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.
“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:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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.