In his recent piece "The Color of His Presidency," Jonathan Chait examines how both sides of the political aisle have used and abused conversations around race - particularly related to our black President - to manipulate public thought about progressive legislation. I disagree with a lot of the piece, namely Chait's implied premise that any conversation around race has led us backwards rather than forwards, and agree with some of it, like how overusing "the race card" (can we get rid of this expression?) undermines liberal arguments for equality. But one aspect of the piece stuck with me as being especially ignorant.
Near the end of his argument, Chait calls upon the conversation around anti-semitism as a point of comparison for the conversation around racism. First of all, such comparisons are essentially useless if your framework for understanding oppression is intersectional and sees each human's experience of oppression as individual. But even I understand that's a high bar for mainstream journalism. Chait in his own words, emphasis mine:
Liberals experience the limits of historically determined analysis in other realms, like when the conversation changes to anti-Semitism. Here is an equally charged argument in which conservatives dwell on the deep, pernicious power of anti-Semitism hiding its ugly face beneath the veneer of legitimate criticism of Israel. When, during his confirmation hearings last year for Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel came under attack for having once said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” conservatives were outraged. (The Wall Street Journalcolumnist Bret Stephens: “The word ‘intimidates’ ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent.”) Liberals were outraged by the outrage: The blog Think Progress assembled a list of writers denouncing the accusations as a “neocon smear.” The liberal understanding of anti-Semitism is an inversion of conservative thinking about race. Liberals recognize the existence of the malady and genuinely abhor it; they also understand it as mostly a distant, theoretical problem, and one defined primarily as a personal animosity rather than something that bleeds into politics. Their interest in the topic consists almost entirely of indignation against its use as slander to circumscribe the policy debate.
Even if we take Chait's point that liberals see anti-semitism as a problem of the past, and use it as justification for taking a stance against Israel, Chait sloppily ignores a crucial added dimension. There is an argument to be made that the pro-Israel stance of the conservative party affirms it as the Jew-friendly party, thereby attracting middle-ground Jewish voters to the conservative fray. This is similar to the way that, Chait notes, "conservatives believe that the true heir to the civil-rights movement and its ideals is the modern Republican Party." Which is at once cynical, effective, and anti-semitic. Treating and manipulating an entire population of people as a single voting bloc gives the appearance of solidarity while actually ignoring the needs and wants of that population..
There's also the added dimension of anti-semitism on the left. Increasingly, lefty politics requires that its members identify strongly as supporters of the oppressed Palestinian people. The issue with this membership requirement has less to do with the moral and ethical imperative to take a stance on the occupation, and more to do with the political fallout of drawing a line in the sand for progressive affiliation. Because as often happens in political debate, those lefty politics manifest as strong anti-Israel sentiment. And as is the norm in American political debate related to Israel, the country of Israel, Israeli Jews, American Jews, and all Jews all over the world are conflated into one fictitious Zionist mob. Anti-semitism is the natural fallout of these un-nuanced conversations regarding Israel that go on every day in radical, progressive, and lefty circles.
Chait's anti-semitism argument is weak and poorly thought out, and he would have done better to have excluded it entirely from the piece. But it challenged me to think about how the particular conflict of anti-semitism in right versus left American politics has created a catch-22 for American Jews seeking a politicized Jewish identity, as well as how implicitly experiencing that anti-semitism has shaped my own identity politics. My position on this is still developing, so this piece will primarily draw from personal experience.
I remember being taught that Palestinians don't exist. I can still hear the snarl in my teacher's voice, thick with Israeli accent, as she cut off a student mid-sentence. "There is no such thing as a Palestinian," she stated. "Israel is for the Israelis, and that is who lives there. That is all." Even at the naive and apolitical age of 10, I could tell her words were laced with chosen ignorance, that strong biases were shaping my still-blurry vision of the world. But I knew nothing else. And so it took me years of advanced public education to unlearn what I had been taught about the Middle East as a young child.
My experiences in a Jewish day school in New York City gave me a strong foundation in Jewish culture, prayer, and (selective, biblical) history. I could read Torah, analyze Old Testament commentary, and speak conversational Hebrew by 7th grade. When I then left for public high school, I had many Jewish friends and was active in my temple youth group. And at Brown, where approximately 25% of the student body is Jewish, my number of Jewish friends increased further still. Suffice it to say that I rarely felt alienated by my Jewish identity throughout my formal education.
In my ongoing self-education and consciousness-raising related to identity politics and oppression, I've thought little about my Jewish identity as an axis of intersectionality. Ciswomanhood, whiteness, queerness, alternative relationship structures, able-bodiedness - those have been the central questions of my critical identity-building thus far. If religion came into play, it was only to identify which parts of my value system are informed by Christo-Judean hegemony or to roll exasperated eyes at the self-righteous self-pitying of White Dude Atheists™. But of course, religion is a central component to many folks' intersectional identities. So why have I been leaving my Jewishness behind?
I can identify two reasons, so far, for this lapse. The first has to do with the comparatively high stakes of being a politically identified Jew in today's international context. The second has to do with the comparatively low stakes of my lived experience as a Jewish woman.
First: Israel/Palestine. As we discussed above in regards to Jonathan Chait, the issue of Israel/Palestine creates anti-semitic dynamics on both sides of the political aisle. But as a left-identified person, the particular anti-semitism associated with that movement is most personally affecting to me. Aspects of my personal stance are unpopular among my liberal and progressive Jewish peers, alienating me from supposed allies who won't tolerate nuance in the debate. And progressives and liberals who themselves are not Jewish - who, increasingly, are the population with the loudest and most aggressive opinions on the issue - have participated in drawing the lines for what are appropriate and inappropriate opinions for liberal American Jews to have on Israel/Palestine. And this bothers me.
Throughout my Jewish education, both in day school and in later years at my reform Jewish synagogue, it was assumed or explicitly expected that my opinions on the Jewish homeland would fall into line with American Jewish liberalism as defined by my grandparents' and parents' generations. It was not enough to be neutral or halfheartedly supportive of Israel. We had to all agree that Israel was a necessary homeland for the Jewish people. This monolithic vision of The Jewish Opinion - that we must stand together or we will die out - is a pillar of post-WWII diasporic Judaism. It is in the core tenets of our teachings that we will marry each other and grow our numbers, that we will pass on and remember stories of our oppression so they are never forgotten. (See: Passover.) So accepting a spectrum of political and religious opinions, which may lead Jews to themselves incorporate other religious and cultural traditions into their belief systems or, worse, to marry non-Jews, is threatening to our very existence. This may sound like an extreme interpretation. But it was also central to my Jewish education.
Of course, not all Jewish people or sects are tied to these teachings. But only among young and self-identified radical Jews do I find any question of the basic tenets of Zionism - that Israel should exist with its current boundaries, that it's our homeland, that it's necessary to the safety and security of modern Judaism. But of course, in this community, under-informed and highly-emotional stances on the issue create a dynamic where The Jewish Opinion is being shaped by non-Jews. And this is a precarious situation for Jewish people's self-actualization in an increasingly hostile and anti-semitic political environment.
Thus far, I have balked at the necessity of having An Opinion on Israel and Palestine (and more specifically, a Lefty-Appropriate Opinion) if I am to pursue my Jewishness as a central tenet of my political identity-building. The risks of allying with anti-semitism on either - or both - sides of the aisle is too high.
Second: Oppression hierarchies. I was taught early on that Jews are and have always been a persecuted population. "Persecuted" - that was the word used in lower school, then "minority" in high school, and "oppressed" in college. Each word carried political baggage. Persecution: the Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust. Minority: 2% of the world's population. Oppressed: devil horns, penny-pinchers, greedy bankers. Synthesizing all these interpretations of the plight of Jews, it was hard to avoid the feeling that we couldn't seem to catch a break. And yet most of this plight was centered firmly in the past. There was a strong implication that the creation of Israel ended structural anti-semitism. Of course, that implication has its own political motivation - generations of Jews tied to The Jewish Opinion and therefore to Israel.
The historical violence waged against Jewish people is a key building block of Jewish identity today. So it was drilled into me at a young age that Jews were rare, were targets, and needed protection. I went to a Holocaust or Jewish heritage museum almost every year from the ages of 6 to 16. I studied mass atrocities under teachers who'd witnessed them first-hand. I absorbed their narratives, listened to stories of immigration, assimilation, discrimination.
But all this education about the historical struggle of my ancestors was in stark contrast to my lived experience as a Jew. In my privileged environments, Judaism was familiar and normal. If anything, Jews had social capital (in superficial ways). They were funny. The Hillel was the nicest spot on campus. We even had the Jewish holidays off of school. My Jewishness was easy, and I didn't push it.
Yet soon enough, my eyes opened to the lived Jewish experience beyond urban centers in New England. On a road trip to Birmingham, I celebrated the first synagogue we'd seen in four states, trying to shake the memories of hundreds of crosses jutting up from beyond the tree line across our southern route. In San Francisco, signs of Jews were few and far between, measured insignificantly by the city's lack of decent bagels, and more significantly by the assumptions of many peers that I understood and celebrated Christian tradition. And there was the memorable incident when a coworker engaged in some good ole fashioned Cheap Jew Jokes with a fellow Christian friend in upstate New York as I looked on, stunned into silence that this kind of ignorance actually existed.
I feel incredibly lucky that my Jewish experience has been sheltered, largely free of incident, and that I've had the privilege to build a Jewish identity around positive experiences, rather than in the shadow of discrimination. But as my education continues, I feel the need to take ownership of this part of myself. I have never ignored my Jewish identity, nor denied it. But now it is cast upon me to defend and claim it. Like any other axis of my intersectional identity, Jewishness means different things in different contexts. And what it means determines who I am.
On Sunday, April 13th, Frazier Glenn Miller shot and killed three people outside of the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom, an assisted-living facility, in Overland Park, Kansas. His cries of 'Heil Hitler!' categorized this act as a hate crime in my mind long before the police would confirm it as such. The cruel reality that none of Miller's victims were, in fact, Jewish just added to the absurdity of this display of modern day anti-semitism. And yet, the tragic and meaningless losses of these three Christian Americans seems somehow metaphoric to the reality of anti-semitism in the U.S. In an increasingly assimilated population, the targets of anti-semites are harder and harder to spot. And when a hate crime is botched because the assailant failed to recognize the subjects of his own deep disgust, it calls the validity of this bigotry into question. And if Christians are themselves at risk of dying in an anti-semitic hate crime, what does anti-semitism even mean anymore?
The Times ended their coverage of April 13th's events with this snippet, emphasis mine:
Around 10:30 on Sunday morning, Ms. Beirich said, Mr. Miller called his wife to say that he was winning, and that all was well. The convicted felon had at least a shotgun and a handgun, the authorities say.
"Three white people." What does this sentence mean for my intersectional identity? Politically speaking, I am a white person. I'm also a Jew. Am I supposed to identify with the victims of this crime or its intended targets? Does this horrible tragedy and the media's coverage of it affirm or deny my lived experiences of anti-semitism? How can any American Jews navigate the middle ground between structural oppression and assimilated freedom, between othering and whiteness?
I hope that in conversation spurred by this piece, I can explore these questions further and also be educated on the experiences of non-white/non-Ashkenazi Jews living in the U.S., for whom the shaping of racial and identity politics surely has surely been quite different from my own. I have a long way to go before any of my questions are settled. Any engagement on the topics of this piece is, as always, welcomed.
Writer, eater, feminist, musician. Let's talk.