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May 5, 2011

Posted by qvashty in Uncategorized.

May Day, 1909

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!



1. kisarita - May 5, 2011

I LOVE LOVE that pic, ,where is it from?

Agree with most of the message except for the following:

“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?”

How awful! Why continue that game? The game of using social ostracism to suppress dialogue. That is not a fantasy that is a nightmare.

2. qvashty - May 6, 2011

The picture is probably from New York’s May Day parade in 1909 or so, and the banners are about child slavery.

I’m going to have to think about your comment- not sure about what you mean about games and dialogue. I am expressing a preference for which stereotypes people will use behind my back- I’d rather be seen as a socialist than as a Likudnik, but this is not the prejudice about Jews which is expressed in our time. The question of how and why prejudices are formed is beyond the scope of my argument. But I’m not sure if that is what you mean.

3. kisarita - May 6, 2011

seems i misunderstood you. It sounded like you approved of people not wanting to be friends with people who hold a political/economic view that you disagree with, like medicaid.

4. qvashty - May 7, 2011

No, that’s not what I meant. But this post is probably not my best writing, I knocked it off to procrastinate writing something else!

5. SJ - May 7, 2011

Qvashty I’m sorry to inform you but as per the Gemarah, if you go to atheistic communism and disavow God and mitzvot, you are a meshumad (apostate) and no longer Jewish.

See here


“Tosafot in Hullin argue that not every violation of Shabbat will give a person the status of a meshumad. In fact, only someone who willfully violates the Sabbath in a public manner would be put into that category.”

Jews who are atheist communists or socialists willfully violate sabbath.

6. SJ - May 7, 2011

I of course reject the oral law so I think the gemarah is mostly full of shit. XD

7. qvashty - May 7, 2011

SJ, as an atheist I can identify with apostasy, as many others do, and the question addressed in this post was how to do so with pride. I don’t think it is reasonable to accuse all socialists of apostasy. For example there are many Jews on kibbutzim who keep Shabbat laws not only publicly but also privately, so I don’t see how this equation of apostasy with socialism makes any sense.

It is true that socialism has been a logical choice for apostate Jews, too secular and too Jewish to bother with Christianity. Socialism includes some of the noblest ideas of both traditions but does not wait for divine “justice,” like Zionism, it demands that human action take the place of pious passivity and shape our destiny. Becoming an apostate does not equate with becoming a selfish person, so many people who once tried to build the future with tefillah, niddah, and multiple sets of dishes have instead chosen to play a more active role in the struggle for a better future. For example, in czarist Russia, apostate Jews were imprisoned and executed in large numbers for revolutionary activities which threatened the despotic, Jew-hating and parasitic czars. Let’s not forget that they made these sacrifices to overthrew a wicked government which had no democratic legitimacy and no concept of citizenship for its “subjects.”

8. SJ - May 7, 2011

As a jewish born Christian I can also identify with apostasy. XD

Shmarya called me a meshumad for it but he does not have the nuts to be honest about the gemarah’s wide definition of meshumadut and he misstated that the gemarah has a narrower definition than it actually does.

But I think from the gemarah’s perspective being a socialist on economic issues does not conflict if one is shomer mitzvot.

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