Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Panelspiel on Antisemitism

The following are my notes for a panelspiel I did about contemporary U.S. experiences of antisemitism. Since there were five of us on the panel, I did not have to be comprehensive, and I chose to focus primarily on examples of cultural-level antisemitism (as opposed to individual acts or institutional policies). I'm currently thinking about how to transform this into a more reader-friendly piece, to be printed rather than presented. Any ideas, feedback, talkback, or anything are very welcome.

I’ve noticed that a lot of smart, well-intentioned people, who understand a lot about the dynamics of oppression, seem to find antisemitism “subtle” or difficult to recognize. I think one reason for this is that they are looking for oppression on the basis of religion only, because they think of Jewishness as just merely a religion. Actually Jewishness is about not only religion but also ethnicity, culture, history, and other factors. The assumption that Jewishness is a religion only serves to disguises examples of cultural antisemitism, and also it is cultural antisemitism.

So I’m going to start there, and move through several categories of what I see as cultural antisemitism. For each category I’ll try to give examples from the dominant culture, from lefty or progressive culture, and also as I’ve seen myself and others internalize these ideas.

Jewishness as Just Merely Religion

In dominant culture, cultural antisemitism is

  • The assumption that Jewishness, like Christianity, is just merely a religious that can be separated from culture, and
  • That therefore Jews who are not religious have nothing to say about Jewishness or antisemitism, and
  • The invisibility of secular Jews, and
  • People’s failure to imagine Jews doing anything “as Jews” that’s not religious. For example some of my friends often fail to distinguish between me going to religious services and me going on a hike on Saturday afternoon with some Jews.

On the Left, cultural antisemitism is expressed in

  • The assumption that faith work in general doesn’t fit in the secular left, and that naming a Jewish identity or drawing on Jewish tradition is the same as drawing on religion.
  • The assumption that one can’t be a Jew and an atheist, or a Jew and a socialist. If I’m convincing as a lefty, I must not be really Jewish (or not be “very Jewish”). If I’m convincing as a Jew, I must not be really lefty.
These forms of cultural antisemitism may be internalized as
  • The sense that I am not Jewish “enough” - to speak “as a Jew,” to claim holy days off, to lead a religious service, or even to lead a secular Jewish project. And I could say that this is because I didn’t grow up religious, but actually, almost every Jew I’ve ever talked to has similar experiences. It seems there are infinite reasons one is “not Jewish enough” to “count” as a Jew – because I’m not religious, because I’m not a Zionist, because I don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, because I’m not connected enough with my secular heritage, because none of my grandparents were in Europe during the war, and on and on. None of these actually makes someone any more or “less Jewish.” But the sense that one is “not Jewish enough” leads to Jews silencing ourselves as Jews.

After I started thinking this stuff through, at a certain point I thought, “Oh, yeah! Christianity is not just merely a religion, either! Just like we could talk about Jewish culture, we could talk about Christian culture!” But, Christians don’t seem to know this.

The assumption that Christianity is just merely about religion, not culture, makes it difficult for Christians to notice when Christian values, habits or patterns are being privileged in society, especially if those values, habits or patterns are not explicitly religious. It also makes it difficult for non-religious people who are culturally Christian to recognize the cultural privileges that they receive. This leads me to my next category,

Privileging of Christian Norms over Jewish Norms, and belittling of Jewish Cultures

In dominant culture, this can look like

  • It is generally acceptable for non-Jews to be completely ignorant of Jewish cultures and traditions.
  • Christian traditions are considered to be normal or even “secular.” Sometimes the centralizing of Christian traditions is so thorough that people don’t even notice that the traditions are Christian. For example, last year on the Shabbos during Pesach, which also happened to be the Saturday before Easter, I went to get a haircut. The person saw me take off my yarmulke and stuff it in my coat pocket before sitting down in her chair. After “what number do you want on the sides?” her next question was, “got any plans for Easter?” I said, “I don’t celebrate Easter,” and she said, “Oh yeah, I knew that,” and she gestured to her head where a yarmulke would be, “but, it’s still like a day to have a party or something, right?”
  • The weekend is structured around Sunday as a Sabbath. If the weekend was structured around Saturday, people would get time off work on Friday and Saturday, to provide time to prepare for Shabbat. (This is particularly ironic given that many leaders of the labor movement – “the folks who brought you the weekend” - have been Jews.)
  • Jewish cultural norms, such as interrupting in conversation, speaking loudly, and disagreeing directly, are considered impolite.
  • Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews, is used as a comic stunt. When I use Yiddish in public, people laugh at me even if I am not making a joke. Until recently, many scholars did not consider Yiddish to be a “real” language at all.

In lefty/progressive culture, this comes out as

  • The assumption that all religion is like Christianity, and is oppressive and regressive. (For example a professor once declared to me, “All religion has a problem with sexuality that’s not for reproduction,” which simply is not true of Judaism.)
  • In groups or committees when we establish group norms or guidelines, certain items like “not interrupting” privilege white, upper-class, protestant culture.
  • Supposedly secular progressive groups would never dream of scheduling a meeting on Christmas Day, but they do routinely schedule meetings on major Jewish holy days, often without apology.

When we internalize these norms, here are some effects:

  • As a kid, and still, gentile friends think it’s polite to ask me to join them for Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts, etc. I feel cautious about inviting gentiles to Jewish events, and usually invite only a couple of gentiles who I trust a lot.
  • Likewise when I was a kid I went to Sunday school and church with Christian friends of mine, because that’s just what they did on Sundays and if I wanted to hang out with them I would have to tag along. I have almost never invited gentiles to Jewish religious services. The few times I did, it was someone who was my best friend or lover, and every time I felt nervous that the experience would put distance between us. Some times, it did.
  • When I went to church with Christian friends, I knew to tuck my Mogen David into my shirt so no one would see it. Nobody told me to do this, I just knew. When my Christian friends (rarely) came to synagogue with me, they did not think to put away their crosses, and had to be reminded to cover their heads.
  • The sense that it’s too much to expect for it to be any different than that, even from adult gentile friends now.
  • At least three of my great grandparents had two first names – a Yiddish one they used in Jewish company, and an English one that was on all their legal documents. I didn’t learn their Yiddish names until I was 24 years old (although I had met two of them multiple times when I was a child).
  • Jews (including my family) celebrating Christmas because it’s the American or “secular” thing to do.
  • When I was a kid, wanting my hair to be straight and shiny because that meant pretty. (After I went to Jewish summer camp and was exposed to the idea of “Jewish hair” being kinky and dark, I wanted my hair to be kinky and dark so I would “look Jewish”.)
  • People who are visibly Jewish, for example people who wear a yarmulke in public, are subjected to stares, ignorant questions, and sometimes outright harassment.

Jews as Rich and/or White and/or Powerful, and therefore Antisemitism as Not a Real Issue

In dominant culture, the assumption that Jews are necessarily rich, white, and/or powerful looks like:

  • The recurring conspiracy theories about Jews running the banks, Hollywood, New York or the world.
  • Ignorance about how small the Jewish population is, in the U.S. and in the world.
  • The invisibility of secular, poor and working class Jews, Jews of Color, Sephardim and Mizrahim.
  • The sense that antisemitism only ever happened in Europe, and anyway ended in 1945.

In lefty/progressive culture it looks like:

  • Resistance on the Left to seeing antisemitism as a unique phenomenon worthy of study and action, seeing it rather as just a side effect of the real issue, which is usually race or capital. For me this means that when I name an example of antisemitism, I often feel the only way to convince progressives of its legitimacy is to make a parallel to racism. But sometimes there is no parallel; racism and antisemitism do not work in all of the exact same ways.
  • The sense that Jews who speak up about antisemitism are distracting attention from the real issue, usually race or capital.
  • The sense that white Jews who talk about antisemitism obviously aren’t dealing with their own white privilege. (And sometimes, the use of this idea to shut down white Jews by claiming that whiteness is the relevant factor in a situation and Jewishness is not relevant.)
  • The failure to imagine degrees of antisemitism. If we’re not in immediate danger of being gassed, it must not be antisemitism. (Jews do this to ourselves, too.)
  • The use of race/ethnicity as if they are one concept – which does not allow for the positionality of white Jews as privileged in racial terms and oppressed in ethnic terms.
  • I think race is complicated. I can see this especially among Jews. The correlation between skin color, ethnicity and racial identity is far weaker for Jews than what we usually assume. I know white Ashkenazim (who are “obviously” white in the dominant construct) who are easily mistaken for light-skinned black folks, and Mizrahim (who are “obviously” people of color in the dominant construct), who are easily mistaken for white people, and other Mizrahim who are easily mistaken for Black Africans, or who are Black Africans. The antisemitism part comes in when I point this out as a nifty, convenient example of that race is a social construct, and gentiles (including people who study race and racism for a living) say, “Yeah, Jews are so complicated,” rather than, “Yeah, race is so complicated.”
  • The habit of some progressive people of blaming racism, sexism, or especially homophobia, on “Judeo-Christian” values. This not only blames Judaism for oppression, but also fails to distinguish between Jewish culture, and 2 millenia of Christian cultural interpretation of ancient Jewish texts.

When these assumptions are internalized, they may come out as

  • The fear of “maybe it is a conspiracy – maybe it’s not okay for me to be strategizing with other Jews about antisemitism we encounter in our community.”
  • The sense that any antisemitism I experience is not bad enough to complain about, because it doesn’t compare to what my grandparents went through, and/or because antisemitism currently is not “as bad as” racism, U.S. imperialism, etc.
  • As Jews we are taught to believe that we don’t deserve allies, and that we can’t trust our allies. (As a child when I first learned about antisemitism, I found myself judging friends based on whether or not they would have hid me.)
  • The sense that it is probably dangerous, or at least unwise, to be talking about my own internalized antisemitism in front of a group of mostly gentiles.

The Thing about Israel

In dominant culture, the thing about Israel is simply

  • The assumption that all Jews are Israelis (or at least Zionists), and all Israelis are Jews, and
  • Blaming American Jews for U.S. policy in the middle east, which may benefit or appear to benefit the State of Israel.

In lefty culture, it comes out as

  • Blaming American Jews for U.S. imperialism in the middle east, which may benefit or appear to benefit the State of Israel. (What’s that? I said that already? That’s because in this case, lefties often use exactly the same anti-Jewish rhetoric as people on the conservative right. They may disagree with U.S. policy for totally different reasons, but both groups find it convenient to scapegoat the Jews.)
  • The left’s passion about voicing very legitimate and necessary critiques of the policies of the State of Israel, while failing to leverage the same critiques at the U.S., at France, at Sudan, at Germany, or at any other nation that is currently enforcing racist policies.
  • The reality that any Jew who speaks on any progressive cause must sooner or later identify their position on Israel/Palestine. If I’m out as Jewish, and I’m working on something like, say, a union rally or a GLBT event, especially if I dare to mention that my Jewish values are part of what brings me to this work, people are going to start asking me if I’m a Zionist.

When we internalize this, some wacky things can happen:

  • The sense that, as a progressive Jew, I am not a good enough activist because Palestine is not the primary issue I’m working on.
  • When I have a date my mom usually asks, “is s/he Jewish?” and she’d be okay either way, but the correct answer is “yes.” One time I met a guy at a Jewish event, so my mom knew he must be Jewish. So instead she asked, “is he very Jewish?” and the correct answer was “no,” and it took me a while to figure out that what she meant was “is he Zionist”.

Jews as the perfect outsider, or as just terribly irredeemably weird.

In dominant culture this may come out as:

  • The client who, upon learning that I was Jewish, asked whether I was related to the one other Jew he’s ever met.
  • The occasional gentile who still feels tempted to feel a Jew’s head, to check for horns.
  • In elementary school, the other kids’ holidays were recognized with parties during snack time. My holidays were recognized through projects for Social Studies.


  • The sense that I am just different, will always be on the outside of communities, that no one will ever understand me.
  • My great-grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1929, which was the last year that most Jews could get visas into the U.S. until the end of WWII. One time I asked my dad, how did she know that it was time to leave? His answer: “I guess she was just tired of living in a country where she was a foreigner.” A foreigner, in Poland, where her family had been living for approximately four hundred years.
  • I never felt drawn into patriotic events or language. When politicians speaks of “Americans,” I’m never sure they mean me. Just as my great-grandparents were never Jewish Poles or even Polish Jews, but always “Jews living in Poland,” I have noticed I think of myself as a Jew living in the U.S., or as an American Jew, but never as a Jewish American.
  • On GLBT panels people often ask me when was the first time I knew I was different. I’m always tempted to say, “Well, always … but being queer might have been the least of my differences.”

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Extra! Extra! Trannies Overrun Beacon Hill

This past Tuesday, 120 trans people and allies packed the Massachusetts statehouse to show support for HB1722 - An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes. (For details, see the Mass Trans Political Coalition website.)

Have you ever seen a group of 120 trans people in one room? Most people have not. I have had the privilege a couple of times - at the now-defunct True Spirit conference, for example. Inevitably, it's a colorful crowd. Many of us trans people are so queer that gay pride groups are ashamed of us, gay rights groups are afraid of us, and gay business owners don't want us in their bars. (If you think I am exagerating, email me, and I'll send you citations.) Many of our allies are so queer that they're in the same boat. If we're queer enough to make even liberal gay people nervous, what's our effect on a bunch of (mostly) straight legislators?

I know there are all kinds of rational reasons to be glad about this news. But right now, the reason that's most salient for me is that I just enjoy the idea of that many drag folks, genderqueers, transvestites, transsexuals, etc., etc., crammed into a dignified room with white walls and brown woodwork, speaking to legislators in drab grey suits. Imagine the glitter. The leather. The piercings. The five-foot dudes and six-foot ladies. What can I say? It tickles me!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Understanding Injustice

Not long after my “Being a Duck on Easter” post, I got a message from a friend who’s studying abroad in Europe. She is studying, among other things, the history of the Holocaust and the current events of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Here are some brief excerpts of her letter (her name also starts with D). (The letter also references my "The Weather at Auschwitz post.):

“… The body has no response. I am overflowing. … In my time here, I have learned what too much is. I have never seen too much. I have never felt too much. … And I'm thinking about the blog entry you wrote yesterday. … I want to take that blog entry and shove it up your ass. Because, in the words of the generations before us, what the fuck do we know from antisemitism? What do I know? … And what if overflowing is not too much? At 120 degrees, the body can still function. You don't start to boil, or bake. Is that what it will take before I can feel like I understand this world?
And here is my response:


What do you mean by "understand"?

I asked a young trans person I know if people have to experience anti-trans oppression in order to understand, or if they have to experience body dysphoria in order to understand. He seems to think they do. I have often asked a low-income friend of mine if people have to experience poverty before they understand. He is undecided. People I love have come near to dying of poverty, several times that I was aware of. I want people to understand. But I don't want them to have to go through what we went through.

Do you have to experience suffering in order to understand it? Do you have to be a prisoner in order to understand the magnitude of the crime [of imprisoning someone]? In which case, would you not be useless as an activist?

You have decided to experience this - you decided to visit Auschwitz, you decided to study what you are studying. What did you think it would do for you? Did you think you would understand? What did you not understand before?

I did not decide to go to Auschwitz. There have been times when I have immersed myself in studying the Holocaust and similarly laden issues (Amnesty [International] appeals, witch burnings, rape statistics, AIDS, etc.). Right now I am not doing that. My work right now is to develop my skills so that I can work more effectively as an organizer to prevent further atrocity and build sustainable communities.

Part of that work is knowing that "good enough" never is. Sustainable communities are ones that are constantly self-critical, constantly developing. Putting up with small injustices does not do honor to great injustices - in fact, it fosters them.

What do I know from antisemitism? I know enough not to want to "understand" its extremes, if understanding means experiencing first hand. I know that historically, antisemitism has always been cyclical, and that my future is no more secure now than my grandparents' were in the U.S. in the 1930s, when they all thought (in various combinations) that they were going to live happily ever after, that their relatives would all immigrate soon, that they would become a doctor, get a job, join a union, and ride the revolution. I know better than to stop working for justice, even for a moment.

And what do you know, D? What do you know, now that you have cried about our U.S. crimes? Is your pain making you a better person? Is it making you a better activist? And who are you to ask me what I know of injustice?

Love, D

P.S. In case you forgot to bring your copy, here is this page from a Smith student haggadah [the prayer book of the Passover seder]:

"This is the way to experience bitterness: take a big chunk of raw horseradish, let the burning turn your face all red.

This is the way to experience bitterness: dig back to a time of raw wounds, remember how it felt before the healing began, years or months or days ago.

How big a piece of maror must we eat to reexperience this bitterness? To what extent are we obligated to re-live suffering and pain?

And what if I've known enough pain this year already? And what if exclusion and exile are not just memories for me?

And what if I eat the whole root and my tongue catches fire and my ears burn? Then will I know slavery?

And if I truly know slavery, then will I be devoured by freedom?”

What is lovely about these letters is that they represented the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. D and I share a culture in which brutal honesty and unapologetic disagreement are signs of engaged dialogue, and in the best case, tools for making meaning together. As evidence that the conversation went well: D gave me happy permission to post this here.