When the Pogrom Comes, Can I Afford to Leave?
Israel and Ghenia Marsalik—one set of my maternal great-grandparents—came to America on a cruise ship. It was the early 1930s, before the camps and quotas. They were very lucky to get out early, and to be able to travel in style. We have no idea what happened to 90 percent of the family members who stayed behind in Eastern Europe, but Izzy and Jenny got out of Belz Bessarabia and made it to Philadelphia. That’s why I’m here writing this today.
Izzy and Jenny’s children joined the army, taught at schools, and got married young; their grandchildren, including my mother, are doctors, physical therapists, and education specialists—firmly middle class. But things changed for my family when the Great Recession hit in 2008—over the course of several years, my parents were regularly hired and laid off from their blue- and pink-collar jobs. They worked incredibly hard to make sure my brother and I grew up in as stable an environment as possible; we were lucky to always have food on the table, and we were able to do fun things like going to the movies. But we didn’t have the kind of Disney-World-once-a-year disposable wealth that was common in our neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. I’ve never even seen a cruise ship like the one my ancestors used to immigrate across the Atlantic, much less boarded one.
Something else that sticks with me from my lower-middle-class upbringing is a pathological resistance to buying shoes built to last. Terry Pratchett describes this better than I ever could in his theory of socioeconomic unfairness—the general gist is that a rich man can afford to buy expensive, sturdy boots upfront, while a poorer man can only afford cheaper material. The poorer man with the weaker shoes has to replace them five times as often, and poverty ends up being more expensive than economic stability.
My experience of white, American, bootstrap capitalism and my fear of spending money usually drowns out my intergenerational Jewish trauma, which alerts me to be ready to escape to safety at a moment’s notice. But I live in a United States where antisemitic incidents are on the rise, the president keeps insisting American Jews actually originate from Israel, and COVID-19 has restricted everyone's travel options. In this environment, my inner voice telling me to be ready to flee—likely the result of epigenetics—keeps getting louder and more urgent. I wonder if I'll know when or if I need to leave. And if I do need to leave, will I be able to afford it?
There’s been a lot of internet chatter recently about leaving the United States. White, wealthy people insisting they’ll just move to Canada if Trump is reelected for a second term have been reasonably called out. The ability to peace out on the white-supremacist, proto-fascist system they’ve spent their whole lives ignoring, feeding, and perpetuating is a privilege.
In January 2020, journalist Amanda E. Machado wrote about “American passport privilege,” or the unfettered ability to live or travel pretty much anywhere in the world—if one has the desire, and that all-important financial and social privilege. But COVID-19 has complicated the passport privilege; the list of countries where Americans are welcome to travel right now is staggeringly short. The pandemic has also presented a new way for predominantly white, rich Americans to expatriate in their own country—just look at how the wealthy fled New York City for the suburbs at the beginning of the pandemic. As with immigration, it is wealth that has determined whether or not Americans can afford to keep themselves and their families safe in this viral moment.
In her article, Machado contrasts the derogatory “immigrant” classification reserved for any combination of the non-white, non-English-speaking, non-Christian Other with the term “expat,” usually bestowed upon wealthy Americans who choose to “live abroad.” I hear that, and I think about Trump telling American Jews that he loves “your country,” meaning Israel, not the United States, and I wonder about how modern American Jews would be perceived by other places in the event of another necessary mass exodus. Would we be immigrants, like when we arrived at Ellis Island? Would we be expats? Refugees? Would the answer depend on the size of our bank accounts, and on the way we arrived in our new home: by foot, by aircraft, by aircraft carrier, or by cruise ship?
Or, regardless of our access to wealth, would we all be lumped together, tokenized, demonized? Race, ethnic, and class status impact the way you are perceived by the larger public when you arrive in a new country; the US president shows no more love for the plane-dwelling visa-seekers from seven “Muslim countries” he banned from entering the country at the beginning of his term than he shows for the overwhelmingly poor migrants who journey on foot to the Mexican border wall. There is no way to know whether American Jews in any wealth bracket would receive that same dehumanizing treatment if forced to move elsewhere.
In this moment of incumbent fascism and great uncertainty, what are American Jews to do other than consider our options? Many (but certainly not all) of us benefit from white privilege, and may remain semi-anonymous to the rising number of people who hate us. We’re also perceived as financially stable, mostly because of stereotype, but research has shown that up to 30 percent of American Jewish households are not. I wonder if a world consumed by the belief that Jews control the banks could even conceive of a poor Jew, much less have sympathy for one, or take one in in their time of need—and I wonder if popular media hasn’t inexorably conflated American Jewish issues with the Israeli imperial problem, and made Israel’s crimes shorthand for why it’s okay for the rest of the country not to engage with American antisemitism.
I am an American Jew with American Jewish problems that have nothing to do with Israel; I’m more worried about synagogue attacks, the president’s refusal to condemn white supremacy, and scary, government-endorsed conspiracies. My Judaism also does not preclude me from experiencing American problems, like low wages, and food insecurity, and the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic.
My great-grandparents knew when it was time to leave. They arrived in an America that was not exactly welcoming, but at least wasn’t fully adversarial. I wonder and worry about if there will be a place like that for me. And will I have the right shoes to get there safely?
How to cite this page
Leiber, Sarah Jae. "When the Pogrom Comes, Can I Afford to Leave?." 2 November 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/when-pogrom-comes-can-i-afford-leave>.