Sunlit Water

September 4, 2009

Who’s Self-Hating Now?

Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 12:00 am

I can’t say it surprises me at all, but this sort of thing is just disgraceful.  This abhorrence of intermarriage is, I think, one of the ugliest aspects of contemporary Zionism and the strains of American Jewish thought that are most aligned with it.  I definitely echo Dana Goldstein’s thoughts here word-for-word:

On a more personal note, this policing of personal lives — the guilt attached to the circumstance of loving someone who is not Jewish — has always been one of the elements that pushed me away from organized Judaism, after being raised in a conservative shul.

Dana doesn’t say if she is a product of intermarriage herself, but I am, and that has only made it easier to drift away from organized Judaism recently as this stuff has become more prominent.  I want nothing to do with a movement that considers me a “captive” although I was raised in a Conservative synagogue and am unambiguously Jewish even by the totally arbitrary rule used by Orthodox and Conservative Judaism (though not by the equally arbitrary but opposite rule used by Reform Judaism).  I was born Jewish, I was raised Jewish, and I still consider myself Jewish and always will, no matter what the government of Israel thinks or says.

What is, I think, more disturbing is the extent to which organized Judaism in America seems to have entirely bought into this worldview itself.  That’s why I’m skeptical and pessimistic about what Dana says next:

This ad is an embarrassing misstep, and sure to alienate many of the Jews it is intended to reach.

I would like to think so, but I think most of the American Jews who would be alienated by this ad are alienated already.  The only people still paying attention to this stuff are the true believers and the people who, whether products of intermarriage or not, have no personal connection to Judaism at all.

I’ve seen, even just in my lifetime, a remarkable bifurcation of the American Jewish community into the organizations and their followers, who tend to take an uncompromising “circle the wagons” approach to Israel and any criticism of it.  All of the major religious denominations, at least in their official organized forms, are on this bandwagon, as are all of the more secular groups, whether explicitly Zionist or not, including B’nai Brith, the Jewish Community Centers, etc.  This is the perspective that almost every rabbi in America preaches from the pulpit every Saturday.  As such, it has a lot of popularity among the regular congregants, especially those who play important roles in the funding and management of the synagogues and organizations.

On the other side is everyone who’s been alienated from this worldview.  This is nowhere near as organized a group, partly since the other group controls all the organizations.  It’s also diverse in its ideological composition, including progressive Zionists, leftist peaceniks, former Zionists who have “seen the light” and now support the Palestinian cause with the same fervor they previously had for the Zionist one, relatively moderate American liberals who have just been turned off by the extremism on the other side, and people who no longer feel welcome in their Jewish communities because of their political views and/or their attitudes toward things like intermarriage.

I’m definitely in the second camp, of course, as are a very large number of American Jews.  It’s very difficult to mobilize this group to counter the influence of the other, of course, given the asymmetry in institutional capacity, although J-Street has been a worthy effort at starting some mobilization.  The Obama administrations actions on the subject of Israel have been of enormous comfort to this group, after so many years of aggressive US government action in a very different direction, but whether anything will come of them remains to be seen.

Honestly, I’m feeling very estranged right now.  The town I now live in has a very substantial Orthodox Jewish population, so for the first time in my life I’m surrounded by both many other Jews and a whole system of kosher restaurants, Judaica stores, and other infrastructure that seems to operate largely in parallel to the mainstream equivalents.  It’s like there are two towns: one Jewish, and one not.  They coexist side by side, but there’s surprisingly little overlap beyond shopping at the same drugstores and supermarkets.  It’s kind of in-between the situation in most of America, where Judaism is marginal within the mainstream Gentile society, and the situation in Israel, where Judaism is the mainstream and anything else is marginal.  Having only ever experienced the first before, I was surprised at how bothered I was by seeing the parallel system.

It’s like Judaism here exists in a clear but hermetically sealed bubble, visible to the outside world but isolated from it in important ways.  In this version of Judaism, everything has to be a certain way.  Food has to be kosher, men have to wear yarmulkes, and marriage partners definitely have to be Jewish.  There is some engagement with the non-Jewish world, but only in domains where that doesn’t conflict with Jewish law, which takes precedence.

This is not the Judaism I know.  I was raised in a Conservative synagogue that couldn’t really demagogue about intermarriage much because so many of the congregants were either products of intermarriage or intermarried themselves (or both).  Levels of observance varied, but were rarely very high.  Engagement with the outside world was so inevitable that there was little anyone could do to stop it, so it became accepted at least in practice.  That’s Conservative rather than Orthodox, of course, and I’ve seen Conservative Judaism elsewhere and it’s been fairly comfortable to me, but seeing for the first time what things would be like if we actually carried out all this stuff to the letter is disturbing.  This exclusionary wonderland is not for me.

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be.  Here in America I can do whatever I want regardless of what any rabbi or Israeli official says.  I don’t know how things work in Israel itself, of course, having never been there, but the idea of Israel as expressed in Zionist thinking (as opposed to the actually existing country) is looking less and less attractive as these opposing camps and their opposing values harden.

I didn’t, and won’t, leave Judaism.  Judaism left me.  I see enormous potential in the rich, cosmopolitan heritage of the Jewish people, as opposed to the narrow, exclusionary tribal heritage that has always been in tension with it, but until organized Judaism begins to turn back my way I’ll stick with my “abductors,” thanks.



  1. Doug Rushkoff’s book might be of interest. Like you’ll lack for reading in grad school…

    Comment by Doug — September 4, 2009 @ 6:40 am |Reply

  2. Back when the 3rd World caucus or whatever it’s called at the UN was trying to get the motion passed that “Zionism is an inherently racist ideology,” I only remember hearing about Israeli treatment of Palestinians and things to do with the Occupied Territories and the right of return and etc. But the (un)written rules about intermarriage would certainly support the argument much more clearly. And also create interesting tensions between Jewish conservativism (small c) and Zionism proper – because I imagine that the ultra-Orthodox would hold the most race-like ideologies about intermarriage, and yet are often explicitly anti-Zionist.

    In related news, a spot on CNN last night about the international trade in human organs discussed Israel’s role in some interesting ways. An anonymous Israeli organ broker talked about how he got into the game: apparently Israelis are distinctly uncomfortable with taking organs donated by family or even fellow Israelis, as this would consist of “weakening our own.” Better to get them from some distant Chinese donor. The theme of weakening resonates with the early Zionist racial discourses about the failure of the “Ashkenazi race” to resist the Holocaust, and the sabra ethos and all that.

    Comment by adamhenne — September 4, 2009 @ 9:41 am |Reply

  3. Doug: Thanks, that book looks interesting and I hadn’t seen it before.

    Adam: Yeah, the intermarriage stuff is clearly tied in with an explicitly racial interpretation of Jewish identity, which is in turn an essential part of Zionism as a nationalistic ideology. Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, however, while certainly one strain of thought, is pretty marginal at this point, so while I’m sure a racial understanding of Jewishness is common in those circles, the vast majority of people at a similar level of religious traditionalism are rabidly Zionist. Or at least that’s my understanding of the situation.

    Comment by teofilo — September 4, 2009 @ 2:21 pm |Reply

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