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.

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