In her provocatively titled book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, author Dara Horn delves into the notion that the world prefers stories about Jewish tragedy, like the Holocaust, rather than addressing the very real and current rise of antisemitism. “The central problem the book is exploring is the role dead Jews play in a wider society’s imagination,” says Horn.
The book’s origin stems from a request by Smithsonian Magazine to write about an incident at the Anne Frank Museum regarding a Jewish employee who was not allowed to wear his yarmulke to work. The story is documented in the first of 12 essays, and the book was inspired by requests Horn received in the wake of the Tree of Life mass murder in Pittsburgh. “It occurred to me what my editors and these magazines wanted me to write about was dead Jews,” she says. But it was precisely the challenge to explore a difficult issue that led to the book’s concept. “There’s something that happens when you’re a writer that the moments that are uncomfortable are where the story is.”
Another topic touched upon in the book is Holocaust education. It is one Horn has written about most recently in an article in The Atlantic that suggests Holocaust education is making antisemitism in this country worse. “There are a lot of people who that’s what they know about Jews, that Jews were murdered in the Holocaust,” she says. But what about the broader experience of being Jewish? “There’s a lot of places with mandated education about the Holocaust. But there is no mandate for learning about who Jews are.” She says while the focus on the Holocaust is well intentioned, it leads to ignorance about the broader story about living Jews and Jewish life.
The books focus is not specifically on the Holocaust, however. Horn makes clear this is merely one aspect of what she views as exploitation of a broad Jewish narrative in this country. “There’s basically two threads that go through the book,” she says, “One is that people tell stories about dead Jews that make them feel better about themselves. The other thread is that living Jews have to erase themselves in order for those stories to get told, and in order for them to gain respect.”
A prime example of the erasure Horn speaks about is the essay dealing with Jewish Heritage Sites. “This is a brilliant marketing term that the travel industry has come up with,” she says, “It’s ingenious because it sounds so much better than ‘property seized from dead or expelled Jews.’ Who wants to go to that on their vacation?” She spent time in the city of Harbin in
northeastern China, built by Russian Jews in the late 1800s when the Russian government wanted to expand the Trans-Siberian Railroad. “They needed Russian speaking entrepreneurs to build this town for them, but who wants to move to Manchuria?” Horn explains the idea formed to offer the opportunity to Jews, under the guise of providing a chance to escape the daily reality of living with antisemitic restrictions underway in Russia. Twenty thousand Jews moved there to build the infrastructure.
As Horn tells it, the plan did not end well for the Jews. Today only one Jew, an Israeli, lives in Harbin. And some fifteen years ago, the provincial government decided to invest $30 million in restoring Jewish heritage sites in the hope of restoring economic prosperity to the town. At an economic conference there, the mayor gave a speech expressing admiration for “Jews” like J.P Morgan and Nelson Rockefeller, neither of whom is Jewish. To drive home the point, Horn says, “In case this is too subtle, he says, ‘The money of the world is in the pockets of the Jews, and this is the great testament to Jewish wisdom.’”
Horn’s direct, take no prisoners style is evident in her writing and in her spoken delivery. “I’ve gotten bolder as I’ve gotten older, which is true of a lot of people,” she says, “I’ve got four children, nothing can scare me.” But on a more serious note, Horn believes her writing is merely a reflection of what she sees. “I just feel like I’m saying things that are obvious.”
Although one might assume Horn’s readers are exclusively, or mainly, Jewish, she says her readers span a much broader spectrum, something she did not always expect. “The one thing that has been encouraging about this book is how it is received by non-Jewish readers.” But she says she is equally disturbed by how this book is received by Jewish readers. “My Jewish readers all tell me the exact same thing. ‘I’ve felt uncomfortable my whole life and I didn’t know why. This book articulated that for me, thank you.’” She says these exchanges are usually followed up with a personal, never before told story of antisemitism they’ve experienced. She says these are not violent things that are happening, but rather small, benign, everyday instances of what popular culture might call “microaggressions.”
Horn was recently invited to participate in a White House task force on antisemitism and participated in a United Nations event on the topic, and says she believes people are desperate for answers about how to deal with and eliminate it. “What I feel is missing from these conversations is any interest in living Jewish culture and in Jews alive today.” She says, for example, when a celebrity says something antisemitic, the immediate reaction is to educate them about the Holocaust, rather than to invite them for a Shabbat dinner. And she says that while an argument can be made that Jews are such a small portion of the world population, and not the only small, marginalized group, there is a much bigger issue. “Jews are not bit players in the history of the West. Jews are foundational to the development of Western civilization. You cannot understand Western civilization without understanding Judaism.”
Horn will speak about all the above topics and more on May 16 at 7:00pm at The Temple, as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville’s “Shine a Light on Antisemism” series. For more information, and to register, visit www.jewishnashville.org/darahorn. And to hear more of the interview with Dara Horn, listen to the podcast on Amazon Music, or at www.jewishobservernashville.org.