The Summer Of Our Public Jewishness

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For my new California driver’s license photo, I wore my rainbow Star of David necklace. I’ve acquired considerable symbolic bling over the years—mainly because a lifetime of well-meaning folks assuring me I don’t “look” Jewish or “look” gay frayed my last nerve. Those remarks, those conversations led me to buy a lot of jewelry and shirt slogans asserting guess what, I AM one of those people, and from my late teens onward I seized many an opportunity to bust some stereotypes. Unlike most of my black and/or butch friends, I had a choice to out myself, to select times and places for my narrative about assimilation vs. tribal identity. Over the years, being bizarrely complimented/challenged for “passing” taught me about others’ anxiety concerning privilege, rank, coloring and survival... all the anxiety about white power that has led us to this week.

This week, those stark poster graphics calling on white supremacists to rally in Virginia did so by depicting a big, white man smashing a Jewish star with a sledgehammer. If that’s their call to arms, then I am their target. As is my mom.

Well, this has been a summer like no other. Most progressive Jews I know are ping-ponging between our own necessary, ongoing study of white privilege and the shock of hearing new Nazi voices telling the media “Jews aren’t white.” It’s a unique summer of left-wing AND right-wing contempt for that six-pointed Jewish star.

During Pride month, well-intentioned but troubling comments from some Chicago activists disparaged the star of David as too symbolic of Israeli state policy, too triggering as a symbol of Zionism’s flag. Someone defined Zionism as “white racism,” which is a significantly different phrasing from the more familiar “Zionism is racism” chant. It requires the antiracist to see all Israelis (and most Jews) as white, a total erasure of Jews of color; it disappears, for political expediency, Jews from Ethiopia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Morocco, Turkey and so on. Interestingly, it’s a denial that Jews were ever indigenous to the Middle East. Thus, we continue to hear from different quarters that all Jews are white, that no Jew is white, that Jews embody the worst elements of white power and minority tribalism. The overlap of this Venn diagram is that Jews in America are always wrong. Again, it is the obsession with white power, who has it, who should have it, which drives so many heated arguments in America.

At 56, I’ve lived though many decades of political attacks on Jews that took different forms from today’s “alt-right” Nazism. In my childhood, Jews were called Christ-killers; then in my college years, Arab killers; and, throughout my years of pro-choice activism, baby-killers. There were often shrill anti-Semites blocking abortion services who chanted, “Stop evil Jewish doctors from killing babies.”

What all these waves shared in common was their usage of posters with blood and gore splattered on a star of David. Almost any cause could adapt this image of Jewish faith/heritage/identity as a monster that must be smashed. As recently as 2007, while wearing my star of David in Ireland, I was told that I must feel pretty guilty for killing Christ; others recommended the very gory Mel Gibson film as a beautiful depiction of Christ’s martyrdom by Jews.

For all these reasons, it can be difficult for peace and justice activists like myself to rally behind posters that throw blood on a Jewish star as a way to call out Israel. The blood libel, which began with medieval accusations that Jews cooked Christian babies in Passover matzo, has a long history in service to deadly pogroms; and a pogrom against Jews looks exactly like what just happened in Charlottesville—armed villagers carrying torches, eager to assert superiority.

As I watch the endless news debates about the new Nazism in America, I’m examining how it feels to be named both target and oppressor, white privileged and “race mongrel,” each contradictory title forcing a public self consciousness in the face of fluctuating rhetoric. The recent smashing of Boston’s glass-walled Holocaust memorial by a teenager calls up associations with Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in 1930s Germany, which some of my family’s own friends escaped. We have arrived at a new moment of overload in piling bad imagery onto the Jewish star, with no one in our national leadership equipped to address this history.

These are the feelings of many, like me, in the defensive middle space of wanting to assert Jewish pride without derailing the peace movement OR being run over/torched by “alt-right” Nazis. Waiting in line, today, to have my new state identity card made, I simply hoped that my choice to be out as a Jew on my driver’s license would initiate many crucial conversations in the weeks and years to come. There’s much, much more to talk about, I know.

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