Lessons from the Dan Burros Story

Daniel Burros was born in a Jewish family in the Bronx, attended Hebrew School and was Bar Mitzvahed in 1950. He enlisted in the US Army in 1955, but was dismissed after a series of suicide attempts. In one of those suicide attempts, he left a note praising Adolf Hitler.

Following his discharge from the Army, he joined the American Nazi Party. Some of his fellow Party members suspected he was Jewish and distrusted him. New York Times' investigative reporter John McCandlish Phillips found out about his background and made it public. Not long after the article was published, Burros committed suicide, succesfully this time, on October 31, 1965.

While the story itself shows a pathological self-hate, the underlying story can be useful. Burros grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when Antisemitism was mainstream in America and when the American Nazi Party spoke for more than his formal members, and took inspiration from Father Coughlin, who broadcasted antisemitic rethoric in the 1930s until he was banned in 1939. Burros lived at a time and in a society in which being Jewish closed many doors. He felt as an outsider, even as he longed to belong. In such situation you have two choices:

Choice 1: You create your own place of belonging with people who share your feelings. One example I can mention with which I am familiar is the blooming of the JCCs in America. Another one is from my native city of Buenos Aires: In the 1930s, a Jewish wave of immigration from Germany and Austria came to Argentina. Some of them wished to join the Teutonia Rowing Club (a German ethnic-cultural group) but were barred by the club's policy of "No Jews allowed". They then formed their own rowing club and named after the Jewish rowing Club of Viena, "Hacoaj", in 1936. There are many other examples in which Jews created heir own social environments when rejected by the general society. One could argue that the birth of the Borscht Belt is another such case, as is Beverly Hills in California.

Choice 2: You accept as true the negative image of Jews projected by society, and you come to hate that stereotype in yourself. Yet at the same time, you cannot let go of your sense of belonging with the Jews. The struggle between self-loathing and the positive feelings evoked by your heritage and your family, can lead you to extremes - it distorts your mind to the point of anything, including suicide.

Of course, Burros lived in a different era, when Jews were only Jews; many of them immigrants like his parents, more concerned with making a living than making a mark in society. Organized Jewish life as we know it was in its infancy. So how would Choice 2 play out today?

Jewish Identity in America has been deeply transformed since Burros' time. Not only in its content, but also in its centrality for the individual. In Burros' time, being a Jew was for most a defining element - you could not escape it, and it was central to who you were. Today, being a Jew is just one more descriptor of who a person is. It is not longer a central element, but one in a constellation of elements. In addition, while in Burros' time Jewish Identity was defined as a wholistic approach to life, today Jewish Identity is seen as comprising many facets, from which each Jew can pick and choose: Religious observance, ethnic food, Tikkun Olam, Zionism, etc. Each Jew can pick and choose what makes him/her more comfortable and combine the different elements in whichever way it works for him/her. You can be an Orthodox, traditional, anti-Zionist Jew; you can be a Secular, Social Activist, Zionist Jew, You are allowed to pick and combine different aspects of being a Jew. You can also dismiss, without an identity penalty, any aspect of being a Jew which becomes and obstacle or makes you feel uncomfortable.

Now imagine your are a young Jew in America in the twenty first century. You attend college, you feel strongly about Social Justice, and like any young person of college age, you wish to belong and be popular. Which one is your referent in school? The Jewish students? The social activists? The sports nuts? A combination?

If you wish to belong with the activists and be seen as a progressive, you will adopt their language and preferences in order to fit in. When progressives and even professors attack Israel (and not only for its policies) in Campus, you are faced with a similar dilemma to that which Burros faced, but you have different options to resolve the tension between who you are and who you wish to be. You can now side with the Anti-Zionists and even Anti-Semites, without renouncing being a Jew. You become "the Good Jew".

While this may sound as a relatively new situation, it is not. Many years ago, I was having a discussion with a Muslim friend about the status of Jews in Arab and Muslim lands before the existence of Israel. He insisted that Jews were well treated and considered equals as children of Abraham. I pointed out the cases in which Jews were forcibly expelled or converted. He responded by saying that Jews were appreciated and gave the case of Mahmed Effendi in Ottoman times. I would have been intrigued by the story if I didn't know that Mahmed Effendi was the name taken by Sabbatai Zvi upon forced conversion to Islam. I told him the other side of the story, how Zvi was forced to convert. It was an impasse. Each of us remained convinced of our respective positions, even when learning the perspective from the other side of the fence. But that was many years ago and in a different historical and social reality. How would I have reacted today? I was young, activist, secular, Zionist, progressive and Jewish when there was not significant internal tension in that combination. What would I have chosen if I was forced to chose among the different aspects of who I was? I honestly don't know - do you?



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