What it Really Means to be Jew-ish

Sometimes I jokingly tell people that I am Jew-ish. It isn’t an original joke, but it somehow still manages to win laughs.

My family is not very religious, and my suburban childhood synagogue of over 1,500 families always felt too large to be a genuine community. When I came to college, rather than participate in Hillel and explore my Jewish identity, I opted to be Jew-ish. But as I have grown, I have realized that this was not always a choice. At the very least, it was a choice made inevitable by my own experiences.

Students listening to a professor.

Students talk with Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, following his speech at the Open Hillel conference. Credit: Alli Gofman.

I am both Arab-American and Jewish. My father is of Lebanese descent and my mother is Jewish. As long as I can remember, my family has been unsatisfied with our Jewish experience, always feeling somewhat at the margins of the community. Every few years my family would leave our synagogue in exasperation, attempt to find another place to worship—once even a congregation that met in a high school cafeteria over an hour away—only to return months later.

The last time I was at synagogue, when the services ended the young boy seated in front of me turned to his mother and said, “It’s finally over? Let’s get out of here!” I chuckled, but really I felt the same way. I had become old enough to realize it wasn’t just me who didn’t know Hebrew well enough to understand what was being said—it was a significant portion of the congregation. When we stood up to recite prayers, we often didn’t even really know what they meant. I also realized that many people had political opinions that were formed in a similar way: truth informed by belief, rather than belief informed by truth.

If I were to define the Jewish community’s dogmatic stance on Israel in a few words it would be, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” And I’m not the only one to notice it. The rabbi of my childhood synagogue writing in the Washington Jewish Week said, “When it comes to Israel, we often leave little room for respectful discussion and disagreement.” We as Jews pride ourselves on traditions of debate and discussion, but there is a clear gap between theory and practice.

Unfortunately, when I came to college I found this to be just as true. For liberal Zionists or (god forbid) anti-Zionists, it’s hard to make Hillel a home. And unfortunately, for most students, Hillel is the only Jewish community on campus.

For me, it is not only politics that have made Hillel an exclusionary space, but also the essentialist understandings of Arabness and Jewishness that have emerged due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli policies of separation are based on the assumption that there are essential differences between Arabs and Jews. Today, 42 percent of Israelis have never even met a Palestinian due to the extent of spatial segregation.

Within the context of this contemporary discourse, identifying with both my Arab and Jewish heritage garners mixed results. When I told my Spanish study abroad director that I am Jewish but also identify with my Arab ancestry she said, “¡Un gran mestizaje!” (A great mix!) Other people have also appreciated the hybridity of my heritage.

Group posed for a photo at Open Hillel

Open Hillel conference attendees and organizers gather for a group photo on the last day of the conference. Credit: Alli Gofman.

But when I speak with members (mostly students) of the Hillel community, I am more likely to be met with confusion. Usually it manifests in an interrogative question: “Do you identify as Arab, or do you identify as Jewish?” A name alone can be enough to cause confusion: “Your first name is Jewish, but your last name is Arab…?” The underlying assumption is that it is not possible to identify as both. (A seemingly inexhaustible list of ignorant questions often follows: “Do you speak Lebanese? So your family is Muslim? There are Christians in Lebanon? Doesn’t everybody have to wear Hijab there?”)

As the Lebanese-French scholar Amin Maalouf says in his book In the Name of Identity, “Identity can’t be compartmentalized. You can’t divide it up into halves or thirds or any other separate segments. I haven’t got several identities: I’ve got just one, made up of many components in a mixture that is unique to me.”

I am both Arab and Jewish, and I enjoy resisting those binaries through the performance of my own unique identity. I enjoy having a complex, mixed heritage that is mine alone. I enjoy being able to occupy numerous worlds and to identify with many people. Even still, it is hard not to feel marginalized within an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi-dominated Hillel. It is hard not to internalize feelings of Jew-ish-ness.  It is harder still, when you have a political consciousness that clashes with Hillel’s Standards of Partnership.

The litmus test for participation in Hillel is Zionism as defined by Hillel International. As the rabbi at my Hillel told me when I brought up the exclusion of Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which includes Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky on its advisory board, “they may be great scholars, but they aren’t necessarily great Jews.”

So long as Hillel is in the business of defining people’s Jewishness for them, in ways that are chiefly political and based on a limited conception of support for a nation-state, they will continue to marginalize Jewish voices.

I don’t agree with their definition, but I’m only Jew-ish when I allow them to define me.

(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)


One thought on “What it Really Means to be Jew-ish

  1. What are these Israeli policies of separation? Last I checked, Israel was by far the most integrated and least apartheid country in the region.

    How odd he would write such.

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