I was told yesterday by her friend Melissa Witham, that Tricia Roth had died.
She had set up a support group for Jews experiencing antisemitism. I had helped her a bit, mainly by talking through some relevant issues with her, and also by publicizing her group around our networks and helping people to get in touch.
She was a life long feminist. The story of how she became focused on the issue of antisemitism resonated with me because it is always the same story. Jews understand antisemitism when it reaches into a place where they thought they were at home, and they find out that they are not at home in that place.
Tricia’s home had been the feminist movement. She was active in the movement in California for decades. I wish I could remember her story more clearly and I wish I knew it in more detail. She told me that she had, with a colleague, presented a regular show on a feminist radio station in California. One day they had a guest on their show who turned out to be unperson according to antizionist orthodoxy. I don’t remember who it was, maybe it was Phyllis Chesler?
That was how the feminist movement shifted from being her home to being a site of struggle for Tricia.
I need to write that book. I need to write the book of stories of Jews who had thought they were at home but who discovered they were not. If you want to understand the pull of Zionism, understand these stories. Understand the hunger for a place where we can just feel at home.
I met a woman once in Czech, whose father, a fighter pilot, had got out of mainland Europe and spent the Second World War flying missions from the UK, fighting Hitler. In 1945 he had returned home to Czechoslovakia to build socialism. In 1951, Slansky was hanged with ten Jewish colleagues and this woman’s father was put in the uranium mines. Unlike the other families, she and her mother had no support networks while their loved ones were in the gulag; because the Czech Jews had been killed during the Holocaust and because the other families, Christian opponents of Communism, had not embraced them. He came out 11 years later with terminal lung cancer.
Other stories are less dramatic. The Jewish women of the Spare Rib collective in England who were driven out as “Zionists” after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And my friends who were driven out of the UCU in 2005.
Tricia’s model for self-help was her experience in the feminist movement. Feminists created spaces where women could talk about their experiences. They were therapeutic. It was healing to experience the solidarity of being with people who could listen and who could understand, and whose stories one could listen to with recognition.
But they also helped to change the world. “The Personal Is The Political” was the slogan. It meant that the injustices experienced by women in their own lives, in their families, with their male partners, in the workplace, in school: they were not just individual hurts but they were also related to the big social structures of gendered power. The things that were hurting women, that felt personal were in fact also political.
But they were still, also, personal. Things that hurt also wound, and wounds do not heal if the hurts keep coming. Women were made to feel that the hurts were their own doing. They were not good enough wives or mothers; or their aspirations to be footballers or scientists or lesbians were inappropriate and were at the root of their unhappiness. And self help groups, and the wider feminist movement, helped individuals, and then millions, and then society as a whole to understand that the wounds that women were suffering from were not due to their own deficiencies but they were due to much bigger and unjust ways of living – ways of forcing human beings into what is sometimes a straitjacket – gender.
This was Tricia’s model for Jewish self-help groups. She wanted them to be primarily spaces for Jewish people who were experiencing antisemitism to look after each other. Spaces where they could recognise in each other’s stories and emotions the same bitter antisemitic exclusions that were generally, angrily and heartlessly denied.
I said she should include non-Jewish victims of antisemitism; people who fought against antisemitism. I think she relented a bit, but I also think that for her, the identity politics aspect was important too.
When a Jewish person experiences antisemitism in the feminist movement, or amongst left and liberal people, or on campus or in Communist Czechoslovakia, they are generally not believed. Indeed, they are generally accused of being part of a Zionist conspiracy to invent antisemitism as a dirty strategy for silencing criticism of Israel and for legitimizing Zionism.
When women complained about having to be isolated housewives, excluded from the public sphere; or about sexual violence, or about reproductive rights, they too were told not only that they were mistaken, and that these injustices were not injustices; but also that they themselves were responsible for making them happen. These women were suffering from feminism! If only they accepted their place in the world, if only they could be better women, they’d be fine; but feminism created pain for everybody because it went against the way that human beings ought to live. The movement against injustice was said to be the cause of the injustice.
Well, read Robert Fine, following Hannah Arendt. Sure, there is indeed a history of movements against injustice ending up causing new injustice. The French and Russian revolutions ended not in making things better but in totalitarian terror. Or maybe Henry Kissinger was right, when asked if the French Revolution was a good thing, and he answered that it was too early to tell. Robert Fine said look reality square in the face, hold the struggle against injustice in one hand, and the dangers of the struggle in the other; never taken your eyes off either. Live the critique; but also live the critique of the critique.
But the angry, vulgar, violent responses to feminism were not that; they were a victim blaming defence of millions and millions of miserable and violent injustices.
In the 20th Century, the fury of damaged and hurt human beings found its outlet not in critique of society but in total contempt for it; and in movements where any vigilance about the possible outcomes of that contempt was totally silenced.
In the Nazi movement and in the Stalinist movement that contempt was focused on imaginary conspiracies of people who were imagined to be doing very nicely thank you, at the expense of all of “our” pain. And, because the antisemitic notion of “the Jews” had long constructed a way of visualising, and feeling, those fantasized conspiracies, 20th century totalitarianism tended to focus on “the Jews” as the “enemy of the people”.
Today’s antisemites do what my friend David Seymour taught me antisemites have always done.
They say: ‘Antisemites from the past were disgraceful human beings, inventing conspiracy fantasies about “the Jews”, and taking out their fury on actual Jewish men and women.’
But they also say: ‘What an irony of history! The Jews, who have always been victims of unjust antisemitism, have, in our day, started doing exactly what those antisemites of yesterday accused them of doing!’
So we have new myths, made partly out of reconstituted fragments of old tropes, that say Zionists pervert minds through their control of the media and Hollywood; and that Zionists embrace the practices that symbolize absolute evil: racism, imperialism, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
Tricia took action. Yes, she worked politically against antisemitism, she critiqued it and she resisted it and she subverted it. She did what she could.
But also, she set up a support group, on the model of the groups that had saved her, and countless other women, who had had to suffer in silence the injustices of gender.
I helped her and I encouraged her. But I didn’t go. I didn’t participate. Maybe I should have done. Because I know the relentless hurt of being shown that the place where I thought I was at home is not really my home. A Jewish person can fight for the left, or for academia to be their home; they can insist that it is their home; they can work to transform it back into a home; it can be a home in some respects and at some times and in some dimensions. But it’s not home.
Well, maybe that’s just the nature of home. It’s a myth. You’re never really at home, in the way you yearn to be: in your nation, in your movement, amongst your friends, in your family, in your football club, wherever. Maybe what’s at fault here is our fantasy of home.
Anyway, there is something specific that happens to Jews in ostensibly egalitarian spaces in our time.
I was recently denounced as a ‘far right white supremacist’. Well fine, there are some nasty and some crazy people around, right? Well, no. The person who did that, in public, was elected by our students to speak on their behalf. And she was embraced in solidarity by my own union branch, elected to speak on behalf of my colleagues. And neither distanced themselves from my designation as a Nazi.
Me? Ach, I’m the leader, I’m the tough guy, I’m the guy who shows others what’s happening. How could I go to Tricia’s support group? How could I sit with people and admit how much antisemitism has damaged me? It’s my job to appear undamaged, strong, to show the way forward. No? I build the institution that will fix it. I write the book that will fix it.
And do we not still deny deny deny, and internalize? Maybe the antisemitism is a psychological excuse, maybe I’m just damaged and I attach that to this, because it’s easier and it makes the victim? We are pulled down all the rabbit holes that feminists know, and explored in their movement. Until they were kicked out.
Or maybe I was just afraid to sit with other Jews and to talk about how it feels to be made symbolic of the enemy, in the place where I feel I have a right to be at home. I was afraid to sit in front of my computer, with a Zoom camera on me, and cry, with others watching. I was too busy dealing with the antisemitism. I was Jack Nicholson on the wall, protecting them. I was having fantasies of strength. Maybe it was the feminist ally groups I should have been at, as well as the Jewish ones. To learn to cry, with others, and to heal, as a way of steeling one’s strength.
That was Tricia’s courage. That was the good that she was doing.
I was afraid when, out of nothing, totally unexpectedly, I learnt of Tricia’s death.
I was afraid because the memory of Pete Newbon and Evelyn Gans flooded straight back; Pete, who had committed suicide after being bullied for his work against Corbynite antisemitism and after the university where he worked failed to show him that he was at home there and Evelyn, who had committed suicide after lifetime of scholarly work, trying to make sense of Auschwitz, where her father had been corralled, and contemporary society’s memory of Auschwitz, where the poison was still alive.
But Tricia was not my third friend to die in that way. She died of natural causes, suddenly, only a few weeks after she had nursed her elderly mother through a long dying process.
But like with the other two, I wish I had paid more attention to her than I did, I wish I had taken the opportunity, while it was there, to learn more from her, I wish I had been kinder and more respectful while she was alive; I wish I had found more time for her.
Tricia was more like my other friends, involved in fighting antisemitism, who have died recently: Norman Geras, Robert Fine, Ronald Eisens, Suzette Bronkhorst, Esti Webman. And David Cesarani and Robert Wistrich, who I knew less well.
But maybe this is just about my own mortality. When you get old, you start seeing people around you die.
Tricia is remembered with fondness and respect; for her warmth and her courage; and because she acted. She built something which I hope can endure into the future, after her own life is over.
If you’d like to attend Tricia’s group, contact Melissa Witham.
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