my journey to palestinian solidarity and the myth of the self-hating jew, part 1

The Self-Hating Jew.

This is what I am, according to some.

There's a line from an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical: "I've been called many names, but they're the strangest."* I think of this every time I hear or read the expression "self-hating Jew". What a bizarre turn of phrase. Is it like a self-cleaning oven, or a self-basting turkey? No need to hate me, thanks, I've got it covered!

A "self-hating Jew" is the term given by some Jewish people who support Israel's policies and actions towards the Palestinian people to other Jewish people who do not support those policies and actions. If that's an awkward sentence, it's because I'm avoiding the shorthands of "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian," as that is oversimplified, and open to complaint.

In short, a "self-hating Jew" is a Jewish anti-Semite. A Jew who is ashamed of being Jewish, who doesn't like to admit her Jewishness, and who avoids being identified as Jewish. A Jewish person who wants to "pass" as non-Jewish. An Uncle Tom.

Apparently the expression has a complex history. However, the way I see it used - the way it's been hurled at me from time to time - is anything but complex. It means: shut up. It means: I'm not listening. It means: your opinion was formed by your own personal issues, not by your examination of any material conditions, not by reality. It means: I am avoiding meaningful discussion by dismissing your views with an ad hominem attack.It's like a man, when confronted by a woman upset at his behavior, saying, "You must be PMS". A nasty piece of avoidance.

I've long wanted to unpack this accusation, and to examine it in the context of my own life. Three facts are given: I am Jewish, I was raised to support Israel, and I now support a free Palestine. How did I get from there to here?

I am Jewish

I am Jewish. As an adult, I am a non-observant Jew, which means I no longer observe any of the prayers, holidays, or rituals associated with the religion of Judaism. I've chosen to be non-observant because I'm an atheist, and this path feels most comfortable for me. Many atheist Jews choose to celebrate Jewish culture in a secular way. Mine is a personal choice, and certainly not the only way to reconcile a Jewish identity with atheism or irreligiousness.

Being Jewish is my heritage and my original culture. It is my ethnicity. When my ancestors lived in Eastern Europe, Jews were isolated into ghettos or shtetls, not integrated into the dominant culture. Thus, my people were not Russian or Polish or Belorussian. They were Jews.

Both my parents were raised in Jewish households, with some idiosyncratic mix of old-world Yiddish culture and new-world Jewish Americanism. My parents, uncomfortable with the conservative, Yiddish type of Jewishness, accidentally found a better fit with a liberal, reformed synagogue in the New York-area suburbs where I grew up. That culture was Jewish, liberal (in US terms), and Zionist. There was no contradiction, in their minds, between liberal values and Zionism. More about that in a bit.

I was raised to love Israel

I grew up in a political household. I can't call myself a red-diaper baby, but my parents' progressive political views were very present in our home and a strong influence on my development. I grew up during the era of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. My parents were adamantly opposed to the war and strong supporters of integration and equal rights.

I grew up in a Jewish household. My siblings and I all attended Hebrew school, meaning after-school religious instruction. We were Bat and Bar Mitzvah. Through most of my life, on Friday nights we lit candles, said the Shabbat prayers over candles, bread, and wine, and attended Friday night services. My parents never worked on Jewish holidays and we never went to school on those days; we would normally go to temple and do whatever one did at home for that holiday. Our synagogue was reform, which means there were a lot of things we didn't do - we weren't kosher, we drove to synagogue (as opposed to walking), and all kinds of other things that, according to some people, made us barely Jewish at all. But we identified as Jewish in every way.

I also grew up learning about anti-Semitism. I knew about the concentration camps, about pogroms, about the Russian Jews who were not allowed to emigrate. I knew about the outsider status of Jews in the US, less so in my world than in my parents', and less in their world than in my grandparents' day. My parents believed that Jews had a special interest in the civil rights movement, a special obligation to justice and equality. Our Passover seder was always about civil rights. Our rabbi always related the story of the Exodus - the story of an oppressed people moving from slavery to freedom - to Selma and Montgomery, to the bus boycotts, to the huge marches on Washington. You may find this ironic, given some of their other beliefs, but they intended no irony, nor did they detect any.

My parents were Zionists. Our synagogue was Zionist. This meant supporting Israel against her Arab antagonists. Israel was, to them, a fragile but tenacious outpost of democracy in an otherwise backward region of the world. Israel had made the desert bloom. Israel was experimenting in socialism. Israel was fighting for her life. Israel was where Jews could find refuge if they were suddenly unwelcome in their countries of origin. Israel was surrounded by enemies who sought to destroy her. Jews needed the possibility of Israel and Israel needed our support.

Whether you consider this a completely fabricated myth, or completely accurate, or anywhere in the middle, this was the Israel of my childhood, the Israel I received from my parents and from my Jewish community.

My understanding of anti-Semitism was intimately connected to my understanding of our support of Israel. I knew I could claim Israeli citizenship if I needed to. We needed Israel because we were Jews, and without Israel, Jews were vulnerable to discrimination, persecution, even genocide.

I'm not saying this was spelled out every night at dinner. But it was the message we received.

Next: I discover a disconnect, and have a gradual awakening. Part two here.


* It appears that this line was altered in the movie version of "Evita," but if you can find the excellent original Broadway cast soundtrack with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, you'll find the line in "High Flying, Adored". I wonder if the film producers thought Madonna shouldn't say that line?

** I use the term support, but really, what does my support amount to? What did I do for Israel and what do I now do for Palestine? These are difficult questions for every activist, and any compassionate person. For now, let's agree that the term support refers to my own opinions, however insignificant they may be.


johngoldfine said...

Only the psychological and social explanations in the wiki article rang a bell. It had barely occurred to me before that 'self-hating Jew' and 'antisemitic' might be conflated or synonymous.

I was raised in a family that could reasonably be called self-hating Jews, if by that you mean that they aspired to the manners, leisure activities, clothing, accents, schools, and so on of North Shore (Massachusetts), Mayflower descendant WASPs. They were horrified by 'Jewish' vulgarity when they saw it--often enough, alas--and asked for nothing more than to be mistaken for respectable Jews of German origin instead of the Litvacker and Galitzianer truth of the matter.

(It was a great point of pride for my mother that her paternal grandfather emigrated in the 1870s before the pogroms of the 1880s brought the hordes and that he was first a farmer in the USA [Only later did he get into the rag trade....] That her own mother's people from Eastern Europe settled in Montreal made them practically Parisian in sophistication and cosmopolitanism as far as she was concerned.)

But the point is that my family's interest in all things Jewish was tepid in the extreme, if tepidity can be extreme. The family was indifferent, uninterested, and largely disinterested. Perhaps they shared a bit of the 'suburban' prejudice against Jews so common until the Second World War but to call that sort of thing 'antisemitism' is looking at antisemitism anachronistically through the lens of the Holocaust, which forever changed its meaning.

That is to say, we can't put my mother in the same box as Hitler, not without making the word antisemitism meaningless (and the people who would insist on the firmness of the category boundaries either stupid or disingenuous.)

And the meaninglessness and stupidity of the term and its apparent synonym as applied to you and to people with your views is exactly your point.

I don't agree with your views of solidarity with Palestine, but I don't see how holding your views would make you either antisemitic or self-hating.

laura k said...

Thanks for that, John.

My grandmother was (strangely, from my perspctive) proud that she was born in the good old US of A, unlike most of her contemporaries (including her husband!) who came over when they were children. And her husband, who came over at age 5, and so had no accent, was superior, in her view, to people who came over when they were older, and so always had those shameful shtetl accents. FFS! I believe in her heart Nana also aspired to be a German Jew, so much more cultivated and refined (and usually richer).

IMO, the existence of the Holocaust presents no problem with calling a casual Jew-hater anti-Semitic. We needn't compare all bigotry to the most extreme version of that bigotry. Indeed, there's a danger in doing so.

People can be racist without being white supremacists, they can be homophobic without being the Ugandan government, sexist without being the Taliban. We have to be able to talk about every-day, garden variety bigotry, without falling into a binary trap, on or off, good or evil.

Amy said...

I am very interested in seeing where you are going and how you get there. My own journey has been quite different. I grew up in a secular Jewish home; we did not belong to a synagogue, we did not celebrate Shabbat or any holiday other than Chanukah and Passover (not even Yom Kippur), we did not have bar/bat mitvahs, and we did not go to Hebrew School. Israel was NEVER talked about at all.

My parents are atheists and liberals; they took me to anti-war rallies and concerts, and they taught me to hate prejudice, oppression, etc. Religion had no place in their lives (and still does not).

As an adult, I was very curious about what I had never been taught about being Jewish. I read a lot before I got married, but since I married a man from a family more like yours (but quasi-Orthodox), I learned even more after I got married and then even more after we had children. I became spiritually connected to Judaism in ways I never expected and that left my parents completely bewildered. Although I still live a mostly secular life and rarely go to synagogue these days, I do feel a more than secular connection to Jewish holidays and rituals.

Having said that, I remained fairly indifferent to Israel until we went there in 1997. I had always seen Israel as just another foreign country, though one to which I felt some kind of historical connection. Visiting Israel made that connection more visceral, more emotional for me. I like to think I am not blind to Israel's faults, just as I am not blind to the USA's faults, but nevertheless I feel a bond that likely muddies my objectivity.

Anyway, enough about me! I find our differing journeys fascinating. John's experience seems like a third variation on the American Jewish experience, and I am sure there are many, many more. What it means to be a Jew in today's world is a puzzle for us all. I find "self-hating Jew" to be a terrible term, one that some people would apply to my own parents, yet they are far from anti-Semitic in anyway.

Amy said...

Oh, FWIW, my father's family WERE German Jews who came to the US in the early 19th century. When my father married my mother, whose family were Eastern and Central European and first and second generation Americans, my father's mother and sister were very disappointed that he had married beneath his class.

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. There's a good bit of the American Jewish experience there, between my family, yours, H's, and John's!

The rest of the journey is not about religion or culture, but about politics. My politics destroyed my connection to Israel in the same way it severed my connection to the US. It's not easy to sort out... but you'll let me know if it ends up making any sense.

Amy said...

I look forward to reading about it. I know some of your views from other posts, and I generally have avoided commenting. As I said, I find it hard to be objective about Israel because I do feel an emotional tie--- though not like those of my in-law relatives or some of my friends who are unwilling to accept almost any criticism of Israel. But I know that I feel some need to defend Israel even when I have misgivings about some of its actions.

So your views may very well make sense to me on a cognitive, rational level, and yet I may still have trouble agreeing with them because of the emotional issues they may create for me.

laura k said...

I totally understand - because I was the same way. My mother has the same issue, only for her, the emotional connection is one of a lifetime.

On one of my recent visits with my mom, she actually said, "We can't excuse away everything just because it's Israel. We can't hold Israel to a separate standard about forget about human rights." I was shocked. I thought, this is because I got her listening to Democracy Now. :)

Amy said...

I don't think my in-laws would ever have gotten that far, or at least they never would have said anything remotely critical of Israel out loud!

My own parents, however, would likely be where you are on the issues. And I am probably somewhere in the middle---more like your mother!

laura k said...

Oh yeah, I got that. My father defended everything Israel did, always, even admitting to jingoism where Israel was concerned. And to do anything less was to be... you know what. I know your relatives very well, on this issue.