My grandmother loves to tell stories. She grew up poor in the heart of Philadelphia, but her tales, replete with Indian princesses and stunning young sailors, have always reflected optimism. Which was why I was taken by surprise one morning—over bagels and the Sunday paper, of course—when she described her freshman year at Penn State University. Schools at that time imposed strict quotas for Jews, so there was only one other Jewish girl on her floor. As my grandmother and her friend wandered around campus, they would often feel eyes at their backs; when they chatted with their Christian floor-mates, they always sensed that they were being inspected. Finally, my grandmother asked what was so beguiling. One of the girls asked, “Where do you two hide your tails? We know you Jews have them—we’ve all seen them in pictures.”
To me, the most unsettling part of her story was not its content, but the natural and unaffected tone she maintained while telling it. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have been taken aback: this sort of misunderstanding, egregious though it may have been, as commonplace in the 1940s. The deliberate misrepresentation of Jews—for political gain, or simply to alienate a minority religion—capitalized on the widespread anti-Semitism of the World War II era to make lies into mainstream “truth.” But how are intelligent, decent young men and women made to believe that Jews have the horns and tails of devils? bell hooks, author of “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life,” would smile knowingly at my disbelief, for she understands that images are much more than pictures—they are tools for persuasion, and ultimately for control.
Images, according to hooks, have a powerful ability to define. “Such,” she writes, “is the power of the photograph, of the image, that it can give back and take away, that it can bind” (56). Some pictures epitomize a sentiment so perfectly that they become eternal: two strangers spontaneously kiss in the street as the end of war is announced, and they are immortalized. Other depictions, because they embody an ideology that the powerful wish to promote, are ubiquitous in a more sinister way. This is the realm of blackface theatre—and of Nazi propaganda. A well-crafted image placed in the right hands can become a symbol of solidarity, leading to respect or even mutual admiration; in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc across borders and across generations.
If a picture speaks a thousand words, then people attempting to pry equality from the hands of the oppressor must first create authentic images to defend against false representations: That is the conclusion bell hooks reaches in her examination of the struggle for black empowerment. She contends that the ability to create “images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye” (64) is paramount for those who wish to defeat racism. Even the fight for equal access (desegregation) was in some ways a distracting battle in the quest for true enfranchisement of and respect for black culture. The real power that white people always had, and still retain, is the ability to, as Roger Wilkins writes, “define reality where blacks are concerned and to manage perceptions and therefore arrange politics and culture to reinforce those definitions” (58). To overcome prejudice and racism, minorities must fight on the representational, image-based war front.
While hooks applies her claims exclusively to the realm of photography, they are even more unsettling when applied to false images that have been deliberately generated to persuade or to distort—images depicting Jewish shopkeepers with false scales or Jewish lawyers advocating for demons. In Europe, images such as these were made pervasive as part of a move to discredit Jewry. They accompanied a dramatic increase in public anti-Semitism, which manifested in verbal, then political, and finally in physical assault. In America, prejudice and discrimination were far subtler but just as distressing: many of the restrictions on Jewish life that the Nazis codified—the exclusions from schools, jobs, even restaurants—were already in place in a less systematic but no less real way for American Jews. On either side of the Atlantic, it was not easy to be a Jew in the World War II era; perhaps by considering hooks’ theories about representational politics, we can begin to see why.
I don’t mean to contend that the prejudice my grandmother encountered was the direct result of a smear campaign an ocean away, however well-organized it may have been. Most Americans had never seen Nazi propaganda, and even if they had, it is unlikely that they would have heeded it, since Americans and Germans were sworn enemies. But although the images were not a factor in America, the imagery was the same; Jews were still sly devils, villainous, not to be trusted around children. Thus, the examination of propaganda both provides an extreme example of how representation inflects anti-Semitism, and helps explain how my grandmother found herself in the uncomfortable position of explaining her highly conventional backside.
In the beginning of the black liberation movement in the United States, hooks writes, “the issue of representation—control over images—was never as important as equal access” (57). The focus for the civil rights activists was for the most part turned away from changing the “conventional, even stereotypical, modes of representing blackness” because the expansion of legal entitlements was broadcast as a universal elixir for solving black America’s problems (hooks 58). Once legal equality was established, the tune went, blacks would be free to prove themselves the equals of whites, and misrepresentation would no longer be an issue. Blacks were lulled into a false sense of security, and realized too late that equal rights did not mean economic or social equality. Thus, “racial integration [created] a crisis in black life”—victory had already been declared, but the fight had barely begun, leading to a critical lapse in vigilance (hooks 58).
Jews made a similar mistake in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power. As the anti-Semitic images began to appear on windows and in schools, Jews were understandably disturbed but did nothing: after all, they were “just” pictures. The representational battle was forfeited, and the Nazis were free to misconstrue Jewry as they pleased. In an already anti-Semitic culture, they took their slander to disastrous extremes: posters of Jewish butchers putting rats into their meat gave way to images of Jews feeding Christian babies to the grinder. When the Nazis put their Final Solution into effect, the public stood by; it was easy, natural even, to allow Jews to be treated like animals after being conditioned with images of Jews as dirty rats.
If European Jews realized too late that “representation remains a crucial realm of struggle,” perhaps American Jews did not realize it at all, for it manifested in less physical, but no less objectionable, ways (hooks 58). After all, no prison camps awaited my grandmother, no Gestapo hunted her—and yet it was common knowledge that she was the spawn of the devil. Unlike blacks, American Jews had always been grudgingly accommodated into the mainstream—for all the signs that read “No Jews, No Dogs,” for all the insinuations of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, Jews still voted, held office, and succeeded in business and politics. Since anti-Semitism was more muted in America than in Europe, Jews ignored the way they were misconstrued; according to hooks, this was the fundamental problem. When the rights of blacks were even marginally respected, hooks writes, they were more willing to “perfect the [black] image for a white-supremacist gaze,” and their subjugation continued in a subtler manner (62). For my grandmother, this meant putting up with prejudice and ignorance because she was one of the lucky ones—after all, she was let into college in the first place.
But I am not willing to settle for a reluctant indulgence of my people, to let old bigotry hide under the glossy surface of modern religious tolerance. hooks believes that the only way to disprove hegemonic images is to counter with authentic images—for the sake of outsiders, who do not know the truth, and for insiders, who forget it. Through the use of cameras, she writes, “The degrading images of blackness that emerged from racist white imagination and that were circulated widely in the dominant culture […] could be countered by “true-to-life” images” (59). I am still skeptical about applying this statement to Jews, even when considering means of representation other than photography. We have always known what we stand for and we need no internal “sites of resistance” to remember it: my grandmother attended synagogue despite the difficulties of being labeled as a Jew (59). We are tied to our history, our heritage, and are proud participants in our community—this is why we have survived centuries of pogroms and inquisitions. But hooks continues “As we looked at black skin in snapshots, the techniques for lightening skin that professional photographers often used […] were suddenly exposed as a colonizing aesthetic,” and this does ring true (61-62). As Jews assimilate into American society, we are becoming more and more secular, Christian even, and are losing the rich culture of Yiddish language and Klezmer music that used to define us. We are learning to identify more with “colonial ways of looking [at] and capturing […the] ‘other'” than with genuine representation of Jews “in our glory” (62, 54).
This was as true sixty years ago as it is today. Jews were taught, through enormous social pressure, to distance themselves from our past and from the tightly knit Jewish community that had always been our bulwark. We were tolerated only in the degree to which we were able to pretend to be a part of the Christian world—to hide our tails, in a sense. We allowed mainstream culture to “frame us within an image of racial hierarchies” (although here, it was a religious hierarchy) that forced us to constantly justify and defend our differences; finally, it became easier to simply blend in (hooks 62). My grandmother speaks Yiddish, but my father does not, and I know far less even than him. There is a dire need for Jews to produce an authentic representation of our past that embraces our culture unapologetically.
In World War II-era Europe, the stakes were higher: the means of separating Jews from their foundations were far more extreme, and the result of doing so was far more disastrous. As the Nazis began so blanket the streets with anti-Semitic propaganda, Jews (especially the less religious) distanced themselves from their roots in order to distance themselves from the damaging lies. In cities across Europe, the Jewish Quarters, once full of laughter and the music of accordions and clarinets, slowly fell silent. Jews lost cohesion, they lost faith in their traditions, and when the Nazis came they were divided and vulnerable. Jews were in desperate need of “a means […] by which an oppositional standpoint could be asserted, a mode of seeing different from that of the dominant culture”, a means of affirming their irrefutable worth as humans and as a people (hooks 59). Let me be clear: the Holocaust was the result of European bigotry, fear and indifference, not the failure of Jews to meet Nazi propaganda with Jewish counter-propaganda. However, perhaps the Jews would have been a little less complacent, and the rest of Europe a little less complicit, if Jews had better respected our way of life and defended it against the onslaught of misrepresentation. The Nazis’ ultimate legacy is not the impossible extent of their cold-blooded murders—it is that, decades after their “defeat,” the Jewish Quarters still lie silent.
Although hooks writes that “All colonized and subjugated people […] recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle,” it is not so clear that Jews in either Europe or America reached the same conclusion in the 1940s (57). European Jews failed to realize the importance of actively promulgating a view of Jewry as a rich, worthy, and, above all, human culture, and paid the ultimate price for their indifference. In America, Jews felt lucky in comparison, and thus did little as prejudice in its more insidious forms took root. Gradually, the very culture of Judaism eroded, leading one to wonder: on what, exactly, did my grandmother stake herself? The answer to that is the challenge for modern Judaism. Perhaps, as hooks believes, photographs and pictures are the answer, but a picture cannot capture the strength of unity, the depth of culture, the proud history that being Jewish encompasses—we need more. Jewish culture is full of goodness: in their purest forms, our sense of community is enviable, our music is profound, and our ethical traditions are full of hope, idealism and a sense of world citizenship. Jews need to remember all this, to embrace it without shame or restraint; we must ourselves become the living image of the way we wish to be remembered and perceived. When we learn to wear our tails openly and with pride, they will cease being tails and will transform into marks of distinction.
hooks, bell. “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New Press, 1995. 54-64.