Jewish holidays generally follow a formula: someone tried to kill us, they didn’t, we eat. It’s currently Passover for the Jews and this holiday is no different. It’s not among the high holidays, the most sacred of Jewish holidays, and yet Passover is the platonic ideal of the Jewish holiday. It recalls the time when the Jews were slaves in Egypt1, were attacked while leaving, survived four decades of dessert-meandering hardships, and then were fine for a while. The seder, which literally translates to “order” and is the traditional meal eaten during the first night or two of the holiday, is structured around retelling this story year after year. As you can imagine, this can become pretty tedious, and one way of dealing with this is that many people try to tie current events into their discussions and dinners. That way the subject is fresh each year, depressing in a new and pertinent way again and again!
With the current tide of antisemitism rising, it’s easy for Jews to get stuck in a vortex of navel-gazing and fear. Living as a Jew in the diaspora comes with a certain amount of paranoia, healthy or not, and when politicians and certain media outlets make that paranoia warranted and justified, latching onto it can become pretty tempting. I’d be lying if sort of outreach and empathy was what I was thinking of going into Passover, but it’s where I ended up. Because by coincidence, I fell down a tumblr hole and landed on How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope. At first I was fascinated because it seemed to be a much more literal “bread of affliction”, or at least breading of affliction. But then as I read the history of the stereotype, I came to realize that the Jews have a much more similar, and recent, analog to this weaponization of an imposed custom.
The article describes the history of fried chicken and watermelon, and how it came to be a racial stereotype signifying laziness and lack of civility. The short of it is that fried chicken was eaten with hands rather than utensils. This was then used as a visual shorthand for savagery. Watermelons were brought over from southern Africa and were grown on the small amounts of land slaves were sometimes allowed to cultivate. They were available, had a high water content, and grew in poor soil. After emancipation, watermelons were sometimes sold by black people and whites turned it into a symbol of immaturity and laziness. Their very means of earning a living were used as a weapon against black people.
This is actually something I’ve seen used before, against the Jews. In the middle ages in Europe, there were often restrictions against profiting from interest on loans. The rub was that this applied between Christians, and so the door for Jews to ascend to middle class status was pushed open a bit to allow them to lend money and eventually work in banking. Of course, when all loans with interest are handled by one group then all of the problems stemming from that interest are seen to originate with said group. And thus the stereotype of the greedy Jewish banker, an image that has lasted to this day.
My point isn’t to compare these specific instances of oppression and racism, but to point out that there is a long and horrid history of oppressors forcing people into a role in society and then using that image against them. Passover isn’t just about Jews navel-gazing and contemplating our own history of hardships and maltreatment; it’s about looking at cruelty and injustice as it thrives in today’s world. It’s not just “this happened to us, let’s not forget it”, but “this happened to us, and is still happening somewhere in the world”.
I can’t stand the phrase “it’s a stereotype for a reason”. I’ve heard it said too many times, too earnestly. If there does seem to be a kernel of truth to a stereotype, it’s usually because it was enforced by an oppressive group at some point, and the echoes of that survive to this day. Black people and watermelon, Jews and banking. Even now, the wage gap is contested because women tend not to occupy lucrative corporate jobs at high levels in significant numbers, but that’s because there’s a long tradition of women not having these jobs. Islam is seen as a violent religion, but the truth of the matter that between the Jewish bible, Christian bible, and Quran, the Quran is the least violent text.
Killing and destruction are referenced slightly more often in the New Testament (2.8%) than in the Quran (2.1%), but the Old Testament clearly leads—more than twice that of the Quran—in mentions of destruction and killing (5.3%).
Even looking at it on a practical level, rather than just texts, white supremacists and other domestic extremists are a much larger threat to life and safety. Yet the stereotype persists.
The injustice I’m looking at this Passover is that of self-perpetuating hate. We all have opinions and experience that leave us predisposed to look at people in certain ways. But those predispositions are skewed due to how we’re treated, such as disadvantages and privileges. If someone has ever thought “it’s a stereotype for a reason”, perhaps part of that reason is due to a system placed upon that type of person. And if someone is in the position to look down on them for it, it’s worth considering that it may be because of an inherited, elevated status. In that case, it’s worth stepping down to help, rather than continuing to feed that superiority from unwarranted heights.