What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) antisemitism and Israel – 4

Author’s Preface: GallingGalla’s comment on the third post in this series has made me think I should add this preface: I see each post in this series as one section of a single piece of writing, not as a discrete essay unto itself. As a result, while each section may contain its own argument, it is not really possible to know whether an issue that a reader feels is important, such as GallingGalla’s concerns about how accusations of self-hatred are also accusations of treason, will or will not be left out of the argument made by the entire piece if you’ve only read a part of the series. As I said in my response to GallingGalla, I certainly do not mean this caveat to be, in any way, an inoculation against critique, but given the modular nature of posting to blogs and of how blogs are read, it is a caveat I’d like you to keep in mind if you find yourselves wondering, and commenting on, why I have not addressed something you feel needs to be addressed. Thanks.

To me, the point was obvious. Basing the Jewish claim to the land of Israel on the Jews’ own reading of the Hebrew Bible was asking the overwhelmingly non-Jewish world to accept as objective and incontrovertible the truth that Judaism claimed as its own, never mind the implication that the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians was somehow the will of the monotheistic god. To assert that line of reasoning as an argument for Israel’s right to exist, I suggested, was self-defeating at the very least–even if, as a believing Jew, it was a cornerstone of your faith.

“I never took you for an SHJ,” said one the colleagues with whom I was talking.

“An SHJ?”

“A self-hating Jew.”

The other agreed. “My husband,” she said, “would say you were an antisemitic Jew.”

I stared at my colleagues across a sudden gap of estrangement I did not know how to bridge. I had never been called self-hating before, but I understood it meant that, in their eyes, I’d revealed myself as a Jew who accepted an antisemitic definition of Jewishness. It was a logic I had heard often when I was in yeshiva, though my teachers always used it to explain the antisemitism of non-Jews who were critical of Israel: To suggest that there might be a perspective from which Israel’s existence as a Jewish state was not self-evidently valid, my rebbes would say, in many different ways, over and over again, was to suggest that the Jews had no right to claim such a state in the first place, which was also to imply that the Jews as a people ought not even to be.

When a Jew took that position, my rebbes would explain, they had clearly been deceived by the promise of assimilation: that if only we would stop identifying as Jews, we would be accepted into the body politic and made full members in good standing of the majority culture. Such Jews were self-hating because they had chosen the goyim over their own people. Yet I was not trying to argue that Israel should not exist. Rather, I was expressing discomfort with arguments that suggest not only that the Jews’ claim to the land, on whatever basis, renders all intervening history irrelevant, but also that, in the act of staking this claim, the Jews were and are beyond reproach.

In December of 1917, for example, when David Ben Gurion said that, in a “historical and moral sense,” then-Palestine was a country “without inhabitants,” what he meant, according to Amos Elon in The Israelis, was that “only the Jews really felt at home in Palestine; all other inhabitants were merely the ethnic remains of various waves of conquerors” (156). In Ben Gurion’s eyes, in other words, the Palestinians were essentially displaced, a people who didn’t really belong where they were, and the stereotypes I grew up hearing about the Palestinians corresponded to that image of who they were. In the 1970s, for example, I had as my teachers men and women who talked about the Palestinians as naturally less intelligent, dirty, promiscuous, diseased, congenitally dishonest, and motivated in their desire to destroy Israel entirely by hatred of Jews. They envied us, this reasoning went, our sense of purpose, our unity as a people, our ability to survive and other qualities they lacked because of the characteristics I listed for you above.

I can go on: In the 1980s, when I worked as an advisor for a Conservative Jewish youth group, I heard my boss and other officials of the community, describe the Palestinians as being without a culture of their own and as unfit for anything other than manual labor, and if the Jews (not the Israelis; the Jews) needed to exploit that labor to build our nation, well, that was what we had to do. And in the 1990s and in these first few years of the 21st century, I have heard those stereotypes repeated over and over again, perhaps with less frequency, and often with a good deal more subtlety, but–especially when they come from people in positions of power–no less harmfully; and I am not even going to get into the ways in which Palestinians are still, subtly and not, portrayed as terrorists simply by virtue of being Palestinian.

When I told my boss that I was struck–as I continue to be even now–by how much these images and attitudes resemble the antisemitic images and attitudes the original Zionist settlers were fighting against, he insisted that I was missing some very important distinctions, most of which boiled down to his claim that Jews don’t kill innocent people (demonstrably false) and that Jewish suffering in Europe justified whatever “small price” the Arabs–he would not use the word Palestinians–might have had to pay had they simply allowed us to have our land (also, even leaving aside the enormous arrogance of such a statement, not as simple as he was making it sound). The Jews had been living in exile for thousands of years, he said. What possible claim could the Arabs have that would trump that?

I don’t want to imply that my boss’ thinking was the rule among Jews in the United States at the time, since I have no way of knowing that for a fact, but his thinking did represent, albeit in a particularly naked form, the attitudes that shaped the way I was taught about Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel. What I would like to focus on here, though, is not the anti-Arab racism, along with all the issues relating to Israel and Zionism that devolve from that, in what my boss had to say. Rather, what I want to focus on, in a very narrow way, is the part of what he said that is, in fact, the story the mainstream Jewish community has, in one form or another, been telling ourselves about ourselves for at least as long as I have been alive; and I want to try to draw some connections to my colleagues’ accusing me of self-hatred because I challenged not even necessarily the story, but rather one use to which the story has been put.


That the Jews have been, throughout our history, a displaced people is hard to deny. Even leaving aside the Babylonian exile of 597 BCE, and even if you accept the argument that the Roman exile in 70 CE was not, in fact, an exile, there are plenty of examples of Jewish displacement to draw on. England, for example, expelled its Jews in 1290; France, 1306. Spain followed suit in 1492, and Portugal followed Spain in 1497. In Switzerland in 1348, all Jewish children under the age of seven were ordered baptized and their families murdered for allegedly conspiring to spread the Black Plague. Closer to our present time, in January 1919, in Argentina, the Semana Trajica, the “tragic week,” which was a battle between strikers and employers allied with the state, had at its center a series of pogroms that were ignited in part by the charge that Jewish radicals were working to overthrow the state; and I should have to remind no one of how many times, by how many countries, the Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany were turned away and forced to return to their own slaughter. Even after World War II, in Kielce, Poland, in 1946, several dozen Holocaust survivors were killed following the reemergence of the blood libel, the belief that Jews murder Christian children and use their blood for such things as the making of matzah. (See Jewish Women, Jewish Men, by Aviva Cantor, 25.)

To drive home a little further the point that Jews were often not welcome in the countries where they were born, and also to move a little closer to the topic of this essay, in 1947, five days before the Political Committee of the UN General Assembly voted on the partition plan for Palestine, Heykal Pasha, an Egyptian delegate made the following statement:

The United Nations . . . should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Moslem countries. Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies were trying to eradicate in Germany. . . If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for the massacre of a large number of Jews.

He then elaborated further:

A million Jews live in peace in Egypt [and other Muslim countries] and enjoy all rights of citizenship. They have no desire to emigrate to Palestine. However, if a Jewish State were established, nobody could prevent disorders. Riots would break out in Palestine, would spread through all the Arab states and might lead to a war between two races.

The article from which these quotes are taken, “Why Jews Fled the Arab Countries,” by Ya’akov Meron, was published in The Middle East Quarterly (MEQ) in 1995. MEQ is published by the Middle East Forum, an organization the partisanship of which I do not share–Campus Watch, for example, is one of their activities–and so I want to be clear that I do not endorse Meron’s conclusions, which suggest that Pasha was making a threat with these remarks that alluded to a planned expulsion of the Jews if the partitioning of Palestine were approved. Indeed, the question of whether “expulsion” or “emigration” is the accurate term to describe the movement of Jews out of Arab lands before and after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 is, at the very least, contested territory, and deserves a good deal more scrutiny than I can give it here. Nonetheless, even if Heykal Pasha was not making the threat Meron claims that he was, even if Pasha was simply describing a reality that he hoped desperately to avoid, even if we grant that the dangers he is talking about cannot be understood outside the context of Arab response to the Zionist project, what Arab Jew, after hearing or reading his words, would or could feel entirely welcome in any of the Arab states Pasha mentions?

The anti-Jewish feeling that Pasha worried would be unleashed upon the partitioning of Palestine, in other words, had to pre-exist that partitioning, and if you have any doubts about the continuing persistence of antisemitism throughout the world, a glance at an of the Anti-Defamation League’s Global Anti-Semitism: Selected Incidents Around the World reports should persuade you. The incidents listed there do not necessarily point to the kind of systemic antisemitism that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries, even in the United States, or that the Nazis perfected during World War II, but given the context provided by a thousand-year-long history of oppression and persecution, even small occurrences take on a significance that cannot be ignored. More to the point, in that context, it’s very difficult to read the results of a 2007 ADL survey, which show that more or less 50% of Europeans think it is probably true that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country [the one in which the survey was taken] and not see those attitudes as a [for now dormant] ideological infrastructure of hatred just waiting to be plugged into the way the Nazis, the Soviet Union and other governments going back centuries have plugged into it; and if you would like to see those attitudes in action, take a look at what went on in South Africa in the midst of Israel’s attack on Gaza (here and here; via).

I will have more to say about the situation of Jews in the United States below. For now, I just want to point out that the same undercurrent of antisemitism exists here, though it appears to be significantly less virulent than in Europe. According to another 2007 ADL survey, only 15% of Americans hold strong antisemitic beliefs, though 31% believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the US, a number that represents a decrease of 2% since 2005; and 27% believe that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, also a decrease (3%) since 2005. Still, that more than a quarter of the population of the country that I call home believe these canards is disconcerting to say the least, as is the outpouring of antisemitism on the web that the ADL has documented (see here and here) since the arrest of Bernard Madoff. The same infrastructure of hatred that exists in Europe, in other words, exists here; and I mean the same, because it is not as if antisemitism in the United States is different in kind from the antisemitism in Europe. To deny that fact, to deny that antisemitism is a single, global phenomenon is, if you are Jewish, at best foolishly naive and, at worst, dangerously ignorant.

Yet the idea that the Jews should have a country of our own is not, at least not among Jews, only a reaction to the realities of global antisemitism. The existence of a Jewish nation is also-by whatever centuries-long trail of genetics and cultural inheritance that makes me Jewish-part of my history, part of what being Jewish means. In Jewish Women, Jewish Men, Aviva Cantor points out that the Jews did not intend to create the Diaspora, a word which means, simply, dispersion. Rather, they were exiled, forced out of the land that had been their home, and while I do not think there is a single authentically Jewish stance towards the notion of a Jewish homeland, it is a profoundly antisemitic convenience of those who would deny the authenticity of Jewish experience that the original exile, and thus also the idea of a Jewish nation–that the Jews are a people and that we, as a people, have the right to desire a return to national status–is either irrelevant or a meaningless fiction.

Nonetheless, it is the space between the idea of a Jewish nation and what actually happened in the formation of the State of Israel that gets contested when people debate whether Zionism was and is a justified and justifiable nationalist movement or a colonial/imperial, racist movement invested in ethnic cleansing as a way of bringing the Jewish state into being. Figuring out where I draw my line in that space is, in part, what this series has been about; and while I would never suggest that drawing that line defines Jewish identity, I would argue that it is nearly impossible to have a Jewish identity without drawing that line somewhere, and the question of self-hatred–as my colleagues made sure to remind me–is one of the things at stake when Jews talk amongst ourselves about where that somewhere is.


Here’s the thing about Jewish self-hatred, at least as far as I can see: It’s in all of us. Not in the sense that we actively loathe our Jewish selves (or ourselves for being Jewish), but that we have internalized, whether we like it or not, the negative images of the Jew that exist in our culture. I can’t unlearn the fact that the Jews are seen as a greedy, sneaky, manipulative people determined to control the world; I can’t not know that an awful lot of Christians think my ancestors were, and therefore I personally am, responsible for the death of their messiah, or that I and my tribe–as they would put it–control the media, or the economy, or even the Congress and the White House. I know how to sound like a nebbish and a laughable old Jewish man; I know about the stereotype of the Jewish mother that transforms her into reason for her Jewish son’s social, psychological and sometimes literal emasculation; and I know the image of the Jewish American Princess: manipulative (especially sexually), childish, materialistic, shallow, spoiled.

Not only do I know these images and stereotypes, but I have told the jokes that rely on them–Why do “JAPS” use gold diaphragms? Because they want to know their men are coming into money?–used them as insults, and even employed them as a kind of cultural shorthand to describe the behaviors/character of people in situations where “Jewishness” (whatever that means) was not an issue. I have, in other words, done my part to perpetuate these images; and I would have a hard time believing any Jew who claimed never to have done something along the same lines. More the point, these images are still alive and can have tremendous resonance in popular culture. In the movie David & Layla, for example, which has gotten rave reviews for telling the based-on-a-true-story tale of a Jewish man and a Muslim woman who fall in love, marry and manage to mesh their different religious cultures, the Jewish culture in which David exists is represented as entirely and successfully emasculating, especially in the person of his fiancee Abby, who is one of the most egregious caricatures of the Jewish American Princess that I have ever seen. It is only by going outside of his culture, by escaping the oppressive umanning that his American Jewish world is perpetrating on him, that David is able to find/assert/recover his manhood and find/assert/claim a Jewish identity of his own.

To be fair, the cut I saw of this film is not the one currently being shown, and so it is possible that the portrayal of Jewish culture no longer relies so strongly on stereotypes, though I doubt it since so much of the film’s comedy relies on them. As well, especially because I am a Jewish American man married to an Iranian Muslim woman, I think it is important to point out that there is a lot the movie gets very right, without stereotyping, in terms of the general ignorance that Jews and Muslims, not to mention Americans and the peoples of the Middle East and western Asia, have about each other–Layla is Kurdish–and about the comedy that can ensue when two people from those different cultures fall in love and try to have a relationship, never mind get married and have a family. Nonetheless, the fact that David’s manhood is a large measure of what’s at stake in his decision to choose the non-Jewish Layla–a choice that David’s family sees, at least at first, as self-hating–suggests the degree to which, for Jewish men, the question of self-hatred is bound up with the question of what Jewish manhood is and what it means to posses it, or not.

In his book Jewish Self-Hatred, Sander Gilman argues that, for the medieval Christian world, Jewish difference was defined largely by the Jewish language, Hebrew (23). Understood by the Church to be that which prevented Jews from acknowledging Jesus as the messiah–because reading biblical texts in, and perceiving the world through the limited and limiting framework of their own language made it impossible for Jews to perceive Christ’s presence in the world–this linguistic difference was understood to be not cultural, but natural. As speakers of Hebrew, in other words, the Jews were slaves to the world view implicit in Hebrew, which obviously did not include the notion of Jesus as the messiah, and so they were incapable of commanding any other language or of seeing the world in any other way. Moreover, since their way of seeing the world was inherently false–Jesus, after all, really was the messiah–the Jews were congenital liars. This essential dishonesty placed the Jews in the same category as women, who were also believed to be liars by nature.

Perhaps the most explicit connection between the essential dishonesty of women and the Jews’ polluted essence was in the myth of Jewish male menstruation, the belief that Jewish men were marked by the same sign that in women signified Eve’s fall from grace. In the thirteenth century, Thomas de Cantimpré, citing St. Augustine as his source, offered the first ostensibly scientific discussion of this aspect of Jewish male anatomy, explaining as well how these men attempted to cure themselves. According to de Cantimpré, the Jews were told by one of their prophets that the cure lay in drinking “Christiano sanguine,” the blood of a Christian, an assertion that proved the Jews’ linguistic handicap, since, in fact, the curse could only be lifted when the Jews converted and accepted the sacrament of “Christi sanguine,” the blood of Christ. It was, in other words, the Jews’ inability to hear the truth, represented by this prophet’s inability to get the Latin right–presumably he would not have made the same mistake if the language had been Hebrew-that gave rise in the Christian imagination to the blood libel, the charge that Jews ritually murdered Christian children to obtain Christian blood. In turn, the blood libel was linked to the Jews’ original and ultimately emasculating, Eve-like denial of Christ (Gilman 74-5), thus forging a connection between Jewish and female psychology that would continue to be deployed in antisemitic rhetoric even when the religious basis for that connection was no longer considered so important.

Even a casual overview of nineteenth century philosophy, for example, will unearth in the thinking of our most revered philosophers a misogyny directly descended from the medieval Church’s view of women. The authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, for example–which was first published in 1486 as the Inquisition’s legal, procedural and informational reference on witchcraft and witches–answered the question why “Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions” by explaining that women are, among other things, intellectually undisciplined, devious, vengeful and fundamentally carnal (41-7, these page numbers refer to this published edition of the book; a new translation is also available). Immanuel Kant echoed those views in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime when he wrote that women “do something only because it pleases them […] I hardly believe the fair sex is capable of principles” (qtd. in Rosemary Agonito, ed. History of Ideas on Women: A Source Book 133). Georg Hegel asserted that while women could, “of course, be educated,” the female intellect was not “adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts” (ibid. 167). In “On Women,” Schopenhauer wrote that women existed solely for the purpose of reproduction, and since neither intellect, a sense of justice, honesty nor aesthetic awareness were in his view required for having babies, he believed that women either did not possess these qualities or possessed them in only the most limited fashion.

Compare those images of women with antisemitic images of the Jews and some striking parallels emerge. Where, for example, Kant saw women as motivated entirely by self-indulgence, Bruno Bauer, in his 1843 work “The Capacity of Present-Day Jews and Christians to Become Free,” characterized the essence of Judaism as “the mere cunning of sensual egoism” (qtd. in Gilman 192). Similarly, Hegel’s definition of female intellectual inferiority finds a parallel in Ludiwg Wittgensteins’s pronouncement that the “Jewish mind does not have the power to produce even the tiniest flower or blade of grass that has grown in the soil of another’s mind and to put it into a comprehensive picture” (qtd. in Gilman 128). In 1903, Otto Weininger, a baptized Jew, published Sex and Character, a highly influential book in which he rendered the conceptual parallels I have just outlined in concrete biological and psychopathological terms. Human psychology, Weininger argued, existed along a continuum running from the Jewish mind on one end to the Aryan mind on the other, and this continuum, he asserted, runs parallel to another one, defined by masculinity and femininity. The connections Weininger makes between these two continuums are many. Neither Jews nor women, he says, possess true creativity; both are congenitally dishonest, lack a genuine sense of humor, and each exists without fully believing in the authenticity of that existence.

Women, however–and of course he means Gentile women–have one advantage over Jews, for while neither Jews nor women believe

in themselves[,] the woman believes in others, in her husband, her lover, or her children, or in love itself; she has a center of gravity, although it is outside of her own being. The Jew believes in nothing, within or without him. (qtd in Gilman, 246)

According to Weininger, this inability to believe in anything meant that, for the Jews, the world is reduced to the merely material. Transcendence, the ability to perceive the mystery beneath and beyond the commonplace, is impossible. Women, of course, were also materialistic in Weininger’s view, but they were at least partially able to transcend this flaw by believing in others, and if all else failed, (Christian) women could always fall back on faith in Jesus.The Jews lacked even that basic belief, making them, in Weininger’s schema, an even more fully realized version of female inferiority than any actual woman could ever be.

(I need to pause here to acknowledge an awkwardness in what I am writing: To the degree that I have to accept Weininger’s discourse, or any of the antisemitic discourse I am talking about, in order to explain it, Jewish women are rendered doubly invisible, since they are subsumed under the category Jew, which was understood to refer to Jewish men, Jewish women being more or less beneath notice anyway. Maybe there is a way to write this without falling into that trap and without having constantly to twist around to remind the reader of the presence of Jewish women–a rhetorical strategy that, I think, would make it difficult to write about this material clearly–but I haven’t found it. It is an example of the double bind that antisemitism, that any oppression puts the oppressed in: how to talk about the terms of our own oppression without accepting–even if only to argue against them–the rhetorical and discursive, if not semantic, boundaries set by those terms. I will talk a little bit about this phenomenon below. Here I want simply to acknowledge that I am caught in it with regards to Jewish women.)

Jewish materialism, Weininger believed, contaminated every aspect of life in which Jews were involved. Medicine, for example, had once been “closely allied with religion,” which meant with questions of morality and the spiritual significance of human existence. As more and more Jews began to enter the profession, however, they turned healing into a matter of drugs, a mere administration of chemicals, which Weininger saw as evidence of the Jew’s lack of creativity: “The chemical interpretation of organisms sets [those organisms] on a level with [the Jews] own dead ashes.” In response to this contamination, Weininger understood the time in which he lived to be a time of choice “between Judaism and Christianity […] between male and female” (qtd in Gilman’s The Jew’s Body 137-7). It is in the context of this choice–which Weininger may have articulated for his generation, but which has been implicit in antisemitic rhetoric since at least as far back as Thomas de Cantimpre’s “explanation” of Jewish male menstruation–that the significance of Zionism for the Jews needs to be understood. For Jewish nationalism was not motivated simply by the long-held desire to return to the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism was also, or at least also became, an explicit refutation of the notion of Jewish male effeminacy; and the apotheosis of that refutation, Zionists believed, lay in realizing Jewish claims to the land of Palestine.

The irony, of course, is that in order to refute the notion of Jewish male effeminacy, Zionists almost had no choice but to accept its basic premise as valid. As Gilman points out “[…] Jewish scientists […] needed to accept the basic ‘truth’ of the statistical arguments of medical science during this period. They could not dismiss published statistical ‘facts’ out of hand and thus operated within [the] categories [those facts established]” (ibid. 47). Among those facts was statistical evidence showing a higher incidence of mental illness among Jews in Germany than among German Catholics or Protestants. Gilman suggests that this difference probably reflected a higher rate of hospitalization of Jews for mental illness, but the data were used at the time to argue that Jews were innately prone to psychopathology, specifically neurasthenia and hysteria, quintessentially feminine (and feminizing) mental disorders. Why the Jews were subject to these diseases was a matter of some debate. Members of the Parisian Anthropological Society offered explanations ranging from the Jewish practice of endogamous marriage, which resulted in the marriage of first cousins–defined in 19th century Europe as incest–to the Jews’ ostensible preoccupation with mysticism and the supernatural (Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred 286-88). In either case, however, the cause was understood to be innate. Incest, of course, was thought to weaken a people genetically, and the idea of Jewish superstition stood in the long tradition of the Jews’ inherently deficient way of seeing the world. (Recall, as well, The Malleus Maleficarum had to say about women and superstition.)

The trigger for these Jewish psycopathologies, according to the science of the time, was the fact that Jews generally lived in cities and that they were often employed in high-stress fields. Krafft-Ebing, in a study on neurasthenia, for example, made explicit the connection between the image of the urban Jew as diseased and the idea of Jewish masculinity as flawed or deficient. Jewish men, he wrote, are “over-achiever[s] in the arena of commerce [or] politics.” Believing that “time is money,” they read “reports, business, correspondence, [and] stock market notations during meals,” causing tremendous anxiety and leading naturally to the nervous disorders mentioned above (ibid. 289). Jewish men, in other words, were simply not “man enough” to live the kind of life they’d chosen to lead.

In contrast to the antisemitic explanations non-Jewish scientists gave for this condition, Jewish scientists focused on another explanation: antisemitism. In 1902, for example, Martin Engländer asserted that if the Jews were more prone to neurasthenia than non-Jews, the reasons had to be sought in the fact of “a two-thousand-year Diaspora” and its accompanying “struggle for mere existence” (qtd in ibid. 290). To put it another way, living in exile had sapped Jewish men of their virility. The cure, these Jewish scientists proposed, was Zionism, not simply as a political movement calling for the creation of Jewish state; but as an ideology of Jewish manhood, specifically of rescuing the Jewish male body from the emasculating effect of diaspora and recreating it in the image of what Max Nordau called “Judaism with muscles” (Eros and the Jew from Biblical Israel to Contemporary America, David Biale 179). Nordau’s idea was that Jewish men could overcome their predisposition to neurasthenia, and therefore their effeminacy, by developing their bodies, thus counteracting the debilitating effects of life in exile. Life in exile itself, however, was understood to be a disembodied existence–remember Weininger and the Jews’ inability to believe in the authenticity of their own existence?–and that disembodiment was the result of the Jews having been wrenched, like a soul from a body, from the land of Israel. Truly to re-embody the Jewish people, in other words, was not only to rebuild the bodies of Jewish men in exile, but also to eliminate what Meir Yaari, an early leader of Hashomer ha-Tzair (The Young Guard), called the “instinctual impotence” of the “conventional” or Diaspora Jew (qtd in ibid. 186).

Represented on postcards that juxtaposed images of the virile Jewish farmers reclaiming Palestine with ones of the weak, old and fragile Orthodox Jews of the European shtetl, this masculinizing agenda was framed within a reciprocal relationship between the people and the land. In the words of a song popular at the time, the Zionists believed that they “came to the land to build it and to be built by it” (ibid. 179 & 182). To be built by it, David Biale explains, was “to change one’s values and practices and […] one’s […] body and psyche by agricultural work” (Ibid. 182-3), an erotic transformation in which the Jewish settlers took on the role of a male lover possessing the female land. Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, in this view, was metaphorically the consummation of a long and difficult courtship. The newly-muscled Jewish man had won his bride, proving not only that he was as much a man as anyone else, but also the self-evident validity of Zionism as an ideology: the existence of the State of Israel was proof that Jewish manhood could only manifest itself when the historical connection between the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland had been reestablished. To question the project of establishing Israel’s existence, in other words, was not merely to question, say, the justice or wisdom of settling a land that was already inhabited. It was to question as well even the possibility of Jewish manhood, which meant to question the possibility of a strong and healthy Jewish identity, which meant accepting the antisemitic image of the Jew as weak and diseased and feminine, which meant making oneself the very definition of the self-hating Jew.


This, then, is the accusation my colleagues leveled at me for suggesting that the words of the Torah might, for most of the world, not be a convincing argument in favor of Israel’s existence as a Jewish State–and please make no mistake: it was an accusation of treason. Not treason against Israel, though. Rather, they were telling me I had betrayed the entire Jewish people. More to the point, though, the form they gave their accusation rendered my betrayal a physical one, made it of my body, not unlike the “betrayal” that someone who is gay or lesbian is understood to have committed against heteronormative culture, even though my body had never been explicitly at stake in our conversation. You may think I am overstating the case, but that’s how I felt it. I could never have articulated it the way I am doing so now, but I knew immediately, with the totality of apprehension of which only the body is capable–that anyone will recognize who has ever had the validity of their gender questioned in a way intended to other them out of a group in which they had assumed and valued membership–that my colleague’s accusation of self-hatred was an accusation of unmanliness; and the thing about unmanliness, of course, is that the only way to “prove” one is not contaminated by it is to prove one is a man according to the standards of those who made the accusation in the first place.

All nationalisms that I know of share this dynamic. As I am writing, I cannot think of one that does not rely in some way on heteronormativity as a core value, if only because of the requirement that the nation reproduce itself. Obviously, a nation could reproduce itself without being heteronormative, but every nationalism that I can think of has as part of its narrative the story of traditionally heterosexual men and women coming together to have families that will guarantee the nation’s continued existence. The nationalism of white supremacists certainly takes that story as central to itself; German nationalism did as well (I don’t think there is a European nationalism that did not); so did the American nationalism of, say, the communist-scare 1950s (one did not want to be labeled a commie-pinko-fag); the nationalisms that emerged in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union did; as did the Japanese nationalism of the mid-20th century. The list could go on and on, and so it should come as no surprise that Zionism shares this characteristic.

Now, just to be clear, when I use the word nationalism, I am not talking about the fact of valuing the place and culture into which one was born–a notion I will talk a little bit more about later. Rather, I am talking about nationalism as an ideology that, in one form or another, essentializes (or at least argues for the essential nature of) group identity and/or the characteristics that identify membership in a particular national group. Recognizing this distinction is important because I have, until now, been writing about the Jews as if we are an undifferentiated group, as if being Jewish means the same thing to each of us and as if Jewish identity–i.e., membership in the Jewish nation–is the center of how each of us defines her or himself as a human being. I have been writing this way because I have been talking about antisemitism and, the fact is that, ultimately, the antisemite doesn’t care whether you are gay or straight, trans- or cis-gendered, white or of color, wealthy or not, a patriot or not, a relative or not–and that list could go on and on. What matters to the antisemite is that you are a Jew, period, and if the antisemites are in power and are going to try to wipe the Jews out, you can be sure–because this is what the Nazis did–that every other feature of who you are will be made irrelevant or will be used to prove further the corrupt and diseased nature of the Jew, thereby justifying the project of eliminating us from the face of the earth.

In writing about Zionism and the founding of Israel as responses to antisemitic oppression, in other words, it is almost impossible not–some might even argue that it is necessary–to talk about the Jews as if we were an undifferentiated mass of people. To the degree that the antisemite doesn’t care about whatever else might be true about us, nothing else that is true about us should matter when it comes to protecting us from the antisemite. This is one reason why Israel’s Law of Return was revised in 1970 so that the definition of “Jew” matched, more or less, the broader definition of “Jew” that was used by the Nazis, rather than the traditional, religious definition of someone whose mother was Jewish or who converted to Judaism. Yet even the Law of Return, broad as it is intended to be, makes distinctions that, at the very least, complicate the matter of how the Jews answer the question, Who is a Jew? This is section 4A(a) of the 1970s revision to that law:

The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law, 5712-1952,*** as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion. (Emphasis added)

Even though the Nazis deemed Jewish even those Jews who had converted to Christianity, in other words, Israel’s definition of a Jew is fundamentally religious, suggesting that conversion is the ultimate act of Jewish self-hatred, one which exiles you permanently from the fold; and here’s the thing: as long as there is one act that can result in this kind of exile, there is nothing to prevent others from being added to the list.

Take, for example, the case of transgender people who undergo sexual reassignment surgery. According to Orthodox Judaism, such surgery is prohibited outright; as well, while there is some debate on the matter, as far as I have been able to tell, Orthodox Judaism considers a person who has undergone such surgery to retain her or his pre-surgery gender. According to Orthodox Judaism, in other words, which holds that gender is immutable because it is God-given, sexual reassignment surgery is an extreme act of self-hatred, and given the relatively strict division of gender roles within Orthodox Jewish practice, the implication must be there that, whatever else it might be, sexual reassignment surgery is also an act of hatred against oneself as a Jew. Now, in the limited research that I have done, I have found no one who argues that position, and I seriously doubt that any such argument exists among credible religious authorities. What would happen, however, if we were talking about this not as a question primarily of one’s religious status, but of whether one could become a naturalized Israeli citizen. Consider the following scenario::

Country X is taken over by a fascist regime one goal of which is to eliminate the Jews within its borders, and, just so this example doesn’t get bogged down in comparisons to present-day situations and politics, let’s say that this is happening two hundred or so years from now, when the memory of the Holocaust is no longer so intense and the guilt that might motivate nations to react differently than I am going to ask you to imagine is no longer much of a factor. The Jews are given a certain amount of time during which they will be allowed to leave with all their possessions. Any Jews who remain after that time is up, however, will be killed. Israel responds as Jews throughout the world have been led to expect it to respond, by throwing its doors open to all the Jews of Country X, while the other nations of the world react as many of them probably would have had Israel been around during World War II; they are perfectly happy to say that this is a Jewish problem and so the Jews and Israel are responsible for solving it.

Here’s the problem. Israel, in this future I have imagined, is as small a country as it is now, and it simply cannot physically accommodate within its borders all of the several millions of Jews who live in Country X. Reluctantly, given these limited resources, the Israeli government decides that it must, somehow or other, establish standard to determine which Jews it can and will accept and which it won’t; and let’s assume it is also working feverishly, but with little or no success, to convince other governments to take in the Jews it can’t. So, imagine a married male-to-female transgender Jew–and just to make things a little easier let’s assume the spouse is also Jewish–who goes with her husband to the office that determines which Jews can and cannot go to Israel. The person interviewing them discovers that the woman is transgender and informs the couple of several things:

  1. Because Orthodox Jewish law [which in this future-Israel is the law that governs all matters related to marriage and sex] does not recognize the validity of transgender identity, if they are allowed to go to Israel and the transgender woman’s identity is discovered, she would, under the law, be considered a man;
  2. As a result, their marriage would become null because, by Israeli law, it would be defined as a homosexual marriage, which Israel does not recognize;
  3. A movement is under way to disqualify gay and lesbian Jews from the Law of Return under section 2(b)(2): “An oleh’s visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel, unless the Minister of Immigration is satisfied that the applicant […] (2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State.”

The interviewer is very sympathetic and indicates that she is willing to approve the application; she just wants to make sure the couple knows what they are getting themselves into. (Please note: I am making no claims with this example about current Israeli law or policy; especially about #1 and #2, I am simply ignorant. Depending on who holds power in Israel, however, I can see these three items becoming the law of the land.)

If you were that couple, would you go?

I, frankly, don’t know whether I would or not. The hypothetical situation I have created does not contain enough information about the entirety of this couple’s life to be able to make such a decision. I do know for sure, however, that if I did decide to go, it would not be with a sense of having been saved or protected, except in the most limited sense of those words, and it most certainly would not be with any sense of belonging, of having been welcomed “home,” or any of the other metaphors that one would expect to apply to me as a Jew being rescued by the Jewish people and brought to live in the Jewish homeland. Given even the limited knowledge that I have about what it costs transgender people to come to terms with their identity and to win acceptance in a culture that is decidedly hostile to their existence, I could understand a person deciding, in the situation I described above, that she would rather stay and fight the fascist regime than flee to a country where she would, essentially, have to live in hiding (again) in her own home. I can also understand a spouse in that situation deciding that he, too, would rather stay and fight than live the lie they would have to live in the Israel I have imagined.

Some of you, no doubt, will argue that the policy I have imagined is not Zionism, or even part of Zionism. I assume you would say something along the lines of this: that Zionism is–or, if it was not originally, should now be understood as–merely, the belief that the Jews should have a state; and that since a Jewish state already exists in Israel, Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish state. Here’s the thing, though: the transgender woman I have imagined above is being forced to choose between her Jewish identity and the full complexity of her gender identity, between her full human being and her Jewish being, and she is being forced to do so in the name of Israel’s need to determine which Jews will and which will not be accepted as citizens of the Jewish nation. In the name, in other words, of Zionism.

I recognize that there are people working very hard to ensure that a scenario such as the one I have laid out for you will never happen, who have as their goal a definition of what it means to be Jewish that embraces as wide an inclusiveness as possible, and I recognize that the work such people have done is largely responsible for making Israel the most queer-friendly country in the Middle East. Not that there aren’t problems with anti-gay violence and with Israel’s version of Jerry Falwell’s scapegoating gays and lesbians (among others) for the September 11th attacks, but the gay community in Israel has racked up some impressive victories. Chas Newkey Burden summed some of them up in an article he wrote for Ynet News in 2007:

Workplace discrimination against gay people is outlawed; the Knesset had an openly gay member; in schools, teenagers learn about the difficulties of being gay and the importance of treating all sexualities equally. The country’s army, the Israel Defence Force has many dozens of openly gay high-ranking officers who, like all gay soldiers in its ranks, are treated equally by order of the government.

The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples are eligible for spousal and widower benefits. Nearly all mainstream television dramas in Israel regularly feature gay storylines. When transsexual Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest as Israel’s representative, 80 per cent of polled Israelis called her “an appropriate representative of Israel.” (A fuller account of LGBT rights in Israel can be found here.)

Transgender issues have also started to become part of the political process in Israel, though that work is just beginning; and while acceptance of a transgender celebrity is certainly not the same thing as full recognition under the law, the fact that the internationally famous Dana International–who was born Yaron Cohen–was called by 80% of Israelis an “appropriate representative of Israel” when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998 demonstrates at least the possibility of full acceptance of transgender people among the Israeli public.

Nonetheless, to avoid the issues raised by my scenario is to deny that trans- and homophobia, racism, classism and all the other odious otherings we protest so loudly against also exist among the Jews; and, at least as importantly, it is to deny the experience–and therefore, implicitly, the existence–of all those “Jewish Others” who have experienced such othering at the hands of their fellow Jews. It’s important to state this plainly: given the oppression and discrimination that LGBT Jews suffer on a daily basis, at the hands of Jews and non-Jews alike, it would be even more foolish of them not to fear the possibility of my scenario, or some scenario like it, than it would be for me not to fear the possibility of another Hitler taking power somewhere in the world. More to the point, to call self-hatred the doubts about Zionism to which these fears might reasonably give rise, to suggest, as David Schraub did that any Jew who questions Jewish nationalism on the grounds I have outlined here is “adopting a position that [is] not just wrong, but extremely dangerous to Jewish lives and equality”, is to force on those Jews precisely the choice forced on the transgender woman in my scenario. It is to ask them for a promise of loyalty to the Jewish people even if that promise costs them other, equally (if not more) fundamental parts of who they are. No movement that demands such an oath can ever claim fully to represent everyone whose identity overlaps with the territory the movement claims for itself, and any such movement that makes the claim has at its core a fundamental dishonesty that, to me anyway, disqualifies it from the loyalty it presumes to demand.


So, does that mean I think Israel should not exist? No.

Does that mean I think there should be no such thing as a Jewish state? No, though I think the question of whether Israel should remain a Jewish state in its present form should be left to the people who actually live there.

Does that mean I think Zionism should be eliminated? No, I acknowledge that movements can evolve, though a nationalism that does not include some kind of loyalty test or some form of an othering accusation of self-hatred is hard for me to imagine.

Does that mean I do not think the Jews need a safe haven in the world? No, of course we do, but so do a lot of other people who have suffered oppression, and the fact that I can feel like I have one, imperfect though it might be, results from a privilege that not many Jews like me, at least not the ones I have met–straight, white, cisgender, middle class–are willing to acknowledge. We are privileged first of all because Israel came into being at the cost of the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, and we are privileged because we can take for granted a welcome in Israel that LGBT Jews–not to mention Jews of color, and perhaps other kinds of Jews as well about whom I have not even talked–cannot. (In my scenario, if the fascist regime counted Jews for Jesus as Jews, would Israel have taken them in even though they had changed their religion?)

Does this mean I am trying to talk out of both sides of my mouth? I hope not, but you’ll have to wait for Part 5, which I hope will not take me as long to post, to watch me try to work through the answer to that question.

Cross posted on It’s All Connected.

This entry posted in Anti-Semitism, Gender and the Body, Homophobic zaniness/more LGBTQ issues, International issues, Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer issues, Palestine & Israel, Same-Sex Marriage, Transsexual and Transgender related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

44 Responses to What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) antisemitism and Israel – 4

  1. 1
    Lilian Nattel says:

    The nationalism you’re writing about hasn’t always existed. It’s a late nineteenth century development. The Jewish homeland at that time was a response to antisemitism within that specific context. Prior to the late nineteenth century, class was much more salient than nationality. European gentry and aristocracy, for example, identified much more with each other than with the lower classes of their own country of origin. Jews, as landless (because of antisemitic laws) didn’t fit into that class structure and were either expelled or employed in whatever niche the Christian rulers of a country deemed necessary (scribes until the monastic orders took that over; then medicine; then shop keepers, etc). I point this out because nationalism as the form of antisemitism and a nation as a solution or haven is historically contingent and can’t necessarily be projected two hundred years hence.

    I also find it interesting that you go from a discussion of self-hatred and its relationship to nationalism to a scenario of some future time when a transgendered spouse is not allowed into Israel, haven from world wide antisemitism. Israel is not self-sufficient. It can’t exist economically through trade either. Israel is dependent on aid from the U.S., which, in the even of world antisemitic cataclysm would presumably have cut off aid. Israel is also surrounded by much larger countries which are not fond of Israel. In the scenario of world-wide antisemitism, you’d better hope there is some other haven.

    Next–why limit yourself to glbt issue in the law of return? What about your children? My own children were adopted. There is some question as to whether their conversions would be recognized in Israel. I’m not counting on any law of return for them.

    But then I’m not counting on it as a haven from antisemitism either. I think that is a myth that grew out of late 19th c nationalism, that was shaped by the particular form of antisemitism developed by the Nazis as an outgrowth of the racialism which underlay that nationalism. But despite the intention of Israel as a homeland and as a refuge, I don’t believe that it is. A Jewish state, yes. My homeland–no. A refuge–not practically speaking for the reasons I stated above.

    At the end of the 19th c, when the idea of a Jewish homeland was kicked around, other solutions to the “Jewish problem” were also considered by Jews and sympathetic gentiles, like assimilation, or a Jew at home, an Englishman in the street. From the other point of view, an antisemitic one, the Tsar’s ministers had their own solution: 1/3 assimilation, 1/3 starvation, 1/3 emigration. Note that their goal was to get rid of Jews as a distinctive group, but not necessarily to kill Jews because of “racial” considerations like the Nazis did. So the Jewish problem hasn’t always been a racial one in all contexts, nor has the solution always been about genocide.

    Having said all that, I’d like to speak a bit to the issue of self-hatred. I haven’t ever told a Jap joke, described someone as a Jap, told a smothering mother or an emasculated Jewish man joke. As a Jewish woman I resent those stereotypes not only for myself as a woman, but also for Jewish men. I grew up with a fair amount of pride in being Jewish and also a fair amount of fear because of the “it could happen again” narrative. My first two novels were steeped in Jewish tradition, religiously and culturally. Both of them were set in the late 19th century, one in Poland (shtetl) and the other in London (immigrant community and West End Jews). I thought a lot about what it meant to be a Jewish writer (not much in the way of an answer). I deliberately set those novels well pre-war because I wanted to write about the richness of Jewish culture in the first one and deal with adoption (for obvious reasons) and cultural meetings in the second one. And I didn’t want either of those overshadowed by the holocaust. I also thought about how I’d write a contemporary Jewish novel without any satisfying answer at the time.

    The answer to that is the novel I’m working on now (7th draft God help me). I don’t know if it is a Jewish novel though it’s written by a Jewish woman and it has a Jewish character but not the main character. It really reflects my life. The family is a multiracial family, like mine. It’s a multicultural family, like mine. In a diverse progressive neighbourhood like mine. It also reflects issues that have been even more important in my life than religious or cultural ones.

    My homeland is Canada, where I was born and where I live now with my family. Maybe someday I’ll be hated or threatened because I’m Jewish or because I’m a woman or because I have adopted kids. Maybe my kids will be threatened because they’re Jewish or because they’re Chinese. That would suck big time. But I don’t think it’s going to help us forestall that possibility or survive it by thinking that we can run away to some tiny country far away. (As an aside, I was just reading in the NYRB about ballooning organized crime in Israel following the collapse of the Soviet union and the influx of Soviet immigrants who brought their crime connections with them. Now I really really don’t want to run away there!)

    Israel exists. That’s a fact. Until we start giving Canada and the U.S. back to the First Nations and Native Americans, I don’t think that there should be any discussion about whether that existence is legitimate.

    But my feelings about myself are not related to my feelings about Israel. And it hasn’t always been the case that a person’s feelings about herself as a Jew were assumed to be negative if that person wasn’t all ga-ga for Israel. (Remember religious Jews were against the establishment of the state of Israel for quite a while because the messiah wasn’t in on it).

    Maybe it’s the fact that other experiences in my life have been more formative and more difficult than being Jewish or antisemitism. And I got through those things and lived to tell the tale. Perceptions of risk are interesting. They don’t always correspond to the facts. Yes there is antisemitism. On the other hand in the U.S. at least the Christian right is pretty fond of Jews these days. (I’m not sure if that’s good or not but in terms of antisemitic cataclysm it’s probably better than not). I think that my life and my children’s life is far more likely to be negatively impacted by environmental degradation and climate change.

    And I’m just not going to live my life in fear. Right now life is pretty good. And if it goes bad, then I know it won’t last forever because life doesn’t.

  2. 2
    Lilian Nattel says:

    I also wanted to add that I really enjoyed reading your post and the obvious thought and care with which you’re writing.

  3. 3
    Doug S. says:


    I don’t believe that there is any such thing as an inherent right to statehood. If there were such a thing as an inherent right to statehood based on long-standing group identity, then the Confederate States of America would have had it, the Basques in Spain would have it, the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq would have it, Chechnya would have it, and South Ossetia would have it. Nobody with any power recognizes the right of these peoples to their own independent state. Therefore, Jews don’t have such a right, either. (And neither do the Palestinians.)

    States are established through the use of force and perpetuate themselves through the use of force. Israel exists because people with weapons established it and defend it against threats to its continued existence. Is it good that Israel exists? I do believe that it is good that Israel exists, but its “right” to exist is conditional on, well, its actual existence. The only justification of Israel’s existence that matters, to paraphrase a famous quote, comes from the barrels of its guns.

  4. 4
    C O Lindale says:

    Could criticism of Israel perhaps be anti-Semitism?<

    I suppose it could be, even though I’m Jewish and spent my entire childhood in a Zionist environment. I could be the proverbial ’self-hating’ Jew, although I love myself to bits! So what is it in fact? Can we return again for a minute to the 400 odd children, many shot in the head in the last week or so by brutal thugs in uniform. Can I suggest that anyone who believes the official line that these poor kids were killed because they were a threat to the mighty IDF, must either be naive or extremely simple. Why is it rarely appreciated that the vast majority of dissenters against Israeli thuggery, live not in the US, or the UK, or Europe – but in the state of Israel where hundreds if not thousands are sickened and ashamed at the deliberate killing of women and children in their own homes? Some day soon, those responsible will be brought before the ICC to answer for these atrocities. These are not collateral damage incidents – these are war crimes.

  5. Eva & Lilian,

    Thanks for the kind words; and, Lilian, for that very thoughtful response.

    Edited to add: Lilian, you asked

    why limit yourself to glbt issue in the law of return?

    Because I think the people those issues effect are so often so far down the list of those whose issues get talked about that they very often get left out of the conversation, period. I had not even thought about the question of adopted children who are not converted in the Orthodox tradition, and whether they would be included in the Law of Return.

  6. 6
    Tara says:

    People’s comments here are very interesting because they feel so far from my experience, which I had generalized from.

    I grew up strongly believing in Israel as a place of refuge, a belief that I definitely learnt from my glbt parents, who were also 2nd generation holocaust survivors and refugees in their own right. Although they didn’t end up seeking refuge in Israel, it was a possibility extended to them by JIAS. Also I think that they didn’t assume that there would have been a place for them in Canada, either, if Israel hadn’t existed. Of course at the time, gay marriage and civil liberties protections were not greater in Canada than in Israel.

    I suppose it’s a possibility that some day there could be genocidal tyrant who only hates Jews but is fine with other marginalized groups but I am skeptical. I think you would be hard pressed to find a historical example of that kind of thing – generally it seems that bigotry casts a wide and not a narrow net. So that’s why it’s hard to imagine the hypothetical you proposed. Also because I do know glbt Jews and Jews of color who have made aliyah, from both more and less persecuted situations. Also because the historical memory of the holocaust is very present for me, and I feel pretty strongly that if I had to choose between Mauthausen and even my worst scenario fear of ultra orthodox political domination in Israel, I would not choose Mauthausen. At least you have the chance to live to fight again another day, or to fight for civil liberties in Israel, or to stop briefly and then move on to something else, somewhere else, some other country that is accepting of both Jews and civil liberties.

  7. Tara:

    I feel pretty strongly that if I had to choose between Mauthausen and even my worst scenario fear of ultra orthodox political domination in Israel, I would not choose Mauthausen. At least you have the chance to live to fight again another day, or to fight for civil liberties in Israel, or to stop briefly and then move on to something else, somewhere else, some other country that is accepting of both Jews and civil liberties.

    I might very well make the same choice; my point was not about that choice per se, but about the position having to make the choice in the terms posited in my hypothetical would place the people in question in relation to the idealized version of Zionism that is certainly what I grew up with. That positioning is what I find problematic, and it’s not that I think this is necessarily what happens in Israel now, or even what Zionist organizations outside of Israel practice, it’s that I think accusing Jewish people who are critical of Zionism as a/are anti-Zionist because they are against nationalism per se–which is not the same thing as being critical of Zionism because it is Jewish nationalism–of self-hatred, of betraying the Jewish people is forcing onto them the same kind of positioning/choice that was forced on the transwoman in my hypothetical.

    Also, just for the record: I had not realized my scenario would have been read to imply that the fascists regime hated only Jews. You are right; that is a weakness in the scenario, but I don’t think it undermines the overall point.

  8. 8
    Lilian Nattel says:

    I think accusing Jewish people who are critical of Zionism as a/are anti-Zionist because they are against nationalism per se–which is not the same thing as being critical of Zionism because it is Jewish nationalism–of self-hatred, of betraying the Jewish people is forcing onto them the same kind of positioning/choice that was forced on the transwoman in my hypothetical.

    I think it also does something else: it puts a person in a position of rejecting her/his own values. That is a catch-22. If you are against nationalism per se, then you hate yourself. But if you do not express your values, then is that not also a form of self-hatred, ie not being true to yourself?

    As for the “I would take Orthodox Israel over, say, Bergen-Belsen,” why is the argument even being framed that way? It’s because the historical trauma is being carried forward from generation to generation. Using that analogy, what if a survivor of child abuse raises her children to fear child abuse? After all child abuse is prevalent (statistics here). A survivor of child abuse could tell her children every day about the horrors of child abuse and remind them how often it happens, how they can’t trust anyone, how people who seem outwardly respectable can be violent and manipulative perpetrators, how if they have to choose between poverty and their children’s safety, they should choose poverty, keep a bag packed in case they need to run, and so on. And what would people say about the mental health of that approach?

    My point is that the discourse about Israel as a safe haven is shaped by assumptions, projections, and beliefs that themselves are not questioned, but taken as a starting point for the conversation.

    A person does not hate himself because he rejects nationalism. To say so is based on the assumption that if you were to require a haven you wouldn’t have one, and so obviously you must hate yourself.

    Not at all. Honouring yourself and your values is not self-hatred at all. The assumptions themselves are questionable.

    I would say, Step out of the frame that someone else has created. We all have the right to look around for ourselves and and make up our own minds about things.

    My parents were child holocaust survivors. They were teens when the war ended. It isn’t like I don’t know the emotional punch that can have. I know it and my choice is to step out of the ring. I have to honour what my own heart and mind have to say about what I am going to live by.

  9. 9
    David Schraub says:

    Richard: I’m curious if you’ve read Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal by Randall Kennedy? I haven’t, but I did attend a talk he gave at Carleton focused around the book.

    The question of what discursive rules apply to those persons who adopt political or normative positions strongly at odds with what the majority of the group feels is genuinely difficult. I’m curious how many of the people who are upset by the labeling of anti-Zionist Jews as “self-hating” hold the same opinion to those (inside and out of the Black community) who call Clarence Thomas an “Uncle Tom,” “sellout”, or “race traitor”. Let’s be honest here — who among us has thought that about Justice Thomas? Who among us has let it slide when other people we know and respect have called him those names?

    I think it is very inappropriate for a non-Jew to call any Jew “self-hating”, and I think it likewise very inappropriate for any non-Black person to call any Black an “Uncle Tom”. I think there is a distinction when the conflict is intra-mural, though I am still extremely uncomfortable with these sorts of acts of exclusion (a Jew calling another Jew self-hating, a Black person calling another Black “Uncle Tom”) outside the most extreme situations. And yet, I think it also inappropriate to act as each an every political position is equally represented within any given community, or that we should simply find the branch of a community that agrees with us, pronounce them “the good guys”, and declare our obligation at good faith inter-group engagement to be satisfied. In other words: I have to recognize that Clarence Thomas’ perspective on race is a legitimate “Black” perspective (that he isn’t “selling out”, that he doesn’t “hate himself”), but I could not say that a conservative White could simply pluck Justice Thomas out of the Black community, talk with him about his perspective about race, and then say they’ve satisfied their obligation towards good faith interracial dialogue.

    Anytime someone holds two identities with a potential for conflict (even if there is no conflict in one’s own conception of the identities, because the consensus among the identity-holders is that the identities are antithetical to each other) close to themselves, there will be pressure to choose one or the other. Black versus conservative, Jewish versus anti-Zionist, leftist versus Zionist. It’s a very common predicament, because few of us take all the positions we might be predicted to based on superficial indicators.

  10. Lilian–

    Thanks for that last comment. You are, in part, into what I want to write about in Part 5; and I especially appreciate the analogy to child abuse, which I plan to use and I am glad that someone else sees a parallel as well.

  11. 11
    Eva says:

    It’ll be some time before I’ve digested everything you’ve written about here, and can form more than thank you as a response. But I want to add how much I enjoy the heft and muscle of your writing, how reading your posts is like eating a good meal – satisfying and full of flavor.

    It doesn’t hurt either that I’m learning some things I didn’t know I was ignorant of before this series of posts started. So thanks Richard and everyone else for facilitating, supporting, contributing and hosting these and related posts.

  12. 12
    iamefromiami says:

    I find the connection between Jew hatred and woman hatred very interesting. I didn’t know that blood libels had a connection to “Jewish male menstruation”?!!
    It’s unbelievable how supposedly intelligent philosophers could think such idiocy!
    Re: adoption, adopted children need to have proof of “baby conversion” (Orthodox). The main problem being that apparently not all Conservative and Reform baby conversions have a mikveh thus the conversion is not considered “valid” . Such adoptees can make Aliyah as 4A: relative of a Jew. But to get 4A Aliyah they would have to be able to prove their relationship, for instance producing a court document stating that the adoptee was adopted by the Jewish relative. Then you would have to produce proof that the relative is in fact Jewish , like a ketubah, or a death certificate showing burial on a Jewish cemetery or a conversion paper if the relative converted (ORthodox) etc. etc. it’s a lot of red tape. So in a hypothetical emergency unless Israel loosened it’s rules an adoptee might have a problem.
    On another note re: just being against nationalism, I think nationalism has always been a part of being “Jewish”. It’s THE major theme in Exodus: where the Hebrews become a nation. Part of “being Jewish” is having a sense of belonging to a people and a nation.Also I think a big problem when talking about these things is the whole, “who is a Jew?” question. If we don’t know for sure who is a Jew than we can’t possibly know who is a self hating Jew. I know people who say I’m a Jew but I think the religion is hooey and the state is evil and circumscision is barbaric -so what do they mean when they say they are a Jew? A person can be a Jew and hate the religion, hate the Jewish people, hate the JEwish state but if their mother’s Jewish they are a JEw. Whereas someone who is adopted raised Jewish but wasn’t “properly” converted and who loves the Torah and loves the Jewish people and loves the Jewish state-is not.
    That’s the Jewish law according to Orthodox. Normally I’d be really offended by this but, there is a history of xtians claiming to be true Jews or “perfected” Jews. And I think there are other groups who claim to be Jews but who are more like replacement theologies. SO I can see the strict Orthodox adherence to Jewish law as a defense against these would be replacement theologies. But on the other hand I can also see the strict “by the book” according to the law approach as lacking in mercy . But since we cannot look into people hearts and souls to determine who is a Jew, I think the Jewish law is THE decider. IF Torah law is irrelevant to determining who is a Jew then what the heck is a Jew?
    What does a person mean when they say ” I’m a Jew but my mother wasn’t Jewish ? OR, “I’m Jewish but but my children aren’t circumscised? Is it concern for social justice that makes one Jewish? Plenty on non-Jewish people have that. Furthermore people disagree on what truly is “just”.
    IS it guilt that makes one Jewish? A tendency to like to argue ? A taste for knishes or hummus? An aversion to evangelicals?
    Anyway I didn’t know 4A aliyah excluded Jews who convert to another religion. As far as I know your considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish even if you do convert to another religion . Maybe such people are considered temporally excommunicated until such a time as they come back to the fold. I don’t know.
    Okay really tired must gfo to sleep.

  13. 13
    Tara says:

    Using that analogy, what if a survivor of child abuse raises her children to fear child abuse? After all child abuse is prevalent (statistics here). A survivor of child abuse could tell her children every day about the horrors of child abuse and remind them how often it happens, how they can’t trust anyone, how people who seem outwardly respectable can be violent and manipulative perpetrators, how if they have to choose between poverty and their children’s safety, they should choose poverty, keep a bag packed in case they need to run, and so on. And what would people say about the mental health of that approach?

    Whoa. I admit to feeling a bit defensive here. Richard Jeffrey sets up a hypothetical about a doomsday scenario that explicitly referred to violent genocide and put a person in the position of choosing between violent genocide and refuge in an ultra orthodox Israel. I respond and I’m the child of abused parents being burdened with their baggage, and you apparently are a brave independent spirit who has transcended your parents’ experiences. Sure.

    Everyone agrees that we should learn from history. Everyone thinks they’re the moderate. Everyone to one side of you is ignorant, to the other side is paranoid.

    But we *can* learn from past exploitation *and* have our children benefit from our experience in a positive way. The child of divorce who is taught, ‘always make sure you have a way to support yourself and your family’? The survivor of child abuse who teaches her child – ‘child abusers can seem like nice people. If your child ever tells you she’s been touched inappropriately, don’t dismiss it just because the person she mentions seems respected and respectable. No one has the right to touch you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable, even if it’s a relative or teacher.’ etc,?

    And, yes, the survivor of genocide who teaches their children that their safety is their own responsibility, and they can’t take for granted that the government they happened to be born under will have their best interests at heart, or that a situation that has been safe will continue to be safe, that it is a good idea to develop resources, emotional and mental, that cannot be taken from you.

    I also think there’s a big difference between an individual deciding that their own safety is not enhanced by having a place of refuge, because of their identity or their confidence about the future, and that same individual deciding that someone else, even if that someone else is also Jewish, ought to have the borders closed to them.

  14. Tara @ 13: You wrote

    I also think there’s a big difference between an individual deciding that their own safety is not enhanced by having a place of refuge, because of their identity or their confidence about the future, and that same individual deciding that someone else, even if that someone else is also Jewish, ought to have the borders closed to them.

    Could you explain a little more about what you mean by this?

    David @9: You wrote:

    And yet, I think it also inappropriate to act as each an every political position is equally represented within any given community, or that we should simply find the branch of a community that agrees with us, pronounce them “the good guys”, and declare our obligation at good faith inter-group engagement to be satisfied. In other words: I have to recognize that Clarence Thomas’ perspective on race is a legitimate “Black” perspective (that he isn’t “selling out”, that he doesn’t “hate himself”), but I could not say that a conservative White could simply pluck Justice Thomas out of the Black community, talk with him about his perspective about race, and then say they’ve satisfied their obligation towards good faith interracial dialogue.

    Of course, I agree with you about this in general. Any non-Jew who wants to use her or his understanding of a Jewish anti-Zionist position as evidence of sufficient engagement with the Jewish community about Israel is wrong, not necessarily antisemitic–it depends on the specifics of how they use the Jewish anti-Zionist position–but wrong. But this is also not what my post is about. Nor, I have to say, do I find your analogies to Clarence Thomas and other conservative African-Americans convincing in general. Thomas is in a position to effect legislation that directly impacts the lives of African-Americans in the country where he is a sitting judge; the same is true of the writings/policy decisions/etc. of any other conservative African-American you might choose to talk about. Neither they, nor the African-Americans who might call them whatever term you would like to use for “betrayers of their race,” are suggesting that what is at stake is some kind of global Black solidarity.

    Jews who call anti-Zionist Jews self-hating, however, or who, as you did, call their positions “not just wrong, but extremely dangerous to Jewish lives and equality” are suggesting that all Jews, everywhere, ought to have a national identity that transcends any other identity those Jews might possess, and that if we do not claim that identity, the very fact of not claiming it–not passing legislation that is a direct harm to Jews, either in the country where we live or in Israel, not taking up arms against Israel, not going to Israel and attempting to sabotage the state, but that the mere fact of not claiming a Jewish nationalist identity as primary and/or of having a critique of that identity puts us on the same level as those who would pass legislation or take up arms or whatever against Israel and, by extension, the Jews; or–and I am not sure if this reversal really holds–against the Jews and, therefore, by extension, Israel.

    That’s the problem. Not that people have to make choices about how they construct, value and express their own identities, but that Jewish accusations of Jewish self-hatred–whatever form they take–posit that any choice other than the approved one makes you the enemy, rather than someone who has made a different choice.

  15. 15
    Emily says:

    I think that in any community, there are people who believe that if you don’t do X, you are a traitor to the community/ a bad X. We deal with that in the feminist blogosphere with “are you calling me a bad feminist because I wear high heels/stay home with my kids/whatever?” issues.

    Your post is interesting and gives me lots of food for thought, but (more than the other 3 segments) kind of made me wonder who the intended audience is. I feel like David’s comment sort of solidifies at least one major point of his first piece over at Feministe – which was to tell people on the Left, that if they only understand the POV of Jewish anti-Zionists, they haven’t really taken the time to have a full understanding of where Jews are coming from on these issues.

    With this Part 4 I guess I wonder if your audience is those Jews who hold, or presume themselves to hold (since honestly I have no idea what “most” American Jews believe about Zionism), the “majority” view about Jewish nationalism?

    Finally, I thought the part about your feeling that your masculinity was being attacked was interesting. As a Jewish woman, I’ve always sort of dismissed comments by others who think that some political position or lack of religiosity makes me a “bad Jew” in the same way I think of comments about being a “bad feminist,” but I have never really been in a situation to feel personally, intimately attacked in that way.

  16. Emily,

    I think you’re right in your comment about audience. I think was, without being fully aware of it, especially in the last section, writing more to a Jewish audience, and I think that has a lot to do with why I framed things in the way I did. Some of the comments about this piece on my blog made me aware of this as well.

  17. 17
    David Schraub says:

    I’ll drop the Black conservative analogy if you like, but suffice to say, I think you betray yourself when you say your dismissal holds with equal force as to “any other conservative African-American you might choose to talk about.” This isn’t about who is empowered and who isn’t (in some weirdly transcendental sense where Black conservatives are a major political force in America) — this debate doesn’t change if Norman Finkelstein becomes Secretary of State or if Ken Blackwell becomes unemployed (which, come to think of it, I think he is), and it doesn’t change if we move the forum to Carleton College, where being Black and conservative may be a lot more marginalizing than being Jewish and anti-Zionist.

    This post, as I read it, was about how the rhetoric of who is “authentically” Jewish (versus “self-hating”) gets deployed so as to banish dissenting voices in the community — particularly bad when their dissent flows from another important identity or political commitment that they hold dear and should not be forced to choose between. The corollary is how do we have a vigorous debate within the community over what positions are good and bad for Jews qua Jews without using this sort of “banishing” rhetoric, and without forcing either/or choices for Jews who (like all of us) have identities that sometimes clash with that which the majority of Jews consider to be “essentially” Jewish.

    Two stories (e-mails, really) from this week, may illustrate:

    #1: A co-blogger of mine, a middle-aged lesbian Jewish woman, sends me a flurry of news updates throughout the day. A few days ago, she noted the appointment of Samantha Power as a top Obama foreign policy aide with “isn’t she Hamas-friendly?”

    Now, the fastest way to get a rise out of me is to insult Samantha Power in my presence, as I think she is an example of everything right in the field of human rights and international relations. So I shot back about how she was being unfairly smeared, quotes out of context, etc. The co-blogger said I was the only Jew she knew defending Power. I noted Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. She dismissed them as buying into the “J Street fantasy” (she always deliberately misspells Matt’s name as “Iglesias” — subtle). When informed that I’m rather a fan of the “fantasy” as well, she informed me that she thought J Street “wants to destroy Israel and the Jews”.

    She hasn’t called me self-hating, but she is patronizingly saying I’m just going through a “radical dove” stage, and eventually I’ll realize I’m being “lied to”. For her part, she thinks Jews are “done” in America and that the community will essentially entirely immigrate to Israel by 2040. I said that there needs to be space for what is good for Israel and good for Jews beyond the pages of Commentary Magazine, and I think the radically-hawkish position she takes (she opposes any American diplomatic pressure on Israel for any reason) is bad for Israel, will eventually see it destroyed, and gets Jews killed.

    #2: A friend of mine, college-aged very liberal Jewish man, emails me to say that the house he lives in at school is filled with pamphlets from the Jewish anti-Zionist Network. He says that his housemates only know about Israel through what they learn from groups like the JAZN, and said “it’s like you slap ‘Jewish’ on there, and that makes anything alright”. To my eyes, the JAZN adopts a very Chavez-esque line on Israel which I find extremely worrisome on a lot of levels (I also think the way they treat Mizrachi Jews is spectacularly patronizing and racist, but that’s a separate beef).

    I agree that the proper response isn’t “these are self-hating Jews”. But at the same time, groups like this are creating the environment that my friend has to live in. He has a right to respond, and the right to respond aggressively if he thinks the JAZN is aggressively wrong, and the right to respond as a Jew if he thinks the environment the JAZN is creating in his home is threatening to him as a Jew. And he’ll have to do all that in a situation where it’ll likely be 10 on 1 against him. How should he craft he response as a Jew in this situation?

    In the same week, then, I’m being asked how to defend myself as a Jew when I’m told the positions I hold make me one who wants to “destroy Israel and the Jews”, and how do I advise another Jew who is faced with other Jews advocating positions that he feels personally threaten him as Jew? Two sides, same coin. Difficult problem.

  18. David,

    I am not going to debate the Black conservative analogy, or your critique of my critique, with you because I don’t think it would be productive. But I will say that the two examples you give are, rightly, illustrative how difficult the questions are. I did not, however, understand this part of your post: “and said “it’s like you slap ‘Jewish’ on there, and that makes anything alright”

    What is that referring to?

  19. 19
    PG says:


    I agree that any community will have a certain amount of “you’re being a bad X!” However, a great deal of this is turning the personal into the political: feminism is supposed to stand for the idea that every woman should be able to make her own uncoerced choice about whether to wear high heels, stay home with her children, etc., and those are personal choices that do not indict the high-heel wearer’s commitment to women’s being able to wear flat loafers, or the stay-at-home mom’s commitment to women’s being able to work outside the home.

    In contrast, an anti-Zionist Jew is not making a purely personal choice; he is making a political choice. David, for example, may have the personal preference never to immigrate to Israel, but he wants the immigration option to be open to others. The anti-Zionist Jew doesn’t want other people to have the option. Now, as someone who got severely dressed down in college for positing that Zionism might be a form of racism (in the context of my urging U.S. attendance at the Durban conference), I think anti-Zionism is a perfectly valid political position so long as it is well-informed regarding the history and current occurrences of anti-Semitism. But anti-Zionism is an explicitly political stance, just as a stay-at-home mom’s opposition to, say, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is an explicitly political stance, and political stances should be fair game for harsh criticism.

  20. 20
    Gar Lipow says:

    I do think though that there is a genuine distinction over the right of Israel to exist now, and whether it should have been founded. Just like most progressives in the U.S. don’t advocate giving the U.S. back to the first nations, but would admit that if you could go back to 1492 and prevent the whole genocide and the taking of this country from the first nations it would be the right thing to do. Similarly, you can argue that Israel has a right to exist now, but still argue that the whole Zionist project of taking the land that is now Israel from the people who lived there already was profoundly immoral. (And yes there were other possible Zionist projects, some even advocated by a small minority of Zionists. But the actual Zionist project as advocated by the majority of Zionists was either to expel Arabs or make them into second class citizens to have a Jewish state in the sense that Jews would dominate. ) So I think the Zionist project as it actually existed was profoundly immoral. And I reject any argument that calls this self-hating or an me an “anti-semitic Jew”. I also think that not all varieties of Zionism as it exists to day is racist or immoral and that Israel has the same right to exist as other nation founded through immoral means – which is somewhere between most and all nations.

  21. 21
    Kristin says:


    I agree with Richard’s assessment of the Black conservative analogy.

    And this part here suggests to me why we may have clashed a bit on the internets:

    “Now, the fastest way to get a rise out of me is to insult Samantha Power in my presence, as I think she is an example of everything right in the field of human rights and international relations.”

    I don’t want to derail the thread, and I have never heard her take on Hamas, but I do think she represents a fundamentally flawed approach to human rights discourse: one that supports the view that the US can–and should–make a habit of using military force in order to combat human rights abuses around the world. She is known for erecting Rwanda as a prime example of this. (I agree with her that the US response was criminally neglectful, but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as she suggests–or that military operations like this often operate so seamlessly–whatever anyone’s good intentions.). I’m relatively relieved to see someone who is concerned about human rights involved in the administration at all (given the last eight years), but I think there is much that is wrong with her approach.

    Anyway, sorry for the derail. Back to the discussion.

  22. 22
    David Schraub says:

    Richard, I imagine what my friend (those were his words, not mine) is saying is the appellation of “Jewish” in the JAZN gets used by his housemates to dismiss any sentiment by my friend that he finds the ideas of the JAZN threatening to him as a Jew. How can they be threatening to Jews — they are Jews! But their arguments are very similar to the one’s Hugo Chavez puts out that do, in fact, provoke violence against Jews (or at least any Jew who doesn’t publicly announce themselves to be anti-Zionist). A house where those ideas were considered mainstream would be one I and many other Jews wouldn’t feel safe in, but I think the housemates wouldn’t be willing to recognize the legitimacy of that fear because their ideas are shared by a group of Jews, so they must be okay as they relate to any Jew.

    Kristin, I happen to agree with Samantha Power on just about everything (including the usage of military force in cases of genocide — Power as I understand her does not advocate military force in other human rights contexts). Still, I don’t think she should be immune from criticism. But calling her “Hamas-friendly”, though, or (as someone else once did — this ruined a friendship) fomenting “a new version of the blood libel” is not criticism, it’s just reckless insulting. I think you agree that Power is someone “on our side”, and has done an incredible amount to advance the cause of human rights — even if you don’t agree with all of her policy prescriptions — and for that reason alone she deserves the respect and fair treatment (not blind agreement) accorded to anyone who genuinely is laboring to protect the equality and dignity of people around the world. (I’m not saying you were engaging in reckless insults — that was what I think my co-blogger did when she said she was “Hamas-friendly”, and that’s how one gets a rise out of me).

  23. 23
    chingona says:

    I have a lot of thoughts on this post, not all of them entirely coherent.

    I think the connection between Zionism and some sort of redemption of Jewish masculinity is important. An accusation I have seen levied more than once by Jews against Jews adopting some sort of “dovish” position toward Israel (that Israel should negotiate and make concessions, basically) is that the doves think the only correct Jewish response to violence is to die, that the doves oppose “self-defense” because the only morally acceptable Jewish role is that of victim. The person levying this charge hardly has to use the phrase “self-hating” for the implication to be clear. I don’t want to reduce a politically complex situation to a purely psychological matter, but I think the idea that Israel represents never having to be the victim again is very important in this way of thinking, and if that’s how you think of Israel, opposing Israel becomes by definition a self-hating way of thinking. In that light, someone who opposes Israel thinks that Jews ought to be victims.

  24. 24
    Kristin says:

    David: Obviously, I wasn’t siding with your former friend. I have problems with Power’s ideas on their own terms. Essentially, I think she’s overly optimistic about America’s capacity to play a “force for good” in human rights crises, including genocide, especially in the midst of the “War on Terror.” And I think that a version of her philosophy was deployed in order to justify the Iraq War (What I’ve read of hers justifies military force in response to any human rights abuses, not just genocide. I haven’t paid that much attention since she got involved with the Obama campaign/administration, though, so I suppose she could have become a bit more nuanced.).

    In any case, not meaning to detract from your point, which is that, yes, it is disturbing that what happened with your friend happened. I can’t imagine that anyone in the Obama administration could be described, moreover, as Hamas-friendly, given his stated policy priorities thus far.

    Anyway… So, my dissertation is on rights discourses… The short version of my view is that: Human rights are not an intrinsically good and/or evil phenomenon. I write about sub-Saharan African postcolonial contexts, and I think many of these provide a good example of this: In many ways, “concerns” about human rights were used to subjugate the indigenous populations (Concerns about women entering the workforce were generally used in order to create an urban proletariat.). But, at the same time, human rights discourses were used as oppositional language that was deployed to undermine colonial power.

    And so… I think Power’s view is overly simplistic, but I’d rather have someone who is committed to basic human rights ideals in a public position than someone who isn’t (That is, I very much prefer Power to Bush’s hawks.). I think the United States needs to be *very* careful–and very self-reflective–about the way it goes about deploying human rights discourses for a good long while. Remember that human rights talk was used to justify the Iraq war.

    I agree that humanitarian forces in times of genocide may be necessary. But I don’t think that the US is in a position to implement human rights anywhere in any unilateral way. I don’t think it has the kind of cultural knowledge and/or currency to do much good in a place like, say, Darfur without a multilateral coalition (and a real coalition at that). So, there is much with which I disagree with Power about, but yes…

    I really don’t think she’s “Hamas-friendly.” I simply haven’t heard her take on Israel at all, so I couldn’t speak specifically to that.

  25. 25
    chingona says:

    Through this whole series, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jewish identity and what mine consists of and the way that in the United States we are freer to construct our own version of what it means to be Jewish and to use that label however we want than any Jews have been in all of Jewish history. I think that will/would present a lot of challenges to determining who is Jewish and who qualifies for refuge in Israel if you ever saw antisemitism make a big resurgence in a country like the United States. (It probably also has implications for how likely such a thing is to occur and what form it would take, but for the moment I’m setting aside that hypothetical.)

    My mother is a non-Orthodox convert, so in some circles my own Jewishness is questionable, which in turn casts doubt on my son’s Jewishness. We’d all be covered under the current Law of Return because of my father’s unquestionable Jewishness, but give American Jews another three or four generations of intermarriage, conversion and self-made identity and it could get pretty complicated.

    And as I wrote that, I remembered reading this article about the difficulties some Israelis of American descent have “proving” their Jewishness before rabbinic authorities when they want to marry. These are Israeli-born Jews, marked as Jews on their government ID. (If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the gist is that Israel has no civil marriage and the Orthodox have a stranglehold on family matters and they run the non-Orthodox through the wringer.)

    And I realized that my own son, even if he grows up to be straight and male-identified – that is, a white, Ashkenazi, straight, cisgender man – exactly the person who is supposedly the most privileged in Israeli society – might well not be able to marry in Israel. You don’t even have to bring people who are transgender into it (which is not to say you shouldn’t, but the problems here begin before you even get to people who are marginalized).

  26. 26
    PG says:


    It’s how awfully difficult it is for the non-Orthodox to get married in Israel that made me think “Well, they’re actually treating same-sex couples pretty equally — the Orthodox don’t sanction the same-sex marriages either, so like the other folks who don’t meet Orthodox standards, same-sex couples marry outside Israel and Israel recognizes them as married.”

  27. 27
    David Schraub says:

    Chingona — I’m in a similar situation. Though my Jewishness is pretty easily established (mother nee Weissman, grandmother nee Hoffman ;-) ), my current girlfriend is very not-Jewish. If she ends up converting, it will assuredly be through a non-Orthodox process, rendering both her and my children suspect under Israeli law (the law of return would still apply, but as you said, there are many other disabilities they’d face). Which is one of the reasons I support (well, supported — they’re basically gone now) Shinui.

    To the extent that I genuinely do “self-hate” as a Jew, this is an area — I think the idea of matrilineal descent (or recognized conversion) as the only way to truly “become” Jewish is totally bogus, yet it still grabs me: I still “feel” like this defines what a Jew is, I still care that other people consider me and my family to be Jewish … and I hate myself for buying into a paradigm that I actually find quite loathsome.

    Interestingly, many of the more “theocratic” elements of Israel (such as the lack of a civil marriage option) persist due to a parliamentary alliance of ultra-orthodox Jewish parties, Shas (a catch-all Sephardic party), and the Israeli Arab parties. The former two support the rules (which are holdovers from the British colonial era) because they enhance their power. The latter supports the rules because it’s an area where Israeli law essentially grants Israeli Arabs “national minority” status and a significant degree of autonomy. The parties in the “middle” either are actively opposed to these rules (like Shinui), or are indifferent (or perhaps moderately opposed) but are willing to support them to help forge parliamentary coalitions.

  28. 28
    chingona says:

    I think the idea of matrilineal descent (or recognized conversion) as the only way to truly “become” Jewish is totally bogus

    Seems to boil down to your mother can’t be trusted to tell the truth about who your father is, doesn’t it?

  29. 29
    chingona says:

    I’ve actually been mulling the question of self-hatred and intermarriage quite a bit after reading all that negative stuff about Jewish sexuality – male and female. I didn’t set out to partner with someone who isn’t Jewish, but looking back on it, I wonder if it’s really just a coincidence that I never had a serious Jewish boyfriend. Now that I’m married (and monogamous), I know plenty of Jewish men whom I find attractive, so maybe it really was just coincidence or too small a pool to choose from at the time or maybe I’ve evolved.

    I thought a lot about not posting this because it’s not particularly relevant to the political aspects of self-hatred, but I decided to put it out there because I found myself oddly relieved when you said your girlfriend isn’t Jewish. I realized that, like you, there’s this whole paradigm I find loathsome and have rejected, but on some other level I still care what people think, even, apparently, strangers on the Internet. It matters to me that other Jewish people consider me Jewish. Maybe this isn’t irrelevant to the political discussion, after all.

  30. 30
    AndiF says:

    the way that in the United States we are freer to construct our own version of what it means to be Jewish and to use that label however we want than any Jews have been in all of Jewish history.

    I’m not sure that’s entirely true. There certainly seems to have been a great deal of freedom during the Golden Age in Spain and in late 19th century and early 20th century Germany. And it’s pretty meaningful, I think, that in both cases that ability to self-define was eventually taken away. I often think that the ability to self-define and the repeated systemic denial of that ability is a very large part of people’s strong desire for a Jewish homeland — which makes it really ironic and perhaps significant that one result of the Israel’s existence is that a lot of the intra-Jewish argument about it involves the imposition of and resistance to a rather rigid definition of what it means to be a Jew.

  31. 31
    Whit says:

    Maybe you should try “Jewish people” as an alternative to “Jews” in the exposition on the putative emasculation of Jews. Just writing that phrase is difficult, as someone who can’t and won’t be emasculated.

  32. 32
    Eva says:

    Whit –

    “Maybe you should try “Jewish people” as an alternative to “Jews” in the exposition on the putative emasculation of Jews. Just writing that phrase is difficult, as someone who can’t and won’t be emasculated.”

    There’s been a couple of comments on related posts about the different feelings and associations with “Jewish” and “Jew”.

    I was one of the commenters noting that as a child I was told by my grandmother to never refer to myself as a Jew, but as Jewish, because Jew by itself is a curse word.

    Is this the dynamic to which you’re refering? And, is “putative emasculation of Jews” the difficult phrase to which you refer?

    I’m asking because I would prefer, in my own writing, and in reference to myself and other Jews, to be able to use the word Jew without wincing, and without the need to soften the edges of my identity or the identity of any other Jews. My grandmother, God bless her, grew up in a harsher environment than I did, and, in self defense, had to soften her edges, because the world demanded it of her.

    Whatever your intent, I sincerely hope you are not asking Richard to soften the one word in all his writing that, in my not so humble opinion, should not have to be modified in order to be accepted (or acceptable) in the public sphere.

  33. 33
    Whit says:

    Eva, I was merely making a suggestion for an alternative that didn’t conflate Jews with male Jews. You know, like how mankind is supposedly humankind. I’m well aware of the many discussions about Jew vs Jewish, culture, race, and religious identity. It wasn’t the word “Jew” that makes me wince, it’s the phrase “emasculation of Jews,” as if masculinity was a good thing to have in the first place. There are also many, many posts on here seeking to criticize and deconstruct anxious masculinity. The allusion to the cuckolding, overbearing, imperious woman and the meek little man. That image is what makes me wince.

  34. 34
    Eva says:

    Whit – thanks for the clarification. My apologies for the tone of my comment, I really didn’t understand your intent.

  35. 35
    Sailorman says:

    Just a random comment that it’d be nice to continue to discuss Gaza and the peace process. It’s sort of funny: there was this war and it was everywhere; things are no less important now but the non-israel-focused blogs are not discussing it much.

    What is happening now is crucial in determining whether or not there will be another war soon (breaking any cease fire) and/or whether there will be another war as soon as the cease fire ends.

  36. Whit:

    I am curious; in what way do you think the phrase “Jewish people,” in a discussion like the one in this post, would not function like “mankind” does, conflating–or even substituting–male identity and (for) the identity of the entire group? I have been thinking about your suggestion, and somehow “Jewish people” does not end up sounding all that different to me than “Jew” in the terms we are talking about. To me the problem is that describing the thinking of Weininger requires that I accept the terms of his discourse, and trying to account for, and take responsibility for that is why I wrote the following paragraph:

    (I need to pause here to acknowledge an awkwardness in what I am writing: To the degree that I have to accept Weininger’s discourse, or any of the antisemitic discourse I am talking about, in order to explain it, Jewish women are rendered doubly invisible, since they are subsumed under the category Jew, which was understood to refer to Jewish men, Jewish women being more or less beneath notice anyway. Maybe there is a way to write this without falling into that trap and without having constantly to twist around to remind the reader of the presence of Jewish women–a rhetorical strategy that, I think, would make it difficult to write about this material clearly–but I haven’t found it. It is an example of the double bind that antisemitism, that any oppression puts the oppressed in: how to talk about the terms of our own oppression without accepting–even if only to argue against them–the rhetorical and discursive, if not semantic, boundaries set by those terms. I will talk a little bit about this phenomenon below. Here I want simply to acknowledge that I am caught in it with regards to Jewish women.)

    I am not saying that paragraph solves the problem, or even accounts for every facet of it, but I wrote it because I could not find a way out of that double bind. If you have a way of thinking about “Jewish people” that would succeed, I’d be really interested to hear it.

  37. 37
    Whit says:

    My suggestion of “Jewish people” is awkward as well, I get that. As an advocate for writing with fewer words that mean more whenever possible, it’s hard for me to justify adding words via the department of the Redunancy Department. However, I purposefully added “people” to signify the designation of all Jews, not just men.

  38. Thanks. I will have to think about that. Can I just say that I love the “Department of Redundancy Department.” I am going to steal it.

  39. 39
    FurryCatHerder says:

    There are reliable Orthodox poskim who hold that “what you see is what you get” when it comes to transgender and transsexual people. Don’t be so fast to assume that the Orthodox are big meanies when it comes to sex change.

    Where Orthodox Judaism and transsexuality collide is more about Orthodox Jews than halacha.

    Cross-dressing is still absolutely forebade in Orthodoxy, so anything short of sex reassignment is not permissible.

  40. FCH: That’s good to know. When I searched the web, all the positions I found which were talked about as decided halacha took the position I talked about in the post.

  41. 41
    Lilian Nattel says:

    In Iran transsexuals are given 50% of the cost of final surgery by the government because they are seen as an in-between gender that needs to be turned into females to prevent the “sin” of homosexuality. Then their birth certificates are also changed to read ‘female.’ However the pressure to complete the surgery and the rejection by family has severe consequences afterward. This is according to a documentary I saw recently. I know that this isn’t directly related to the law of return and Jewish transsexuals, but I think that it is relevant in terms of how an orthodox perspective, religiously, can on the one hand work around the issue of transsexuals, but on the other hand have a lot of negative implications.

  42. 42
    chingona says:

    Jewschool has an interesting post up about a recent talk given by Gershom Gorenberg on What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel. It seemed relevant to a lot of the themes that have been touched on here.

  43. 43
    chingona says:

    In particular …

    ++ The meaning and importance of having a ”Jewish state” is based in experiencing living as a majority: the feeling of being at home, where the external trappings of life/culture correspond to the internal/family ones. Of being unexceptional and ‘in tune’.

    ++ Jews in the Diaspora constantly worry about saying things that are heard every day in Israeli media criticizing the Israeli government. Perhaps it is because we know that we disagree out of love for Israel, and we can’t assume the non-Jews around us have the same motivation.

    ++ There is a dissonance between what we know (the Jewish people are weak, scattered, hated, and lost) and reality (the Jewish people are strong, linked, and more powerful and accepted than in thousands of years): this dissonance is reflected in two recent alternate-setting novels, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. We relate more to the imagined Jews of a shaky Alaskan exile or of a Nazi-sympathizing USA than to ourselves.

    And there’s more over there that speaks directly to the political situation in Israel.

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