Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

America is getting dumber by the minute

A kapo in a Nazi concentration camp. Credit: Wikipedia

I have received some pretty nasty insults regarding my Jewish identity in my life.

Anti-Semites have called me “kike,” “sheeny,” “mocky” — and even “bagel bender,” which won the award for creative hatefulness.

More observant Jews have called me a “goy” and “shaygets” (a gentile male). Sometimes, they have referred to the synagogues that I have led as churches. Once or twice, more observant Jews have called me an “apikoris,” which is an ancient, elegant term for a Jew who differs from traditional Jewish theology on certain key points.

I have always taken that one as a badge of honor. After all — if they called Baruch Spinoza an apikoris, who am I to complain?

Bring it on.

But, there is one insult that is getting thrown around a lot these days. And this one is, frankly, over the top.

Here is what happened.

I was in a Facebook discussion with another Jew, and we had a difference of opinion on a matter of Jewish history. He believed that the oppression of Jews in Muslim countries was the worst oppression that Jews have ever endured.

I suggested that, in fact, Jews in Muslim countries often had it better than Jews in Christian countries. Not all the time, of course; the situations of Jews in Muslim lands varied from time to time, and from place to place.

My conversation “partner” went ballistic. He violently disagreed with my historical assessment — which, let the record note, is shared by many significant Jewish historians.

No matter. He ran out of facts.

And so, he called me….a kapo.

What is a kapo?

Do you really need to ask?

The term “kapo” is a dark souvenir from the darkest time of Jewish history. It refers to concentration camp prisoners who were assigned by SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks. If they were derelict, they would return to the status of ordinary prisoners and other kapos would victimize them. Many prisoner functionaries were recruited from the ranks of violent criminal gangs, and they were known to be brutal toward other prisoners. The whole purpose of the system was to turn victim against victim, as the prisoner functionaries were pitted against their fellow prisoners in order to maintain the favor of their SS guards.

In other words, if you have to make a list of the most unsavory, contemptible, and morally compromised Jews in history — the kapo goes to the top of the list.

Now, it is not as if I am alone in being assigned the kapo designation.

Jerusalem Post readers have attacked columnists Gershon Baskin and Uri Savir for espousing pro-peace views. Here’s one particularly lovely one: Let’s put it in simple words even a deluded madman like you or Kapo Baskin can comprehend; ANY JEW WHO WOULD DIVIDE JERUSALEM IS A TRAITOR TO HA’SHEM AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE. KAPO!!!”

And then, there’s the case of Eran Cohen, an undergraduate student at York University in England, who is a candidate for president of the UK’s largest student organization. Cohen supports the BDS movement and has been active in pro-Palestinian student groups. That has earned him the appellation of “kapo.”

I am, decidedly and vocally, absolutely opposed to the BDS movement. And yet, calling someone a “kapo” is simply off the charts.

I want to chalk this up to the general tenor of political discourse in this country, and around the world. One of the casualties of this most recent presidential campaign in the United States is nuance and reasoned argument. It reminds me of a cartoon that recently appeared in the New Yorker. The scene is a game show, “Facts Don’t Matter.” The emcee is saying: “I’m sorry, Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the point.”

And, in fact, this is the way that America is going.

On Wednesday, on NPR, Diane Rehm pressed Scottie Nell Hughes, a frequent surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump and a paid commentator for CNN during the campaign, about Trump’s recent evidence-free assertion on Twitter that he, not Hillary Clinton, would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally.

To which Ms. Hughes declared: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.”

She is right. Once upon a time, the cultural left seemed to have the monopoly on confusing feelings for facts. Now, the right is catching up.

Seriously: do you really think that a difference of opinion on a historical matter — a debatable historical matter — warrants calling your opponent a kapo? Someone who worked for the Nazis in the concentration camps? Someone who was plucked from the lowest levels of society? Someone who, himself or herself, had to make any number of complex, moral choices in order to survive?

Even worse: do those Jews who call other Jews “kapos” actually think that we are now in a situation that is tantamount to the Holocaust? Do they really think that Jews are now in concentration camps?

So much for the stereotype — about Jews being smart. So much for the people who invented reasoned argument, and nuance.

No. Some Jews are actually relishing, and enjoying, and even bragging, about their ability to sink ever lower into the intellectual swamp.


How dare you.









About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • “Anti-semite” has lost its sting, because every justified criticism of the Zionist Israeli government is declared to be anti-semitism. The word is so overused and misapplied as to be useless. Indeed, to be declared “anti-semite” by the Israel Lobby is to be declared a person of high moral conscience.

  • Even in vehement disagreement, one should never descend into vitriolic name calling; Clueless. Baseless. Lacking in facts or evidence, fine. Attacking an opponent’s arguments in the strongest terms is also fine, if one has the evidence to support one’s own point of view. But name calling, vicious hateful vituperation, no never.

  • There’s some truth to this, especially with regard to the current administration in Israel. That’s why it’s so important not to over-correct by ignoring the very real anti-Semitic attitudes that are around.

  • That’s absolutely right.

    I want to add that Facts are absolutely vital to the well-being of the USA. We must act based on what’s Real to survive and especially to thrive. “Dumb” is not cute or funny. It is extremely dangerous here and around the world.

  • My pet peeve, too. Israel is a nation. Excessive criticism of its policies should give you at worst the moniker “anti-Israel”, not anti-semetic, if there is no underlying hate for the religion or its adherents. But in today’s thin-skinned world any critcism, including constructive, gets you labeled a hater, bigot, racist, etc.

  • We’re becoming dumber by the minute because a faceless bureaucracy is the figure-head is running our public schools, while the teachers’ unions call all the shots, including who gets elected to the school board! It keeps being proven that kids can be home-scholed by parents without a high school level education and most will graduate, ranking in the top 70-90 percentile on standardized tests that public school graduates take. This is testimony of the quality of teaching and learning that takes place in public schools

    For students who go on to college without a strong moral grounding from their parents, become precious little snowflakes who major in microaggressions. They’re fed a steady diet of anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-business propaganda by their professors. I read some reasearch recently that the preponderance of college students after four years, did not advance at all in knowledge and critical thinking skills! College seems to have functioned as a really expensive organizer of their social and sexual lives!

    It’s time we quit looking down on those who achieved a good solid high school diploma then went directly to work and kept learning on the job and within their respective industries. They saved a ton of money on ever-rising tuition bills, and their work experience will end up serving as a much better picture of their intelligence and discipline, than those with 4–or six, years of college!

  • Maybe if elite Repubs and some Dems wouldn’t have insisted on killing edu with standardized testing and if we wouldn’t spend so much edu money on america’s stupid concussion ball and so and so….maybe we wouldn’t be so dumb. My point – it’s not just the unions, the bureaucracy… they’re often just implementing the idiocy that gets handed to them from the top… and now it’s going to be even worse with the “very” experience Ms DeVos at the helm… handing down the crazy from on high at unprecedented levels…. Goodness, what a st_p_d country…

  • I respect the concept of “facts,” unfortunately, even when one attempts to be most diligent it is often difficult to determine what exactly the objective facts are. We are drowning in information, mis-information, and downright lies propagated by people whose political or social aims override their commitment to the fact based dissemination of information. This occurs on both the left and right. It is becoming increasingly difficult to sift all the data objectively. At least that is my perception of things.

  • Were spending more money per student than when I was in school and we keep dropping in the world rankings, especially math and science. A recent ranking had 8th grade students ranking 14th. We are obviously doing something wrong and we need a new tack. Throwing money at the problem hasn’t helped. In the last year, our ignorance as a nation has been on display to the world.

  • Our students perform even worse in Math and Science, once they get to high school. They rank somewhere in the mid-20’s in both areas, behind most of the Eastern European countries!

  • I believe Ms. DeVoss offers us some hope by “opening up the market” and making the union-run public schools get serious about improvement because they have to compete for students. We’ve already established good progress with more independent-minded families who choose either charter schooling or home-schooling. Again it never cesase to amaze me that parents with less that a high school diploma homeschool their kids, and most of them end up scoring in the 70-90th percentile!

    The education establishment could throttle back on the standardized testing, but unfortunately it’s still needed. The hard workers who’re still struggling to keep up need to be identified and offered extra help. Before, everyone clammored to teach the “smart kids,” hoping their higher scores would show overall progress when averaged in with the rest. Those struggling kiddos never received the extra help they needed, so they never caught up–most simply dropped out.

  • Blaming the schools and unions exemplifies the real cause for the so-called failure of education, which is the growing unwillingness of parents to accept and teach accountability for their children’s performance. It’s easier to blame someone else than to blame yourself. This is why home-schooling can be more effective, academically speaking: instead of “handing off” their child’s education, the parents willingly accept accountability. But home schooling is neither required for, nor does it guarantee success. The best performing students in public schools are also the ones whose parents stay involved in the education process. And while you are mostly correct about those who achieve success without a college education, I believe you are making some glib and incorrect generalizations about what college actually provides. I suspect you either had a negative college experience, or, more likely, never attended college; in either case, you are unqualified to make such sweeping characterizations of the value of college.