Jewish Self-Negation and Jewish Social Justice

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This article was written by George Stevens, who is the Rakaz (logistical coordinator) of Workshop, the HNDA gap year program, and also leads our garin as our madrich. We also want to acknowledge that we post a variety of different viewpoints and experiences in the Tnuat HaBogrim, and that these views do not necessarily represent our own (Gabe and I). 

“We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

– Albert Einstein

“Wherever the majority population, by some fluke, did not hate the Jews among them, the Jews immediately starting imitating them in everything, give in on everything, and mustered the last of their meager strength to be like everyone else”

– Yosef Haim Brenner

“We in ourselves are almost non-existent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other people either.” 

– A.D. Gordon

To varying degrees, in our 2,000 years of exiles, the gentiles we lived amongst treated our existence as a nuisance. This is the anti-Semitic pre-assumption: that the life would simply be better if we did not exist. (Occasionally the elites would discover that the anger of outraged masses could be pointed at Jews, so the masses would murder Jews rather than the elites when tough times struck). It comes up really clearly with the Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds – he compares Jews to pests, to bug or rats without which the world could simply be a more pleasant place.

After 2,000 years, we have deeply internalized this feeling: our own existence is a nuisance, sometimes even to ourselves. If we don’t stay strong and true to our Judaism, and if we don’t stand up for Jewish rights, then maybe this nuisance (i.e. our existence as Jews) will go away.

Mosaic Magazine recently published a brilliant about Jewish museums around the world, including in the United States. Regarding other minority museums in the US, the author writes: “After refusing to surrender or assimilate, by fully embracing its own identity and aggressively affirming its rights, the [minority] group begins to undermine the rigid prejudices of the surrounding culture and to attain freedom on its own terms.”

But about Jews, it’s the opposite:

Almost no identity museums veer from this narrative; it is applied to Japanese Americans, Arab Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Even Native Americans and black Americans… The one overwhelming exception is the Jewish American museum, and the differences are profound and illuminating.

The simplest difference can be seen in the Philadelphia museum. In other identity museums, the surrounding society is portrayed as forbidding, and any success obtained has less to do with opportunities offered than with opportunities seized in the face of hard resistance. The Philadelphia museum, like many other Jewish American exhibitions, suggests the opposite. Jews do not succeed despite America; they succeed because of America—an assertion that would be near-heresy at the typical identity museum.

What are we to make of this, that all other minorities celebrate their own story while our museums celebrate the story of America, a place which is 98% non-Jewish? It seems like we are overwhelmingly grateful that we finally found a place that doesn’t kill us, where there aren’t pogroms. So when we go to tell the story about ourselves in that place, we tell the story of that place more than the story of ourselves. We minimize our own importance, our story, our emotional drama, our culture, our collective identity. We negate our own existence, just like the gentiles have tried to do for millenia. The article goes on to say that when it does celebrate Jewish Americans, it celebrates the contributions they have made to America (film, music, science, literature) rather than to Judaism:

“[P]ride in Jewish American identity is measured in terms of how much that identity has contributed to the American scene… In the roster of Jewish achievements at the Philadelphia museum, in which Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein and Bella Abzug merit distinctive mention, I can’t recall any significant discussion of how Jewish identity has expressed itself in Jewish terms—in advancing Jewish scholarship, say, or in interpreting Jewish religious texts, or in formulating deeper understandings of Jewish peoplehood, or in articulating collective Jewish interests.”

But how does this relate to social justice movements?

I see among American Jewish social justice activists this self-negation in a more intense form. And HDNA chaverimot are certainly not immune to this phenomenon as well.

The postmodern Left, dominated by college campuses, has certain oppressed groups whose narratives it has fully adopted. First and foremost, Black Americans and the history of the Civil Rights struggle. After that come Palestinians, LGBTQ folks, women, and native peoples. Poor folks aren’t a sexy group in this paradigm, and neither are Jews.

When young Jews (especially young Habonim members) meet these narratives – the narrative of an oppressed people struggling to throw off its chains – they really fall in love [also because many of them are women and LGBTQ, and a small number are also Black]. These narratives have drama, and heroes and villains, and unfinished business. These narratives remind them of Jewish history, of their family’s history. And because of this last point, you can feel like struggling for social justice, struggling for the rights of other oppressed groups, is the entire fulfillment of your Judaism. And social justice, I believe, is an essential part of Judaism, from the Torah on to today.

But when your Judaism is entirely based on struggling for the rights of non-Jews, it actually becomes a negation of your Jewishness. It’s a detachment from the Jewish narrative, from Jewish suffering, from the full tragedy of Jewish history and from the dramatic trials the Jewish people is facing today. It seems to me like the core questions of the Jewish people today (Does French Jewry have a future? Will Israel stop being a democratic state because of its own extremists? Could Islamic terrorist groups potentially use chemical weapons against Israel following the Syrian civil war? What should happen with the 6 million Jews living in Donald Trump’s America?) don’t seem to bother and energize HDNA members as much as Black Lives Matter and the Occupation. And when HDNA had to debate which of two Veida proposals it would consider – one saying Israel shouldn’t exist, the other saying HDNA needs to be more Zionist – antisemitism and the threats to Israel’s people weren’t mentioned by anyone as to why Israel should exist, whereas Palestinian oppression was mentioned repeatedly by both sides as the reason we should either deepen our Zionism or give up on it.

This is why, as Zak Newbart pointed out on the HDNA Listserve in October 2015, the movement has far more to say when Palestinians or Blacks or LGBTQ people or Muslims are killed, and why the listserve stays silent after a synagogue or group of Israelis are gunned down. The Jewish Right often buys into an antisemitic lie – that violence is the only way to do anything in this world. But the Jewish Left often buys into the other antisemitic lie – that the spilling of Jewish blood matters less than the spilling of others blood.

Habonim Dror North America is a movement that is meant to lead the Jewish people. In order to lead, we need to completely stop this self-negation. We need to fully experience the world as Jews, to not see our Jewishness as a nuisance, to not apologize for it, to not treat it as a mere tool for a struggle for the rights of other oppressed groups. We need to insist on empathy for the other and on our social justice identity (otherwise we’ll stop being Habonim), but we also need to stop choosing our social justice identity at the expense of our own Jewishness, to stop having a strong sense of empathy for everyone but ourselves. Only when we have a stronger sense of ourselves, of our tragic and amazing 3,000 year history, of our incredibly rich culture and heritage, of the threats we face from within and without, only when we are deeply proud to be Jewish in every area of our lives – then we can fulfill our mission and start leading our people to something better.


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