These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Thoughts on Racial Judaism

Posted on November 9, 2010 by Merissa

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Today in class someone asked if I consider myself racially Jewish.  I answered as honestly as possible on the spot, “I don’t know, I am still forming my Jewish identity.”  My thoughts are quick, but not that quick.  Later it occurred to me both why I was speaking in dissent, and how I define myself in the face of racial Judaism.

I spoke in dissent of accepting the Jewish drive for nationalism and racial unity in the face of colonialist European normative behavior in the early 1900’s.  One person raised the key point of “why now?”  Not in a Hillel sense, but in a, “why are you bringing this up now?”  She seemed to be saying that she has had these topics in mind all along, learning about the formation of a Jewish Zionist state.  I realized later that I had also been thinking these thoughts all along, but someone in class was suddenly brave enough to ask “what about the people who lived there first?” and all of my repressed wondering about my identity came pouring out.

The dilemma lies in the fact that I was raised by Zionists whose vision seemed extreme and often racist to me.  It was so easy for them to hate Arabs and herald Israel.  It went against everything I was learning in Diversity Roundtable and Prejudice Reduction Workshops at school. 

The dilemma also exists in the fact that as a kid in a diverse American private school, being Jewish seemed like a culture and a religion, but never once a race.  I grew up in DC where race really applied, at least in high school, to two, sometimes three categories.  There was black, there was white, and there was “other.”  Jewish did not count as other.  We counted as white because, as I was taught, we reaped the benefits of whiteness and could conceal our Jewish identity, whereas skin color can’t be hidden.

Yes, there were a whole slew of other nations and cultures represented in my high school class, ranging from Japan to Colombia to Zimbabwe to India and then some.  But the predominant dialogue in the 1990’s in Washington, DC was one concerning black, white and sometimes Hispanic racialized groups.

I was white, by those terms, and not until years and years later was I able to see Jewish as something that needed to be mentioned in those “racial” dialogues.  I see myself as culturally and religiously Jewish, and in terms of the racial identity, I feel that I was racialized, in a passive sense, not a thrusted and intentional sense.

Jewish became racial when I met anti-Semites in Colorado, or saw the racist homage to “The Jews” at the Jewish museum in Berlin.  “Race” attached itself to my Jewish identity, and not vice-versa.  And for my grandparents, running for their lives and witnessing the slaughter of their families, race came into play in the most negative possible way.  I don’t see myself as part of the “Jewish Race” because to do so would be counterintuitive to my understanding of healing, peace and progress.

This, however, is not a simple statement.  In fact, writing with such firmity may be a total faux pas insomuch as I am still learning, still evolving, still attempting to incorporate what Israel is teaching me.  Fundamentally, my body, my spirit, and my personal understanding of Judaism do not allow for the segmentation of a people, a repressing of others, nor a “Nationalist” and exclusivist identity that inherently permits hatred as part of its lexicon.

This being said, I am befuddled by my adoration for Israel.  I came here alone when I was twenty-two and lived by the old city in a room.  I was just here, watching, no filter, no plan, and no destination.  It made me nearly insane and within two weeks I was back in Washington, DC, thanks to witnessing a bombing in Tel Aviv and the fears that followed.  But at twenty-two I had brave giant visions of what a fearless Jewish nation would look like. 

My idealism, at the time, confused me as much as it does now.  My idealism named this racialism as the problem, yielding a return to a more spiritual devotion to Judaism and Jewish identity.  It presupposed the necessity for Jews to give up their outward identities, dissolve an element of what defines and separates them in the name of a greater, worldly good.  This did not compromise Judaism, because Judaism existed impenetrably in the heart.

A woman of Torah, only a modern woman of Torah, I gleaned what I could in order to be a better person, a kinder person, to work towards a vision of wholeness.  This vision of wholeness, as cliché and fairy tale as it seemed, was one that worked at its core to end conflict and violence. 

One person mentioned today that a life without conflict and violence, without delineated borders and separatist identities would be “homogenous and boring.”  I beg to differ.  I am a cultural and religious Jew without a racial imperative, bent on holding onto cultural tradition, learning Torah, and sharing my Judaism with the world in a way that does not separate me, does not close me off, does not warrant hurting others, but, in its truest purest form (which I have not yet reached) provokes positivity, goodness and change.