not allowed to feel as a Jew in a non-Jewish society. And I'm raising those emotions as well. For example, I have a piece in the book that's about what the tourist industry calls Jewish heritage sites. These are places in countries that used to have vibrant Jewish communities and don't anymore for reasons we may or may not choose to explain. And you go to these places and they have lovingly restored this synagogue and turned it into a museum where there's nobody using this synagogue at the museum. This term “Jewish heritage sites” sounds so benign. It sounds much better than property seized from dead or expelled Jews. Who wants to go to that? Jewish heritage sites, it sounds so nice.

This term “Jewish heritage sites” sounds so benign. It sounds much better than property seized from dead or expelled Jews. Who wants to go to that?

I've been to places like this around the world, from Spain to China, and I always felt extremely uncomfortable in these places. And I had so buried the reason for my discomfort. I would think that it was because I was sad. Like, "Oh, I feel uncomfortable because it's so sad that this community that lived here for hundreds of years is now gone."

That's not why I was feeling uncomfortable. It wasn't sadness. It was rage because when you're in these places and whether it is somewhere where all the people were murdered, or whether it's a place where they merely were expelled and had all their assets seized, that's the nice version. In any of those situations what you're looking at is the triumph of evil because these are societies who had decided that it was unacceptable to have Jews living there. This is the triumph of evil. This is a society that decided it is unacceptable to have someone who's slightly different from me.

And so, the appropriate response to that is not sorrow, it is rage. But as Jews in a non-Jewish society, we're not allowed to feel rage. And that's how deeply we bury it. I remember my kids would sometimes come home from school and say, "You're not supposed to be angry. It's really bad to be angry." You know what I would say to my children at that point. I would say, "You know who was really angry? Moses."

He sees the Egyptian taskmaster beating the Hebrew slave. He doesn't write a letter to the editor about it. He kills the guy and then he hits the rock, he sees them worshiping an idol. He smashes the tablets. He's yelling at Pharaoh for half the Book of Exodus. All of Deuteronomy, he's yelling at the Israelites. But the thing is that anger is an emotion that is tied to your perception of injustice. Now, that doesn't mean that your perception of injustice is accurate. I mean, you could be someone like Ye, or you could be a four year old who wants another cookie. But the thing is that if you don't allow people to feel anger, what you're saying is you're not allowing people to correct injustices in a society.

If you don't allow people to feel anger, what you're saying is you're not allowing people to correct injustices in a society.

So, the title is very much about, it is about allowing people to notice this problem. I didn't even think of it as a book really about antisemitism. I see it as a book about the role that dead Jews play in the wider world's imagination. And there's sort of two elements to that. And it does become sinister very quickly because there are basically two themes that run through the whole book. One is that people tell stories about dead Jews that make them feel better about themselves. And then the other half of that is that living Jews have to erase themselves in order to gain public respect.

Saj: You take issue in your book in various ways about how there's a tendency to focus on positive elements in the history of antisemitism, even in the Holocaust. For instance, focus on the acts of righteous gentiles. You express frustration that the most famous Jewish director in the world, Steven Spielberg, when he finally makes a film about the Holocaust, makes it about a non-Jew's story about the Holocaust. Can you speak a little bit about that frustration?

Dara: Yes. And actually it's funny, I have an episode of my podcast about it where I talk about how he made that movie while simultaneously making Jurassic Park and how they're actually the same movie. There's this eccentric businessman who's trying to save those who are utterly different from himself, imprisoned in this artificial environment with barbed wire. And there's so many scenes in that movie where they're hiding from the predator. It's like exactly the same scene.

But anyway, yes, this is what I say, people tell stories about dead Jews that make them feel better about themselves. I've now sort of actually been doing a project about American Holocaust education and I've been researching this and traveling around the country and looking at museums and speaking with educators. And there's this whole story about upstanders, which is the opposite of a bystander, this is this lingo they've come up with. And it's like you said, righteous gentiles. And the purpose of these museums is training people to be upstanders. And the problem is like, yeah, it’s important to honor what righteous gentiles did. Unfortunately, they're statistically insignificant, as are stories of Holocaust survival.

Saj: I don't know what Spielberg would say, but what if he were to retort, "I know how to get millions of people in a theater. That’s why I focused on a non-Jew. A film like Schindler's List brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust to the masses. And if you didn't select a positive story about a non-Jew, maybe they never would've really seen the whole story. So, why knock it?

Dara: Because this is a movie with no Jewish characters. And if you look it up online, Jewish movies about Jews, this is the number one film and there are no Jewish characters in that movie.

Saj: What do you mean? There are a lot of Jewish characters.

People Love Dead Jews is basically the implication is that non-Jewish societies are only comfortable with Jews if Jews have no agency. In Schindler’s List, there are no Jewish characters who have agency.

Dara: Even Ben Kingsley. Ben Kingsley has five lines in that movie. This movie is an arena for the rivalry between these two non-Jewish characters, this Nazi henchman and Schindler and everyone else is a prop. There are no Jewish characters who have agency in this film at all. That is the way that non-Jews are comfortable seeing Jews. My title of my book, People Love Dead Jews is basically the implication is that non-Jewish societies are only comfortable with Jews if Jews have no agency. Whether that means they're politically impotent or dead. It is okay for Jews to not have agency. And that's why that movie was successful.

There's this sort of notorious screenwriting book called Save the Cat. There's this screenwriting trick where 15 minutes into the movie, you show the protagonist saving a cat, being kind to an animal, helping a little kid, doing something nice for an old lady. And that's supposed to make you, as the audience, get on the side of the protagonist where he's one of the good guys saving the cat.

The problem with Schindler’s List is that the Jews are not the heroes of that movie. The Jews are the cat who get saved by someone else. And that is the only way it's acceptable to be Jewish in a non-Jewish society.

Saj: You once posed the question of whether antisemitism is really a problem that Jews are responsible to solve.

Dara: We can't fix this. I don't think this should be our job.

Saj: Why not?

Dara: I'm not saying Holocaust education isn't important, but this should not be our job. We can't fix this problem. Non-Jews have to fix this problem. We cannot do it. The only way we can fix this problem is basically protect ourselves. I mean, this is a mental virus that we need to protect ourselves from non-Jewish societies that unfortunately get infected with this virus. So, yes, self-defense, okay. But short of that, that's isn't a problem we can fix. This has to be a change in a non-Jewish society.

We can't fix antisemitism. Non-Jews have to fix it. All we can do is basically protect ourselves.

What's implied in your question is that Holocaust education prevents antisemitism. That is also implied in the vast enterprise of American Holocaust education for the past 50 years. It was sort of like, if you look at the roots of American Holocaust education in the 1970s, beginning, it comes from survivor communities. If you look at the example of the attempted Nazi march on Skokie in 1977 where it was this American Nazi party applied to march in their uniforms through this Jewish community that had a huge number of Holocaust survivors. And basically it became this law court case and basically the law sided with the Nazis because of the First Amendment.

They ended up not marching in Skokie for other reasons, because of the political backlash. But what eventually happened was the survivors in that community were sort of like, "Well, what can the law do to protect people from antisemitism?" The answer actually turns out to be not much. But so then that's when you have the community pivoting to education as a way of changing society.

The problem is, if you look at when all these museums are built in the 1990s and you start having state mandates for Holocaust education, that's 30 years ago. Rates of antisemitism in the United States are, no matter how you measure it, no matter whose statistics you use, it's much higher now than it was when these museums were built 30 years ago.

So, it's a legitimate question to ask. Is this working? I've spent the past about five or six months researching this. Where are the data? I can tell you there are no data and the data that do exist are not encouraging in terms of Holocaust education preventing antisemitism.

Saj: If somebody were to give you $10 million to help the Jewish people, how might you spend it?

Dara: On Jewish education for Jews and non-Jews. I'm going to give an example. Think about what it says in a high school history textbook about Jews, world history textbook. If the book has ancient history in it, there might be a page near the beginning about the Israelites. It doesn't mention that those people are Jews, they're people who died a long time ago. Who cares? There might as well be Phoenicians. And also there's a much bigger chapter about the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. By the way, all the people who persecuted the Jews, but let's put that over here. Yeah. There's a paragraph about the Israelites. They're dead a long time ago. Who cares?

If it's a book that has modern history in it, there's probably a chapter toward the end about the Holocaust. So, from this, we learn that Jews are people who got murdered. Their murders are there to teach us some lesson about humanity. There's nothing in between and there's nothing after. And this is an erasure of Jewish civilization.

And you could say, "Oh, well. Jews are such a tiny population. We don't have a lot of information in there about the Yazidis either." I'm like, "Okay, except that the Yazidis are not foundational to the history of the West." Judaism is foundational to the history of the West. You cannot understand Christianity, Islam, the whole history of the West. None of it makes sense without the foundation of Jewish culture.

Why are we not teaching that? Why are we allowing ourselves to be erased from this world history textbook?

Saj: Do you have an answer as to why antisemitism is so prevalent?

Dara: Why do people think this is so complicated? This isn't a big mystery. People want to blame their problems on somebody else. People will do absolutely anything to blame their problems on others. That's all. It's not hard.

Saj Freiberg: Why us in particular?

Dara Horn: Why were you waiting for this meeting? "Oh, I was caught in traffic." I'm like, "Well, I mean, it's not a big secret that there's traffic at this time of day. You actually could have left your house 10 minutes earlier, but you're going to blame someone else." Everybody else can lay their problems on somebody else. This isn't hard.

Saj: But I think you would agree that something about the intensity and the quality of Jew hatred stands out. I mean, it is a unique hatred in some ways.

Dara: I used to think that, but actually what's interesting to me is since I published this book, I've found that there's actually many people from other minority groups have reached out to me and have said to me things like, "You're speaking my language." And I've done these kinds of interviews with media outlets, with other minority community. I've also done these interviews with Christian TV and stuff like that, which is a different conversation. I've done general interest media stuff.

But I no longer think that this is so unique because my readers have told me that it's not. Readers from other minority communities are like, "This is the same dynamic." I even remember a woman who contacted me who's a principal of a high school in Western Canada that's mostly indigenous students. And she wanted to bulk order this book for her school. I'm like, "I could think of better ways for you to spend your money." But she was like, "This is what my students are dealing with. And they don't have the language for it."

The piece of it that's unique is the longevity. And that's because this is one of the only surviving groups from the ancient world of all those people.

And that also confuses people because it's hard to compare it with other groups because it doesn't resemble other groups. I'll do these college events and people will ask me these tedious questions like, "Oh, are Jews white or Jews a religion, or Jews a race, or Jews of nationality?" And I'm like, "Here's the problem with those questions. Jews predate all of those categories. Jews predate the modern concept of race. Jews predate the modern concept of nationality."

To find out more about our upcoming event with Dara Horn in Manhattan on Dec. 6th  please fill out this short form.

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