Hitting that Dusty Trail

February’s up, and that seems as good a time as any to bring this guesting stint to a close. I want to thank everyone very much for reading, listening, reacting and commenting. I hope you found what I said interesting, and for my part I know I’ve been pushed to think in new ways by all the responses I’ve given. Some of the ideas I’ve been forwarding I’ve been baking for a long time; others were developed all in the course of this discussion. I don’t know where they’ll go, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to partake in this little corner of the conversation. If you want to follow me back home, you can find me at The Debate Link, where I blog about identity issues of all stripes, politics, law, philosophy, and occasionally boxing.

I started my contribution here by noting that anti-Semitism lacks a theory — those victimized by it can feel it grabbing and pulling and ripping at them, but we still can’t quite wrap our heads around what is happening to us. The issue is shrouded by layers upon layers of obscuring fabric: the Whiteness of Ashkenazi Jews, the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the meaning of Zionism, the meaning of anti-Zionism, the meaning of oppression, the idea that anti-Semitism is itself a fiction (or is primarily deployed as a distraction), the various motivating ideologies that lead one to partake in or justify hating, harassing, or killing Jews, and above all, constant, unrelenting fear. I’m not saying these elements are not themselves important to discuss, but if they have to be resolved before we can speak intelligibly about anti-Semitism, then we better resign ourselves to a lot of inchoate gibberish.

Jews exist at the margins of the margin — on the fissure point between power and weakness. We have influence, but not rights; [some of us are] White, but not quite. We have enough power and security that the marginalized do not accept us as brother- and sister-sufferers, but not enough to render us truly safe or secure (or truly accepted as equals). Taken together, it makes for a yawning silence, and it is untenable. It will be filled by something — not necessarily the most productive something, not necessarily the most coherent something, but something.

Christine Littleton defines the feminist method as starting “with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us.”1 It was one of those statements that really stuck with me — an empathetic approximating experience (if I may borrow from a co-blogger). The situation as it is now is one where I really, genuinely don’t feel like Jews are taken seriously when what we say differs from what is said about us. If we try to separate Jewishness as something independent from “Judeo-Christianity”, we are not taken seriously. If we try to explain what we mean by concepts like Zionism, or how we perceive many forms of anti-Israel criticism as being extensions of anti-Jewish hate, things that actually threaten us and threaten us as Jews, we aren’t take seriously.

What Jews say about themselves matters. It is important. Even when it isn’t perfectly coherent or cohesive — perhaps especially when it isn’t — something very important is being expressed. Not all Jews agree on everything, of course, that cannot be deployed as an excuse to not listen to Jews at all (or only a tiny fraction of them that confirms pre-existing beliefs), because the most damaging thing of all is the belief that you can understand us without talking to us or without taking our own accounts seriously. We are our own entity. We are not encompassed within the categories of others.

Some Jews are European, but even those of us who are, are not just that. Some Jews are White, but even those of us who are, are not just that. Many Jews are many things — rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable, male and female, straight and queer,  kind and cruel, but whatever it is we are, we are not just that. We have the right, as everyone else, to be addressed on our own terms — not forced into boxes constructed by others.

* * *

The Eighth Jewish Child — for Caryl Churchill

In response to Seven Jewish Children, written by Caryl Churchill, and condemned by Howard Jacobson, supported by Jacqueline Rose, and labeled a ‘blood libel’ by Melanie Philipps.

Tell her that it’s more complicated than that.

Tell her that we love Israel.

Tell her that we hate Israel.

Tell her that Israel is in our veins, like oxygen, like a virus, like an antibody.

Tell her that to be Jewish is far more than watching the news and looking for balance, and far more than being a Zionist, and far more than just praying to God.

Tell her that Zionism isn’t a dirty word like racism. Zionism is a complicated word with good intentions and ambiguous results, like idealism.

Tell her that everyone is a human being, everyone is their own story, and everyone you meet is a potential friend however different they may discover you are.

Tell her that everyone is a potential enemy because they fear your difference, because they fear your memory, because they fear the Muslims, because they fear.

Don’t tell her that.

Don’t mention Muslims. Don’t mention anti-Semites. Don’t mention the Holocaust. Don’t mention Gaza. At least not in the same sentence.

Tell her that she can be Jewish anywhere in the world, but that Israel will come with her. Israel is the biggest project that the Jewish world has taken on in the last few thousand years, and it needs all the help it can get, even when it says it doesn’t. Sometimes helping Israel will mean backing its actions, sometimes helping Israel will mean protesting them.

Tell her to say what she thinks about Israel wherever and whenever she wants to. Tell her not to worry about giving ammunition to our enemies, because they create their own ammunition. They do fine without needing ours.

Tell her that Howard Jacobson is right, and wrong. So is Jacqueline Rose. And Melanie Philipps. And Jonathan Freedland. And so am I.

But Caryl Churchill is just plain wrong.

Tell her that those who don’t like us will always pretend to understand us.

We don’t even understand us.

And we would never dare write a 10-minute play about it.

Tell her it’s much more complicated than that.

  1. Christine A. Littleton, Feminist Jurisprudence: The Difference Method Makes (Book Review), 41 STAN. L. REV. 751, 764 (1989) []
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7 Responses to Hitting that Dusty Trail

  1. 1
    Ampersand says:

    David, thank you so much for guest-posting here!

    You know that I’m a long-time fan of The Debate Link, but I think some of your “Alas” posts are among the very best pieces I’ve ever seen you write, and I’m really proud that they appeared on “Alas.”

  2. 2
    David Schraub says:

    “I’m a muse, stupid!” “I can give out a zillion and nine ideas a second, but I can’t keep any for myself.”

    -Muse, Dogma

  3. 3
    J says:

    Thank you so much for all your writing here. I’ve been reading all along and it’s given me a lot of new prompts for thoughts and helped me in developing my own understanding of antisemitism and Jewishness, and probably will for a long time.

  4. 4
    gunter hiller says:

    I am an eigthy-year old Holocaust survivor.
    For me, antisemitism simply means Jew-hatred.
    There are degrees of it, from mild to murderous.

    I don’t trust those who make distinctions between being anti-Zionist, or anti-Israeli and being antisemitic .
    Those arguments are European and American.
    In the Arab countries the feelings are unambiguous,
    echoes from Nazi Germany: “Nakba”, “Die Juden sind unser Unglück”.

  5. 5
    Robin St Germaine says:

    Gunter Hiller: are you there? You are a man who influenced my whole life. In 1969 I was a student of yours at UNR. My name was Robin Franke. You opened my eyes and my mind. I want to thank you, Sir. I am who I am today, in part because of your influence. I will never forget you, and I treasure the time and attention you gave to us, your students. It is reassuring to know that your voice is still being heard. We still need you.
    As inadequate as it is, again, thank you.

  6. 6
    gunter hiller says:

    Dear Robin, much water has flowed under the bridge. Much has changed,
    much has remained the same. I’m still here, still strong, still passionate
    and devoted to freedom for all sentient beings.
    I wish I could remember you: please help me! I appreciate your kindness.
    Can you write me directly?

  7. 7
    Robin St Germaine says:

    Oh my gosh! This is truly wonderful. I am so tickled to see your reply. Yes, of course I would love to correspond directly.
    My email address is robbiesue_s@yahoo.com. Fully cognizant that you taught thousands of us, I hope given further information, I may be able to “jiggle” your memory. Regardless, just to know you are surviving still, makes me smile from ear to ear. This is a joyous day.