Identity and its Discontents
Updated: Sep 30, 2018
The recent furore over anti-semitism in political circles in the UK pushes me back again into that circle of identity: Jew. When asked why he called himself a Jew, though he didn't adhere to any practices or beliefs, the open-hearted thinker Isiah Berlin responded 'because they won't let me forget.' 'They' is anyone who singles out the Jew as Other, projecting onto that screen ugly traits deserving of annihilation. It's wearying, and I wish not to engage. But present tensions compel me to once again examine the knots of my own Jewishness , striving to make peace with its contradictions.
On one hand, the tentacles of Jewishness form immense bonds of warmth and clarity. When my mother died, Jewish mourning rituals--covering household mirrors, sitting on a low stool, tearing a piece of clothing--were immensely comforting as was the support of the community. On the other, the communal grip can strangle, squeezing out those not deemed acceptable to the tribe. When I chose a non-Jewish mate, my then rabbi refused to take part in our ceremony.
Perhaps Jewish particularity and insistence on maintaining non-adulterated ties at any cost comes from the small number of Jews in the world. Hard as it is to believe, Jews are only 0.15% of the world population and about 0.5% in the UK[i]. Current demographics indicate that right-wing religious Jews will soon be the majority UK Jewish culture. For a secular Jew like me, this shift towards a rigorous, 19th century Judaism as touchstone of legitimacy is troubling, pushing me further into seeing myself primarily as a rootless London cosmopolite, grateful to live in this city-state's diverse cacophony.
Israel has only made things worse regarding the vexed issue of Jewish identity. Irony of ironies, the existence of the so-called Jewish state both feeds anti-semites and starves those of good will who see Israel as a nation-state accountable to norms governing any country. Israel and many of its supporters want it both ways: Jewish and a nation; a democracy yet one permitting its priestly class, the rabbinate, to decide matters of public policy; an occupier of other's lands and a defender of the rights of a beleaguered people --so long as those people are Jews.
Rage against Israeli policies is one of the hardest challenges for a Jew like me who wishes to loosen long outworn ties whilst not adding to the chorus of Jew hatred. The line between opposing Zionist policies (using Zionist as a descriptor of those who define Israel as the legitimate homeland of only the Jews) and being anti-semitic is a thin one.[ii] Boundaries keep getting crossed. Anger at Israel often gets conflated with dirty words used to insult and threaten Jews. Jews who are critical of Israel are often accused of being self-hating. Jewish self-righteousness rears its head, insisting that the age-old slaughter of Jews can only be avoided if Israel is implacably unyielding and if Jews everywhere give Israel unquestioned support.
It's a mess, and the noisy and ugly non-conversation is exhausting. I struggle to be clear. I want institutional anti-semitism rooted out. I want Israel held responsible for its inhumane and immoral human rights violations. I want my fellow Jews to insist that Israel is a nation-state and not allow it to move further into a theocracy answerable to a god but unaccountable to international law. I want Israel to take its chances as an open culture, federated with neighbours Jordan and Palestine. I want to shut out the voices in my head that tell me I'm betraying the Jews by thinking this way.
As the ancient Hebrew priests invoked, 'ken yehi ratzon': Let it be so.
[ii] See the London Review of Books, Vol. 40 No.01-4, January 2018; page 18: The 'New Anti-Semitism' by Neve Gordon, an excellent discussion disentangling the threads of so-called anti-semitism from criticism of Israeli policies.