May 5, 2011Posted by qvashty in Uncategorized.
Does anyone else from an Orthodox background feel as if the best parts of a modern Jewish identity were hidden from us? Or, as one of my friends put it, as if we were robbed of it? I’m not a big fan of identity in the first place, but I’m old enough to know how seriously people take it, and the concept creeps deeper and deeper into me despite my rejection of it.
As a young atheist in the Orthodox community, I rejected the religious aspect of Jewish identity early on. What else was left? The most visible alternative to the religious aspect of identity was the State of Israel. But even before I went to college and saw what humanists really think about the conflict there, I knew something was wrong. The tragedies of the Holocaust were used as a justification for the oppression of the Palestinians. A teacher of mine in school, who has since become a leader in the Orthodox community, told our class that the solution to the Palestinian problem was to expel them from the territories and refugee camps, then go in with tanks and machine guns to clear out whoever was still there. I knew that this was not for me, and unfortunately even secular Israelis can be morally disappointing on this issue. In fact, the truth is that this has become a shameful aspect of Jewish identity. It’s not that all people oppose contemporary Zionism because they are antisemitic; they do, however, become suspicious of Jews as a result of the crimes that have been committed in the name of Zionism. In certain circles, it is intimidating to tell people that you are Jewish or that you are Israeli, because they will assume that you agree with Israel’s worst policies. I don’t mean to invite discussion about the merit of Israeli policies here, but to point out that (heck, even if you’re a Liberman fan) it is not an aspect of Jewish heritage to wear on one’s sleeve. It is an embarrassing aspect of contemporary Jewish identity that makes many people ashamed of their heritage. Especially for a humanist. And I have on a number of occasions had to deal with prejudices based on my identity, here are some examples:
-“Well, you wouldn’t like to be friends with him, he wants there to be a Palestinian state.”
-an Arab friend of mine being asked with surprise: “you’re friends with Zionist Vashty?”
But this was all that Orthodox schools really tell about Jewish identity. They don’t tell you that in Old-New Land, Theodor Herzl describes a multicultural Ottoman protectorate with German as the lingua franca to mediate between different ethnic groups- and no army. They don’t tell you about Ahad Ha’am’s “spiritual Zionism,” which advocated for a “spiritual” center in Palestine and a revival of diasporic Hebrew culture as the main goal, or about his scathing remarks about Herzl’s political Zionism. They don’t tell you about the Canaanite movement, in which Zionists sought to create a culture that would make them brothers of their Palestinian neighbors. But maybe you’re not a nationalist, anyway? I feel profound sympathy with early Zionism, naive about the cultures of the people living in the Middle East, but peaceful, cultural, literary. I admire some aspects of early Labor Zionism, even though it grew into something unacceptable. The political movements that grew out of Revisionist Zionism and Religious Zionism, which now dominate the Israeli political scene, are even worse. And don’t get me started on American Zionism. But anyway, what if you are not a nationalist? What kind of humanist really is? Don’t worry, there is even more stolen heritage.
This year, while trying to give some contemporary relevance to the Orthodox seder, I came across what non-Orthodox Jews have come up with. Although those groups, with their fidelity to God (for example), will never appeal to me. But not only did they find examples of modern-day slavery for us to think about, they have held onto another aspect of modern Jewish identity, one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately- those Jewish movements which worked for social justice. I know, I know, it sounds corny. But what can you do when you had identity shoved down your throat for years and found that the rest of the world notices it even if you don’t?
There is something we can claim as a “usable past.” Okay, the Bund was kinda nationalist, but not in the icky European way that Zionism mimicked, and it was surrounded by other nationalist parties (Jewish and of other nations) as well. The Bund was a visible part of a much larger trend in Jewish culture of the early twentieth century. While much of the world saw the Jews as parasitic capitalists, the Jews who often labored for Jewish capitalists fought for the rights of working people through the Bund, through unions, through journalism, through socialist and anarchist politics. Those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire included Jewish and other immigrant women who had previously been leaders in a huge strike which resulted in better pay and working conditions for many in New York City. Through their work in the labor movement, Jews played a huge role in improving the standard of living in the USA. The Russian Revolution ultimately replaced one despotic government with another, but the Jews who fought and died for it only knew that they were trying to remove a cruel autocrat from power and trying to make the world better for the masses. At the same time as the Night of the Murdered Poets in the USSR, McCarthyism in the USA targeted social-justice-minded Jews. Howard Zinn wrote some magnificent books which tell American history from the point of view of the American population.
Hopefully by now, you’re at a point in your life where you don’t need me to clumsily describe this stuff to you, but can seek it out on your own if it interests you- I’m only just starting to think and learn about it myself, even though I knew in the back of my mind that it was there (hence the paragraph above is not my best writing and I know it!). But I do know that like Zionism, this is something that the Jews have been noticed for and hated for. Jewish activists were feared in czarist Russia and Nazi Germany and the USA through much of its history. But Bundism, Emma Goldman, Howard Zinn, the ILGWU, the Workmen’s Circle- these are aspects of Jewish identity that I want to reclaim for us all. I’d be way more comfortable telling people what I am if social justice was the first stereotype to come to their minds.
Here’s my fantasy:
“You wouldn’t want to be friends with them, he wants to lower the capital-gains tax and cut Medicaid.”
“You mean you’re friends with socialist Vashty?”
This wouldn’t be much of an innovation, but that’s the point. It’s an old stereotype, and it’s probably the best one we’ve got. Let’s take it back!