About My Jewishness

written in July, 2014

My grandparents have given me many things, large and small. The most recent couple of items came wrapped in newspaper, amid a number of old cameras they were getting rid of as they consolidate their possessions in their old age. I have a fascination with old technology, and so I said I would love to have a couple of old Polaroid Land cameras and an Argus. But inside that newspaper, between the cameras in the cardboard box, there were two pieces of technology even older. They sent me two pairs of massive tailor's shears, that were owned by their grandfathers: my great-great-grandfathers.

According to my grandfather's recollection, my grandmother's grandfather Morris came to the United States in 1902. He was a tailor in Russia, and he and his wife settled in Philadelphia, where they had a son who would be my grandmother's father. My grandfather's grandfather Julius came here earlier--to New York, I think--also to practice his trade as a tailor. My grandfather doesn't remember if Julius was married when he arrived, but soon he and his wife had a daughter, that would be my grandfather's mother.

The scissors are heavy, a foot long, and made solidly of triangular steel wedges. A hundred years later, their action is still smooth and tight, and they make a singular "snip" sound as I close the blades together. I'm amazed by them the way I am by all old machines, built to last rather than built to cycles of commodity obsolescence. As far as I know, these are now the oldest things that I have.

But there is more to them than that. There is a history to these two items, a subjective past held within them that is apparent to me when I look at them and hold them. I am looking at crucial devices to my family history. As migrants to a new country, they made a living in order to build lives for themselves and their families. As they had children and worked to support them, they were building a new grounding for their existence, on the other side of the world from everything they knew and had. The two pairs of scissors existed separately, working tirelessly in their owners' shops. Those two migrant workers produced children, who produced children, who came together and produced more children. Those children saved those scissors, and as they lived and worked through their lives, they passed life and their heirlooms down to me. My existence today hinges upon these scissors. They lasted more than one hundred years, and who knows how many working hours on the job. Their steadfast cutting power was a crucial tool in the material support of a family that did not know it at the time, but would have children that would have children that would have children that would have children: and one of those children would be me.

For my ancestors, like many migrants to the United States, many diverse places and histories folded together to engender a new history. My great-great-grandfather Morris was from Russia. I believe I also have ancestors that came from Lithuania, and Austria-Hungary, though that is no longer a country. My last name is German, and no one knows why. It is suspected that it might have been garbled or changed in the bureaucratic translation of Ellis Island, as it was for many. But now we're all American. For all the reasons that my great-great-grandfathers decided to migrate to this continent, we are now from here as much as anywhere. This is where I was born, and it's where I live.

But there is another factor in play. All these ancestors on my father's side of the family are Jewish. Our Jewishness is perhaps a meta-nationality--an ethnicity that mattered more than the name of the particular country or region, even more than the family name might have mattered to other migrants. What difference is it where we came from, or what our names might once have been? We are American now, we live and work here, and we are, as ever, still Jewish.

The religious practice is Judaism, but Jewishness is an identity that Jews may have even if they have never stepped inside of a synagogue in their life. One might feel a connection to their Judaism through the words of the Torah or the Talmud, while reflecting on the meaning of religious holidays, or through any other interaction with specific religious traditions that make religion such a rich and complicated human thing. But then there is the other identity, that requires no belief or ritual. It is an ethnicity, that follows us across time unrelated to the complications of genetics and the cognitive bias that is "race." This ethnicity could exist through the sound of a family story to the ear, the taste of a recipe, or through the thousand minor fragments of self-reflective experience that build up into what we humans call "identity." Sometimes, even an everyday object, considered by a specific person in a specific way, can substantiate this ethnicity. I can feel my Jewishness when I hold these scissors in my hands.

* * * * *

Jewishness, no doubt, exists differently for every person who feels it. I remember very distinctly the first time I ever felt Jewish. It was when I was young and just going to school, probably around the age of five or six. It was the holiday season, and my father explained to me what Christmas and Santa Claus were. I knew we celebrated Hanukkah at that time of year and other people didn't. But what really grabbed my young attention was the idea of Santa Claus. Presents were bought by kids' parents, but everyone pretended, via some sort of consensual illusion, that they were from this Santa character. My parents wanted to make sure I knew it was, indeed, an illusion, and I wasn't being skipped by this mythical being because I was somehow less worthy: the unspoken assumption of the Naughty/Nice list.

The truth was that other kids at my nearly entirely Christian rural school got gifts from their parents the same as I did, but they had their own private cargo cult ritual going on as well. But with this knowledge, came important instructions: I was told not the tell the other kids. It was fun for them to believe in this fantasy, and even though I knew the truth, I shouldn't ruin it for them. Thinking back on it now, this was my first introduction to secular religious pluralism. Many other people believe things that aren't true, but it isn't your place to ruin it for them.

A formative moment for me if ever there was one. Not only was I beginning to understand the complicated human mystery that is our religious practice, I was apprehending it via the experience of being different, of being minority, of being Other. People generally assume, without evidence to the contrary, that you are just like them. They think your individuality is just like their individuality, and that it should be. Because they prefer their own individuality. They want you to feel just as pleased in hearing their "Merry Christmas!" as they are in saying it. When they are the majority, they rarely ever need consider otherwise. Except for when the non-majority is around. Often the worst thing you can do is to stand up and remind them that you are different. When you are the minority, this is what your existence always does. By being yourself, you remind them that they are not the universal. To say with one's own identity that "no, I am not Christian nor have ever been," is akin to a war on their holiday.

As I grew older and learned about an even more powerful and abusive form of Othering called racism, I folded this into my understanding of what my Jewishness was. My skin color allows me to be "white," the powerful identity in America. Even though I am different, I get to experience that privilege. I am Jewish if anyone asks my last name, but walking down the street I am white, not black or brown. I also get the privilege of looking like a man, another identity of power in the United States.

But I know how tenuous this privilege is. I know that my ability to be "white" and to have that power, can evaporate in as little time as it takes to ask, "is that a Jewish name?" There is no such thing as a white ethnicity. There is no way to prove your whiteness beyond all reproach. It is always an arbitrary distinction. What is white one minute, can be Irish the next, Muslim the next after that. What is non-Jew according to one set of social rules, can be mischling after a democratic change in government. Whiteness is power, and nothing more. As soon as anyone finds out where you are from, what you sound like, or whether the curl of your hair can hold a pencil, they can apply whatever sort of prejudice they like. They can throw you out of the club. The power of white privilege is false, abusive, hateful, and a weapon.

Since learning this, I have always made an effort to know racism and reject the idea of "whiteness". But I am also reminded of it constantly. My experience of Jewishness has always been on the border of whiteness, and someone is always reminding me of that even if I wanted to forget it. And not just the History Channel.

I live in one of the most liberal cities in the country, and in Oregon--not exactly a place with a long legacy of anti-semitism. And yet I hear it in the streets. I shrug off the small things, the simple ignorances, people who try to tell me that I'm "not really Jewish if my mom is not," or who ask "if you are Jewish why don't you wear a hat?" But the epithets and jokes are louder. There are people who think that racist murder is a funny joke because "the jews are doing okay now," or because invoking genocide is clever trolling. You think it's the twenty-first century, until you hear someone call you a "kike" in all seriousness. I hear the muttered comments by people who don't realize they are in the presence of someone Jewish, about Jews in real estate, law, the media, or just about anywhere else. I once had a young woman who considered herself to be a feminist and a sexual rights advocate explain to my face, upon learning that I was Jewish, that the reason my parents had me circumcised was to prevent me from masturbating (spoiler: it didn't work). I don't discuss my ethnicity or religious heritage with people I don't trust, because I have learned that hate is easily disguised. I have learned to recognize the symbols of the White Power movement the same way I've learned to tell if a driver ahead of me is drunk or the person next to me on the bus is fucked up on drugs. Every time I am in the grocery store behind someone with a Swastika tattoo, I wonder if they are carrying a weapon. In the film American History X, Edward Norton's neo-Nazi character says to a Jewish man, pointing at the Swastika tattoo on his chest, "it means 'Not Welcome'." It means more than that. It means that there are people who think certain lives are less valuable than others. And the person with that mark on them, is the person who thinks it is their job to decide who is less valuable. And it means that they have already made up their mind about me.

Even as I am American, I am also Ashkenazi, as I am also Western European. This identity, for me, is not just a name, a religion, or a set of holidays and traditions. This identity is a form of vigilance. I remember the importance that roots of my identity allowed my ancestors to leave their old homes, for whatever reasons that they did, and establish a continuity of their lives and identities here in the United States. I remember that our shared identity, in our own minds and in the minds of others, is what makes us not-white, both when we are discriminated against, and when we are privileged. It is this identity I use to form a coherent identity that is not reliant upon national borders, names, or privilege. The identity that I have today is based upon my family's historical ability to migrate and adapt, while maintaining themselves as individuals. The sort of Jewishness from which my identity is formed, is that which is both a memory of the way that racism functions, and a commitment to an identity that will never allow it to happen again.

* * * * *

As a Jewish American, an identity that is conscious of systematic oppression and prejudice is especially important. Just as America has always been a haven for migrants seeking a better life, it has always been a bastion of racism. The continent was claimed via genocide. The national economy was built by slavery. And the nation's political power is today maintained via racist xenophobia and religious intolerance. My ancestors' ability to become Americans is forever tainted by this history of racist power, and even as we established our own, new Jewish identities, we do so only within this context.

Today, when I look at America, I look at a country that I am part of, and yet I am ultimately disconnected from. I am American because my passport says so, because I was born within its borders, and because I have always paid my taxes here. I am American because the constitution says that I can have all the rights due to citizens on that basis, without having to swear allegiance to its racism. And so I maintain my Jewishness, separate and apart from that citizenship status. When I look at migrants jailed and beaten for trying to enter this country to work, I feel more in common with them than I do with the founding fathers. When I see the victims of drone strikes, or citizens killed with American-made weapons simply because they found their ancestral homes part of a battleground they had no way of leaving, I feel more affinity with them than with the government and its military. When Natives are told that laws of the nation--whose army massacred their ancestors--stipulate that they get only the most valueless land from now on, I feel more allegiance to their sense of homeland than to the borders of this country. When I look at photos of airstrikes a world away, in Gaza or in Afghanistan, I always notice the small signs of life lingering beyond the destruction. You can see common objects in the rubble. Televisions, chairs. Maybe a wrench, or some other common tool. Was this a family of mechanics? Farmers? Or just any other family with a tool box? I look at these objects, just like those in my house, and I think about these pairs of scissors that I now have, from my great-great-grandfathers, a century old. I will always swear my allegiance to the people whose homes are being destroyed, not those doing the destroying.

By claiming there is a significant Jewish tradition affirming modes of justice and equality that would, of necessity, lead to a criticism of the Israeli state, I establish a Jewish perspective that is non-Zionist, even anti-Zionist, at the risk of making even the resistance to Zionism into a "Jewish" value and so asserting, indirectly, the exceptional ethical resources of Jewishness. But if the critique of Zionism is to be effective and substantial, that claim of exceptionalism has to be refused in favor of more fundamental democratic values. However important it may be to establish Jewish oppositions to Zionism, this cannot be done without a critical move that questions the sufficiency of a Jewish framework, however alternative and progressive, as the defining horizon of the ethical. The opposition to Zionism requires the departure from Jewishness as an exclusionary framework for thinking both ethics and politics.

- Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism

Judith Butler, in the introduction to her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, is correct: a sense of democracy and justice must be more universal than any particular ethnicity or cultural perspective. There is nothing about Jewishness is more apt to take note of racism and respond than any other religion or identity. Rejecting oppression is a human act. And yet, my own personal sense of ethics as a human is inimically tied to my sense of my own Jewishness. As I grew up, and relegated my own experience of the world with the experience of others, and tried to balance my sense of what was right with all in the world that was wrong, I developed an identity that remains Jewish in such a critical way, that it is impossible for me to think of my own ethical action in the world without considering my sense of my own history. I cannot change the way that I grew up. I can only affect my own words and actions in the future. And so I make my history part of my resolve. The things my ancestors endured do not causally move me, but I learn from them. The times that I have felt threatened by violence, I take as training for how to escape and fight violence. The ways that I see others suffer in the world are motivation and cause for me to speak out and against racism and persecution, whether it happens on my street or on the other side of the planet.

In this way, Jewishness for me has become synonymous with anarchism, because for me, only this political perspective can form a cohesive manifold of my identity, my citizenship, my actions, and the world. Anarchism is political perspective that knows power for what it is, distrusts it in all its forms, and seeks to disable its unrestrained existence in current structures. Many well-known anarchists throughout history have been Jewish, so perhaps my experience shares similarities with theirs, but the development of this politics is my own. My Jewish ancestors maintained an identity that was independent of any national border, and they thrived because of it. I am a citizen of a massive national structure today, and yet I find myself ethically driven from the very core of my identity to criticize and protest many of its functions. My experience and knowledge of history has build an anarchism within me--who would reject the notion that any state could be just when it seeks to deprive elements of its population of rights and colonize land under its control. It has led me me distrust forms of national identity that bind individual people in allegiance to such states. It has caused me to seek out forms of identity, like my own Jewishness, that are in themselves part of a vigilance against racist violence, although my Jewishness is hardly unique in being able to do so.

Anarchism, or any other politics of justice, is capable of being a universal perspective. Justice is a human perspective. But this is not the way I came to it. I am not simply a Jewish anarchist, driven to a social justice path by a life experience that just happens to includes Jewish ancestry. My anarchism, as expressed via my unique behavior and identity, is itself Jewish. It is the content of that identity, which has been raised to be ethical above all else. I could not have an ethnic heritage that was not Jewish, just as I could not try to live a life that was not ethical. What is Jewishness? It is not a name, a religion, an Othering, a lack of country, let alone a country. It is the identity of particular persons acting ethically, in full knowledge of their place in history and in contemporary times. As I understand Jewishness, as I have interpreted and understood the lessons from my family and my experience, there is no other Jewishness for me that is not this justice, that is not anti-racist, that is not vocal in doing what is right in the face of difficult decisions. My ancestors were not anarchists (as far as I know) and my family today are certainly not. The majority of the Jews I know are not anarchists. Their commitments are phrased in different language and politics, and their allegiances speak to their own contexts and times. But it is that same ethical imperative in the core of their identities that drives us all. My anarchist Jewishness could not stand in for the ethics of those who have no relationship to Jewishness, or for my parents' ethics, or those of their parents, their parents, or their parents. My Jewishness is mine because it is mine, and it is not anyone else's. My Jewishness is an ethical resource for myself. I believe that every human being has the substance of their own ethical resources within them, whether they utilize them or not. Mine just so happen to be expressed this way. Not unlike the brilliant simplicity of the mechanism of a pair of scissors--my Jewishness and my attempts to be an ethical person slide neatly into place against each other, two blades operating together as one. A solid, heavy tool, which I will never let go.

* * * * *

It isn't one of the most widely told stories of World War Two, but there were a large number of Jewish partisans who fought against the Nazis, and never entered the camps. As many as 44,000 Jews with little to no training, and no weapons or supplies took to the forests of Poland and Eastern Europe, determined to fight, facing torture and execution if they were caught. I watched a documentary about the partisans recently, and it included a number of interviews with former fighters, all now much older. I remember very distinctly one woman, whose name I don't recall. She was speaking in a language I didn't understand, translated by subtitles. She told many stories to the camera--of how she and her brother sneaked out of town to hide in the woods, of how they met Russian partisan fighters who refused to give them weapons because they were Jews. But the story I remember most is her telling about how they blew up a German troop train. When she got to the part where the train was exploded and derailed successfully, she simply smiled. It was this unique, happy smile, as if remembering when she had cleverly solved a complicated problem many years ago. I thought about what that must have been like. As a woman in her twenties, to know the ruling forces of the entire continent wanted her dead, to sneak off into the woods to scrounge for matériel, and then finally, to succeed in blowing up a whole train full enemy soldiers. The documentary was filmed a number of years ago. I don't know if the woman is still alive today. At the end of the film, captions said where each of the partisan fighters interviewed settled after the war. Just about half had gone to the United States, and half had gone to Israel. This woman who had blown up the train went to Israel.

I try to imagine what it was like for her to blow up that train, but I will not try and imagine what it was like for her to move to Israel. My thoughts on Israel today do not connect at all to what Israel was like after World War Two, and what it would become over the next sixty years. That is not my history. I will not let it be part of my history. I will never go to Israel. I have friends and relatives who suggested I do the free Birthright trip offered to Jewish young people, or do the alternative version where you sneak off from the established tour and visit Palestine and protest and all the rest. I don't want to. Whatever Israel might have been for me, it was stolen from me by the Israel that is. There is no justification, no explanation, no resolution, and no apology that can make Israel okay for me now. What I see happening there today is so far from my sense of my own Jewishness that I must declare it anathema. It is against all I stand for, and I won't accept it now or ever.

I don't know why that woman chose to move to Israel, and I cannot judge her more than sixty-year old decision. But I look to those who claim to be building a Jewish state today and are the perpetrators of murder and racism on terrifying scales, and I think about all the ways in which Jewishness, for me, is intolerant to the notion of ever being reliant upon such an apparatus of power and violence, let alone a racist one like the state of Israel. I am not writing to debate whether or not the actions of Israel qualify as racism and murder, or whether racism and murder are ever justified. The answers to these questions are so obvious to me, in the very kernel of my existence and identity, that there is no point in even discussing them. I cannot forget or ignore the things I have learned in my life that became part of my ethical sense of justice, and I don't intend to.

If you are not Jewish you might not know this, but they have a name for us. Other Jews who support Israel, call us who do not support Israel "S.H.I.T. Jews": self-hating, Israel threatening. Not all of them, of course. Like any other politics there are moderates, and there are the non-moderates who are permitted to exist by the moderates. The politics of this situation have defined, according to them, what kind of Jews we are. If we are Jews that find ourselves against Israel because of its actions, we are, by definition, self-hating.

This is the second-worst thing about Israel, after the bombing and the forced starvation, poverty, and the murders. It forces Jews all over the world to question their Jewishness. It deprives us of our capacity for ethical action, by telling us there is no opportunity for ethical action. In the mind of a supporter of Israel such as this, there is no question for Jews on whether or not to support Israel. They equate Jewishness with supporting Israel, and therefore anyone who suggests that there may be an opportunity for ethical decision making on that point is no longer Jewish. They have "excommunicated" us, in a sense, from our own Jewishness.

On one hand, I couldn't give a damn what Jews in Israel happen to think about me. My ancestors haven't lived in the Middle East in what is probably hundreds or thousands of years. We have survived as part of the diaspora, because of the diaspora. A sense of unity with Israel or its supporters has not been a necessary part of my Jewish identity. On the contrary, it is specifically my ability to function as an individual Jew and make my own ethical choices that I find so valuable about my Jewishness. I admire the history of world Jewry for their ability to decentralize, to exist in small numbers in separate communities without hierarchical organization or even much contact. I love the way that Jewish communities in different areas have evolved their own traditions, their own cultures, traditions, and cuisines, while maintaining a sense of shared tradition as well. I could not be an American Jew if this was not the case.

On the other hand, I will never forget these particular Jews for the way they make me question my ability to speak for my own Jewishness. I look online, at the hate directed at Jews and Jewishness thanks to their actions, and I have a moment of pause. I am not ashamed to be Jewish--I am concerned. I find it difficult to talk about my Jewishness when the dialog of "Jewishness" at large in the world is phrased in the language of war crimes and racism. It is a trial to act ethically, when a core component of your ethics is used by others to justify murder, and therefore seized by others as the cause for that murder. That voice that my ancestors have given me to speak with opens its mouth, and silence comes out. Even as I ignore, decry, and speak against the sort of Jewishness that would become party to racist war, I find my own Jewishness running dry, sapped of its strength by their racist words, and by the impact of their bombs. They say I am threatening Israel, a place I have never been, and never will go. But what they are threatening is our shared history. Everything that means anything about our shared history of perseverance, of global mobility in the face of obstacles, of speaking in a strong ethical voice against powers much greater than us, is being put at risk by what Israel's government is doing. I still remember that partisan fighter's face when she described the train--but now that brave act of self-defense is in question for me, because of what an ostensibly Jewish army is doing to the land and people that they occupy.

As it should be, I suppose. Even the most justifiable act of self-defense must always be in question. That is the ethics I have. This is something that my Jewishness has taught me. And even as I worry about the fate of Jews in the United States and around the world as a result of what Israel is currently doing, I know that the sort of Jewishness I know and support--that which is ethical to a fault, in support of justice above all retribution or retaliation, and so fundamentally opposed to racism and oppressions of power structure that it would dedicate itself to a politics of non-power rather than continue the cycle of state violence that has become normalized throughout the last century--will never die, not so long as humans still live on the face of the earth. Because these values are not reliant upon Jews, they are reliant upon humans. And humans will persevere.

But I look at the tailor's shears, sitting beside me on my desk, and I feel disgust towards Israel, and these sorts of Jews that would not only commit the crimes they commit, but phrase them in a way that would make me question my own relationship to my ethical heritage. These shears are tools of Jewish labor, part of our shared history, part of my family's history, and part of my identity. In the hands of my great-great-grandfathers they were like extensions of their talented, persevering souls. Simple scissors they might be, so common in our contemporary world of material abundance. But they are my history, and they are important to me. And Israel, with the body count they feel no compulsion about continuing, made me question that history, if only for a moment. There can be nothing worse than the killing. But because of that killing, they have also made me question who I am.

In the end, they will only make me more Jewish. In the face of such unspeakable horror, I can only become more of who I am.

Thanks to those who provided edits and comments to this essay prior to publication.

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