The Politics of Jewish Healing

I remember being moved to tears in a coffee shop back in 2006 when I first read a copy of Penny Rosenwasser’s dissertation on the manifestations of internalized oppression among Jews, so I was excited to hear about the release of Hope into Practice, a book-length adaptation and expansion of that dissertation.

As someone who grew up in an overwhelmingly Christian neighborhood and attended public school where we were regularly asked to pray to Jesus, I had never fully considered all the negative messages I had internalized about being Jewish. The dissertation documented a variety of Jewish women’s experiences—experiences that range from feeling “too Jewish” among WASPs, to feeling “not Jewish enough” among other Jews, to having a hyper-vigilant need to control everything. I was struck by how much I resonated with these feelings.

Rosenwasser’s book is powerful because it goes beyond explaining how internalized Jewish oppression operates to argue that we need to understand and heal from internalized oppression in order to move toward liberation, build coalitions, and stop enacting trauma on other people, particularly Palestinians.

Divided into three sections, the book tackles anti-Jewish oppression, how Jewish oppression gets internalized, as well as strategies for healing. For a portion of her research, Rosenwasser met with a group of nine other Jewish women over ten months to investigate the subject of internalized Jewish oppression. Using a “Cooperative Inquiry” methodology, they shared stories, art, movement, songs, dance, and Jewish ritual to learn from and heal with each other.

Rosenwasser uses this group’s findings to construct a body of knowledge about how internalized Jewish oppression functions to keep us silent and alone, how it is manipulated by those in power, and how we can simultaneously move toward our own healing and greater justice. In addition to relying on her Cooperative Inquiry group’s experiences, Rosenwasser intersperses moving anecdotes from her own life as a Jewish Palestine solidarity activist, as well as thinking from other radical Jews.

One of Rosenwasser’s greatest strengths is her ability to balance the complexity of Jewish privilege and oppression, particularly around assimilation and an internalized sense of victimhood. She describes how a Jewish history of trauma and forced dislocation lead us to fear being visible as Jews, and how this fear, combined with historical pressures, translates into assimilation in the U.S. While many Ashkenazi Jews have gained immeasurable advantages, such as class privilege and whiteness, through assimilation in the United States, we have also lost a “deep connection to our people, to where we come from.”

This loss of a positive Jewish identity along with the fear that has been passed down to us through our families often results in making us more concerned about our safety than our current reality warrants. Without a deep sense of cultural connection, Ashkenazi Jews often end up placing the Nazi Holocaust at the center of our Jewishness, and then seeing ourselves as eternal victims. As one of her group participants argues, “I think we’ve brought suffering to a point of holiness—and it justifies everything. Then you don’t have to take responsibility for the power and privilege that you have.” Indeed, the Israeli government and Israel advocacy organizations manipulate our feelings about the Nazi Holocaust to bolster support for Israeli nationalism and the occupation of Palestinian land.

However, Rosenwasser argues, it is up to us as Jews to stop projecting our past trauma onto Palestinians. Hope into Practice includes a practical “Action-Oriented Reader’s Guide” for Jews interested in using the book as a springboard for delving into their own experiences, whether individually or in groups. Participants are encouraged to unearth and express their fears, connect and share these with other Jews, and move toward political engagement. By simultaneously working on our healing and working against the occupation of Palestine, she argues, we can forward a Judaism based on justice, not fear. Describing how she led numerous delegations to Palestine and Israel, Rosenwasser teases out some of the challenges and joys inherent in this hard work. She speaks eloquently about the balancing act of loving ourselves while hating what is being done in our names: “How do I stretch myself enough to keep feeling joy in my Jewishness, while also facing the Israeli army’s inhumanity toward Palestinians?”

Working with other radical Jews, Rosenwasser insists, is one way to move forward, along with claiming a positive Jewish identity, incorporating holistic healing into our lives, and bringing our whole Jewish selves to the struggle for justice in Palestine and Israel. Indeed, the beauty of this book lies in its insistence that our healing is never separate from our politics. How we treat others is inherently linked to how we treat ourselves, and when we harm others, we cause harm to ourselves. As Rabbi Margaret Holub writes, “I believe that occupying another people has wounded our people at the root of our collective soul. I see in BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) the hope for healing—most importantly, for the Palestinian people whose homes, livelihoods, and lives are harmed, but also for our own people … I take great hope in the Jewish people and our capacity to do good.”


One thought on “The Politics of Jewish Healing

  1. This is a wonderful article. I have found, as a person converting to be a Jew – that as a progressive, whenever I speak up for the Arab or Palestinian point of view, I get criticized or other Jews become reactive without really understanding the depth of what I’m saying. Why can’t we stand for the Palestinians and love our Jewishness and attempt to help Isreal to change?

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