Jewish Identity Politics Completely Drowns Out Important Dialogue
Jews come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. A few weeks back, Hen Mazzig led the charge in a viral sensation called #JewishLooking. The premise was simple; to eradicate the idea there is a stereotypical Jew look. It worked. Jews from around the world, on every continent, posted pictures of themselves showing their various colors, nationalities, and outward appearances. Yes, there were the Ashkenazi Jews that most non-Jewish people think of when they try to create a picture of a Jew in their mind. But there were also Ethiopian Jews, Asian Jews, Yeminite Jews, Mizrahi Jews… Jews Jews Jews of every conceivable color. However, in the wake of this beautiful and unifying sensation, something ugly started to emerge; Jewish identity politics.
I have long railed against standard identity politics and intersectionality. Identity politics is at its core racist. When it came to Jewish identity politics, I tried to ignore the issue because I thought most Jews (those of the non-Eli Valley brand), wanted to unify, not tear apart. But then I saw a tweet that angered me, not just because of the inherent stifling of dialogue it was preaching, but because Hen Mazzig apparently “liked” the message. And I expect better from one of Judaism’s best modern thinkers and online warriors.
That is “Rabbi Sandra.” A Reconstructionist ordained Rabbi and U.S. Army Veteran. Something tells me her skin is as tough as a $2 steak (to clear up any possible confusion; this is a compliment of the highest order). Her point here is that she feels, through her experience as a black Jew, that “Jews who benefit from white privilege” could not possibly understand having their identities as Jews be denied and questioned. Therefore they should “just listen” when a black Jew is talking about their experience. Ok. Listening is a great way to learn. It is something we should do more of in pursuit of knowledge.
But it is the “just listen” part that rankles. It implicitly states any Jew of “non-color” is not allowed to even engage in the dialogue. No questions, no pushback. Only listening is allowed. This is stupid, and worse, drowns out any chance of pushing the conversation forward. Sure, you can tell me your experience and I will listen to it–and try to empathize as much as possible–but if I am not allowed to retort, in any way, that is not a conversation. That is just you ranting.
Look, ranting is fantastic. There are few people on this earth as experienced and talented at ranting as yours truly. But if I am trying to convince somebody of something, I will engage them in a conversation and expect pushback if they do not agree with my ideas. It is how most productive conversations have gone since we learned to evolve from grunts.
This plea of “just listen” is hollow. If your feelings and experiences are so fragile that they need not be questioned, you have to work out those sentiments before engaging in any dialogue. On a simpler level, it is just dumb, counterintuitive, and is a dead-end on the road of communication.
Following the logic of, you do not know my experiences, therefore you can only listen when I talk of mine, the inverse holds true and you are violating your own standard; if I am not allowed to say anything about your experiences, you are not allowed to say anything when it comes to mine. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy of stupidity that will lead us nowhere.
And no, your argument based on the philosophy of Jewish identity politics holds no water. You get no extra credence merely because of your supposed status as a member of a victim class.
Which brings us to the portion where the tweet really goes off the rails, “to well-meaning Jews who benefit from white privilege.” White privilege in the general American sense is completely idiotic. Do not take it from me. But it is even worse when seen through the guise of Jewish identity politics; it is vile, disgusting, and blatantly racist.
As far as I can tell, “Rabbi Sandra” is making the point that it is easier for a “white” Jew to be accepted as Jewish than a black Jew. And her experiences with people questioning her Jewish identity merely because of her skin color has caused her pain. I sincerely feel for her pain and obviously wish she never had to deal with such idiocy.
However, her reliance on this trope of “white privilege” is almost as idiotic. More importantly, though, it is racist.
Take me for example. I am a lily-white Ashkenazi Jew who needs roughly six bottles of high-end sunscreen a month to live through summer without turning into a boiled lobster. I am uber-white. But if “Rabbi Sandra” thinks she knows about my life experiences as a “white Jew” simply because of my skin color, that is the definition of racism.
This is Jewish identity politics turned up to 11.
She is saying (and those that believe like her are saying) she can take a look at my profile picture, take a look at my skin, and know my experiences, which apparently include benefiting from “white privilege.” That is Grade-A Miracle Manure.
My last name is “Donnelly.” But go on, tell me from my skin color about my “white Jewish privilege.” Reconstruct my childhood through a picture. Reveal to the world the “privileged” background inherent in a Jewish guy named Donnelly.
Here is a hint; my immediate, nuclear family was at least 80% of the Jewish population in our town. Let me know how awesome my “white privilege” or my “white Jewish privilege” was growing up. Or how well my family and I were accepted within our larger Jewish community in our childhoods. You might be SHOCKED to learn it was not all gumdrops and rainbows.
Sure, people may have questioned your Jewish identity because of your skin, and it may have caused you pain, but so what? Deal with it. I will gladly listen to your experiences and pain. But to think you know about somebody else’s experience, and to dare assume something about somebody else because of their skin color is the height of racism. You are actively trying to stratify Jews on the basis of Jewish identity politics. It is a disservice to the entire creed and one that is sowing division, not unity. Jews have had more than enough problems dealing with being “othered” by non-Jews. Do not fall into the trap of doing “others” work for them.