Cautionary Universal Lessons from Jewish Identity Politics

I first got introduced to identity politics growing up during and after the Holocaust. For large numbers of Jews at that time the murder of one out of every three Jews on the planet Earth who were alive in 1940 was a trauma that not only shaped our lives  and consciousness. That trauma was also passed on to the next several generations of Jews. God had failed to show up and save the Jews. Much of the rest of the world failed to intervene to save Jews. The U.S., the U.K., and many other countries turned away refugee ships and most of the countries of the world were unwilling to open their doors to Jewish refugees who were often forced to return to countries dominated by the Nazis, from which they were soon sent to their deaths.

Equally traumatic for many was the gross failure of the communist parties in Europe to stand up to overtly challenge the anti-Semitism used in the 1920s and 1930s by rising fascist movements to attract support among Christians who inherited the never quenched hatred of Jews perpetuated by the Catholic Church and intensified by Luther and his Protestant followers right through to the end of the Second World War (and in some places beyond). During the Second World War, there were frequent stories of Jews escaping the ghettos of Europe and fleeing to become part of partisan resistance forces, only to find that their partisan allies themselves were filled with hatred of Jews, and in some cases actually turned on their Jewish members. After the war, Eastern European and Soviet communist movements betrayed many of their Jewish members systematically, often expelling them from their leadership positions or even from the Communist Party itself, while the international leader of the communist movement, the Soviet Union, implemented discriminatory practices against their own Jewish population and Stalin was on the verge of launching a huge assault against Jews in the Soviet Union just before he died.

No wonder, then, that Zionism became the Jewish identity politics that most attracted new members in the second half of the 20th century. The world had shown Jews that they were not safe and needed a homeland that was to be ours, safe and protected by our own power. Zionism became the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.”

Yet, as I grew up, I came to understand that the logic of our identity politics was also leading in a very destructive direction. In the course of creating our own state, we caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to lose their homes, and they were later joined in exile by tens of thousands of others who lost their homes in subsequent Israeli wars.

Sadly, when I joined with fellow progressive Jews, Palestinians, and other allies to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians, I found that our criticisms were dismissed as anti-Semitism by many other Jews.

The terms of those criticisms often get repeated today in some Identity Politics formations. “You have no right to criticize our Zionist movement or the realities we created in Israel. We crawled out the crematoria in Europe – you never experienced the pain that we went through. During the Holocaust itself, and then in the years 1945-1948 when hundreds of thousands of European Jews were in “displaced persons” camps, the Palestinians and their allies in surrounding Arab states, used the power derived from Arab oil to successfully get England to forcibly stop Jews from getting refuge in Palestine. We were the homeless immigrants.

Lefties who oppose U.S. immigration policies toward people desperately seeking refuge or asylum in the U.S. from oppression should be able to understand why Jewish refugees during and immediately after the Holocaust reacted to this Palestinian close-the-gates with outrage and lasting anger. In the face of this refusal to allow any Jews asylum or refuge in Palestine, the more internationalist wings of the Zionist movement and those who sought only a “homeland” and not necessarily “a state” were increasingly seen as blinded by utopian ideology from seeing the reality that our people were still being denied the same rights to national self-determination in the one Middle Eastern country with the largest surviving number of Jews after the war—Palestine. The rightwing of the socialist Zionist parties, and the more explicitly right-wing nationalists, garnered credibility by insisting that the refugees be allowed to come to Palestine. Unfortunately, this diminished support for those of us who continued to believe in reconciliation and harmony with Palestinians. So the movement that emerged to declare the State of Israel in 1948 and lead the military struggle against the Arab states that declared war on Israel, and the even more serious danger posed  by Palestinians who had formed fighting groups to overthrow the Zionist movement, could point to the real dangers Israel faced. Even to this day, a significant section of the Palestinian people identify with Hamas which seeks to destroy our country of refuge and send Jews back to Europe where most Israelis living today never lived, a bit like the reactionaries in the U.S. which sought to do something analogous to DACA youth.

I understand why Jews embraced the ‘power over others’ thinking that they thought would provide long-term safety, and I think they were and still are fundamentally mistaken. The tragedy of our Jewish identity politics, when not joined simultaneously to a recognition of our interdependence with the rest of humanity, and when not rooted in the Torah’s command to “love the stranger/the Other,” leads to behavior which promotes an equally insensitive identity politics within the Palestinian world. Right-wing Zionists and Hamas both produce a hatred of the other side which perpetuates the struggle and weakens the chance that either side will ever achieve the justice and security to which they are both entitled. Tikkun’s message has always been that Israel has the greater economic, military, and political  power and hence the greater responsibility for making huge efforts at reconciliation through repentance and generosity to help build an economically and politically viable autonomous Palestinian state or to create a single state including equal rights and Knesset elections based on the principle of ‘one person/one vote’ that we fought for in the U.S. and could be implemented in Israel/Palestine..

The powerful emotional argument of Jewish identity politics, that dismisses those of us who are proudly rooted in Jewish tradition yet critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians, seems reminiscent of other forms of identity politics that are now prominent in American society. It goes like this:

“When we trusted our non-Jewish neighbors and thought they would stand in solidarity with us against fascism, they turned on us and betrayed us. You think you are safe living with Christians, but they have never taught their own children how their Christian doctrines were used to justify hatred of Jews. You think you are equal, but you live as a minority temporarily tolerated as long as you don’t question why your society has its government buildings shut on the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) and celebrates Christmas as a national holiday, but doesn’t give equal respect to Yom Kippur or Passover, or, for that matter, Ramadan for Muslims. They continue to read the most hateful portrayals of Jews in their New Testament Gospels and are so deep into their Christian privilege (and this includes African American Christians as well) that they never even ask themselves what they need to do to repent for 1700 plus years of oppressing our people. Meanwhile, they tell you that you are ‘privileged’ and ‘white’ because you have material security. But we were economically successful in Europe too, and then wiped-out.”

This critique has a point. Many liberals and progressives fail to understand that anti-Semitism takes on a unique form. Jews are set-up as the public face of the oppressive feudal or (later) capitalist order. Then, when people feel really hopeless and frustrated by the growing inequality and alienation created by class-dominated and patriarchal societies, the ruling elites of wealth and power can tell their ill-informed supporters that ‘the reason why you are suffering is that the Jews have power, control the media, manipulate public opinion, buy influence with government officials, and hate you.’

These concerns grow stronger when Jews begin to recognize that some of our leftie friends are more outraged at Israel’s sins than the far worse sins committed by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, China, Russia, Burma, etc. – and then tell you that this is somehow reasonable.

So Jews embrace a typical identity politics refrain: “Jews are the only ones who can decide how best to achieve our own liberation just as women are the only ones to work out their own liberation and African Americans are the only ones to work out their own liberation. When our progressive allies (including Jews among them) use double standards or pretend that Jews are suddenly free of any danger in Western societies, it is because they have never engaged in the kind of intense education about the specific ways anti-Semitism functions consciously and unconsciously in both Christian and Islamic cultures and are only weakening and dividing our people and setting us up for future destruction. So give Israel your support because, when push comes to shove, it is the only place that will protect us.”

These are legitimate concerns, and they are all more striking after the slaughter of Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh in 2018 and in light of the ways that some on the Left continue to talk in ways that are insensitive to the vulnerability of Jews and the ways that they dismiss Jewish identity aspirations while respecting those same aspirations coming from other previously oppressed groups.

Yet, in some fundamental way, the position is mistaken. The path to security for Jews (and for any identity group) is a path that requires us to be as caring for others as we wish them to be for us; and as committed to their liberation as we wish them to be committed to ours. It cannot be a path that focuses only on our own security while blatantly ignoring the needs of Palestinians, the Kurds, the Rohingya, Christians in Egypt, Native Americans and African Americans in the U.S., and many, many others.

In our view, a country that calls itself “the Jewish state” must follow the highest ethical and most loving parts of our tradition, though we must acknowledge that our tradition has always been torn between those who heard God’s voice as a voice of generosity and compassion and those who heard God’s voice as one of triumphalist ‘power over’ others. (This is explored more fully in my theology book Jewish Renewal.) Israel will be safe only if the whole world is safe. Oppressing Palestinians or African refugees, imposing on Gaza blockades of food and medical supplies and supplies to rebuild the homes that previous Israeli wars destroyed, grabbing more and more land in the West Bank from Palestinians whose families lived there for centuries, disempowering non-Jews by passing a “nation State law” that specially privileges Jews over all other national or religious communities living inside Israel are all not only violations of the highest ethical and loving parts of our tradition, but are also creating hatred of Jews in countries that have never before had anti-Jewish sentiments as part of their cultural heritage. Israel’s insensitivity in these regards is not only immoral but also self-destructive for the Jewish people in the not-too-long-run.

I am saddened to see this same form of identity politics used by all kinds of other identity groups in the U.S. and elsewhere. I’ve witnessed the tendency among many identity politics groups in the U.S. to silence those who raise questions about the legitimacy or wisdom of the paths they have chosen to reach their own liberation.

It is risky even in Tikkun to state clearly my conclusion: while people who are oppressed are the only ones who really know how awful that oppression is or has been, its psychic consequences, and its distorting impact on one’s life and thought, being oppressed does not give the oppressed a special expertise on how to end that oppression. On the contrary, oppression does not bring out the best in people, and sometimes even distorts their moral sensibilities or their ability to think strategically about how to liberate themselves.Sometimes an oppressed people can make choices that are exactly the opposite of what is best for them, e.g., Jews calling ourselves “the chosen people” to fend off the demeaning way we were being treated as “the other” in much of our history. It is precisely the distance from the suffering, that in some instances, gives others a better understanding of what is needed to protect the interests of the oppressed and give them the tools to end their oppression.

None of this leads me to reject my own or anyone else’s identity politics, but it does encourage me to insist that a healthy identity politics movement must be one that embraces the equal importance of everyone else’s identity politics, validates everyone else’s suffering as well as one’s own, welcome advice and criticisms from those who are genuinely interested in providing assistance, and refuses to be silent when watching any identity politics movement putting down people in other groups or leading to violence.

So I propose that we use the following criteria to determine whether and to what extent any Identity Politics should be critiqued or praised:

  1. Does it encourage people within its own identity politics to see how much they have in common with other identities?
  2. Does it help its participants understand that there is little chance of any one identity group actually achieving liberation until all such groups have learned how to respectfully engage with each other and support each other’s struggles?
  3. Does it teach its members an analysis of the class differences even within its own identity group, as well as in that of other identity groups? Nuancing our critiques with a clear analysis of the role of class would make any identity group hesitate before asserting that “everyone” in group A, B, or C is really benefiting from this or that system of oppression.
  4. Does it insist on respectful dialogue, or does it allow some speakers in a meeting to demean all members of some other group?
  5. Does it teach its members to recognize the way that undercover agents of the state or of right-wing groups sometimes present themselves as the most militant members of a given identity group in order to push some of the participants into a path of violence or demeaning of others which almost always leads to the discrediting of all the rest of the identity group’s analyses and legitimate demands for social reconstruction?

None of this is easy. Calling for oppressed groups to see their connection to the suffering of others is not easily implemented, particularly when people are still being actively assaulted by those who hate them.

We must vigorously critique racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic behavior, while building social practices that undermine these societal distortions, and yet do so without engaging in an across-the-board vilification of those who are part of groups that may be partially benefiting from these distortions.

It was this understanding that made it possible for Nelson Mandela to reassure the leaders of the apartheid state that they and their followers would not face violence and endless hate were they to give up power. The Truth and Reconciliation process embodied this new energy in which people who had committed acts of violence on either side of that struggle could come forth and confess their sins and regrets without feeling threatened. Mandela’s movement made the mistake of not dismantling the structures of capitalist oppression, but they did succeed in creating a democratic society without further bloodshed precisely because Mandela’s approach sought to reassure the oppressor rather than demean them.

Of course, no one outside the oppressed group has a right to demand that they reassure those in the oppressor group that they will be safe even if the oppression stops, but it would certainly be a smarter strategy than making them all feel endangered. The more that liberals and progressives can be experienced as caring and empathic people who really care not only about ourselves and those we’ve described as ‘the most oppressed’, but also about everyone else in our society and around the world, and manifest that in our behavior, the more we have a chance of really winning the struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. Variants of identity politics that make it harder to care about others who are not in their identify group are not in the interests of the oppressed.

This article originally appeared in Tikkun‘s Winter-Spring 2018 issue. Click here to read an HTML version of the article or to download the PDF version.

Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:16-19


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