I met with The Lemon Tree book club this sunday. It set the tone for an incredible day– maybe even week and month.
I want to frame this with an article I read that beautifully articulated this:
“We are being asked to perpetuate a narrative of victimhood that evades the central Jewish question of our age: the question of how to ethically wield Jewish power,” he writes. That power, for 45 years now, has been exercised over millions of Palestinians who enjoy none of the rights of citizenship and all the humiliations of an occupied people.“
In delving in to conversations about zionism and Jewish identity, my peers and I found ourselves discussing nationalism more broadly. We also spoke of zionism (amongst american Jews) as a substitute for thriving Jewish culture/community. “My Judaism feels most alive in Israel,” is a sentiment I’d consider to be quite status quo. Not to say that all American Jews/American zionists don’t have their own sense of Jewish culture and identity apart from Israel, but that the mainstream discourse is one that chooses to locate Jewish identity in Israel.
We talked about how American Jewry is participating in an act of willful ignorance when it comes to knowledge about Israel and Palestine. This seemed an important point because it allowed us to both understand and feel sympathy for the circumstances that culminated in the establishment of the state of Israel, namely desperation and a lack of information, while also holding our contemporaries more accountable for “not knowing.”
Which then raised another interesting point– what is our role as Jews who have information to bring our contemporaries up to speed? We identified two important areas of Jewish work: 1) the political realm, in which Jews raise their voices against injustices perpetrated in the name of protection/preserving our people. 2) the development of vibrant Jewish identities/communities beyond Israel. The trauma of the holocaust is not easily assuaged, and Israel has been the only answer for too long. It’s time for real, radical healing– which must mean rebuilding a sense of American Jewishness that is rich, deep, and place based, and rebuilding a sense of trust in non-Jews.
In the evening, after my book club, I was talking about identity with a Black friend. We were musing on the parallel histories of American Blacks and European Jews. We twisted and turned through the complexities of identity—both in terms of the internal and the external self. Jews experienced a profound othering for centuries because of something others defined for them. Blacks experience a profound othering in America similarly because of something others see, not something necessarily internal. But, we marveled, Jews have so entirely preserved a fierce sense of community, while Blacks have been pitted against one another and internalized a sense of racial and class hierarchy. Both communities, we decided continue to operate from a place of mistrust towards others. A mistrust that they’ll be defended and supported by anyone but themselves (and, in the case of Blacks, sometimes even by themselves)
Jewish communal values might be to thank for such universalist threads in Jewish thought as "love thy neighbor as thyself” and “treat strangers with kindness as you were once strangers in the land of egypt.” Yet, nationalism has produced zionism, and a zionism that tolerates difference and honors these Jewish values is the minority opinion (assuming it exists at all).
I don’t know what these things mean, but I do know that I’ve found myself in the same intellectual realm as my college years, only, now I have language for it: nationalism. I want to critique nationalism– and, I think, compare it to community. Are these two structures inherently different? What defines them? Where are their borders/boundaries? Do they make room for difference within or force it to reside externally, always? These questions are delicious.