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Israel and American Jewish Identity
The status quo has brought us failure and war. Maybe we need to reassess.
The violence in the Middle East has led numerous Jewish people to explain what it means to be Jewish in this moment. This is entirely understandable. It’s also, for me, been somewhat alienating.
One person on social media said that Jewish identity is built around the Holocaust, and that Jews in the diaspora found the Hamas attack so personally traumatizing because we’re all waiting for the next genocide. Another said that Jewish people were all personally frightened and terrorized by the Hamas declaration of a Day of Rage and protest. I saw multiple people say that all Jews in the diaspora have strong personal and family connections to Israel.
It's definitely true that many Jewish people in the diaspora feel personally implicated or threatened for any or all of these reasons. But I don’t, really. I don’t have relatives in Israel; I have never visited, and don’t have plans to visit. I was taught in Hebrew School that the next Holocaust was always imminent, but for a range of reasons I now think that’s not the best way to think about the dangers of Christofascism in the US. And the Day of Rage did not seem likely to threaten me personally, and, sure enough, it did not.
Again I’m not saying that other Jewish people are wrong to feel the way they feel. But I don’t really like being told how to be a Jew, or what I should feel as a Jew, or even where my relatives need to live for me to be a Jew. I was horrified by the murders of Israelis by Hamas; I’m horrified by the escalating Israeli war crimes. But I am wary of the way in which atrocity creates an impulse to flatten Jewish identity, both because the identity tends to flatten me out, and because such flattening is often a means of advancing political programs which I fear have done more harm than good.
This isn’t a problem, or a dynamic, unique to Jewish people or Jewish identity. On the contrary, virtually all politics is about creating a shared identity around which to rally, organize, and formulate demands. Those identities can be national, regional, racial, religious, ethnic, class-based, gender-based—virtually any commonality, even playing video games, can become politicized.
The politicization of identity is an—often necessary—way to build power and solidarity, and to see how individuals are united in interests and/or in oppression. Union drives are legal mechanisms, but they’re also ways to call people to their identity as workers, as one example. The KKK was (and is) intended to call people to their identity as white people. Political organization creates coalitions around identities, but it also creates identities, or infuses identities with political meaning. Again, this is how virtually all politics operates. Without identity politics, there is no politics.
Organizing around good causes is good. But a downside of identity politics (or, if you prefer, of all politics) is that the identities created for purposes of joint action and solidarity are almost by definition going to be simplified. The statement, “being a Jewish person means being or feeling x” is always going to leave out some Jewish people. Humans are diverse; political organizing requires a papering over of certain aspects of diversity to create shared grounds for action.
The question, then, is which aspects of identity are papered over, and in the name of what kind of political goals? What stories are we telling to create our shared identity, and to what ends?
Israel and the US
US political identity and Israeli political identity are tangled together in a range of ways for a range of goals. The United States has, since World War II, built its own sense of righteousness to a large degree on its role in defeating Hitler, which is one reason Holocaust education is so popular in the US. The Jewish diaspora in the US has built an identity in which aid to Israel and fellow-feeling with Israel is important (partially because many Jews do have direct ties there).
More recently, white evangelical Christians have also centered their identity around Israel, in part because of millenarian end-time fantasies, in part because Israel’s conflicts with its neighbor serve as a proxy for evangelical Islamophobia. US financial aid to Israel and embroilment in the Middle East has made the oppression of Palestinians a particularly important cause for the American (and global) left.
All of which puts a great deal of pressure on Jewish people to form their identity to some extent around Israel, and to use their identity to speak to Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors in general, and to the occupation in particular.
I think that’s why you get some Jewish people making very sweeping statements about Jewish identity in response to the current violence. Locating Jewish identity in relationship to a pressing, terrifying conflict feels imperative. But the violence in Israel also uncomfortably emphasizes disconnections; Israel is a long way away, and if you’re not there at direct risk from Hamas violence or Israeli bombs, you’re not there. Arguing that all Jews in the diaspora have family in Israel is objectively untrue, but it has a political valence; it gives American Jews a voice or a presence in the conversation. It’s an assertion of political identity and of political relevance.
For what cause?
I think the difference there matters a lot; if we’re going to leverage Jewish political identity, I’d (vastly) prefer using that identity to argue for peace and against a massive Middle East war that serves no one’s interests, except possibly Hamas’ and Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
I also think it’s worth considering, and maybe reconsidering, the particular identity politics which have bound Israel and the American Jewish diaspora together. Has centering Israel in American Jewish identity made peace in the region more or less difficult? Has it reduced antisemitism? What politics has it advanced, and what politics has it made more difficult or impossible?
I’m sure many people feel like it’s not the right time to talk about these issues, and I wavered on writing this. But at the same time they seem like crucial questions. The terrifying success of the Hamas’ attacks were, among other things, an indictment of Netanyahu’s policy of repression. What do they say about an American Jewish diaspora consensus that struggled to articulate a critique of those policies?
If we don’t question our politics now, when they have led us to (or at least have failed to prevent) this disaster, I don’t know when we will. And since all politics is identity politics, questioning our politics also means reassessing who we are and who we want to be.
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