Thursday, January 10, 2019

What Are Jews?

Thirty years ago, the great feminist Jewish writer Evelyn Torton Beck wrote that "if the concept ‘Jew’ does not fit the categories we have created, then … we need to rethink our categories."

She was echoing an observation by Albert Memmi, who lamented the "sociologists' lack of imagination" in their insistent efforts to slot "Jews" into a familiar and well-trodden social category schemas.

For it sometimes seems that any answer to the question "what are Jews" doesn't quite work.

Are we a religion? Yes, in part -- but certainly not just that. There are and have always been many Jews, fully recognized as part of the Jewish community, who have no particular religious or spiritual orientation whatsoever. The attempt to delimit Jewishness as "just a religion" almost always is an attempt to degrade or delegitimize Jewishness as a collective identity in favor of an individualistic, atomized spirituality where people "just happen to be Jewish" as they might happen to be Catholic or Protestant.

Are we a race? Surely, at times Jews have been racialized -- most notably by Nazi racial scientists. But why should we so eagerly accept their conclusions? Moreover, the argument that Jews are a "race" doesn't rest easily with acknowledgment of racial diversity within Judaism. Are Black Jews not Black (because their race is Jewish)? Or are they not truly Jewish (because their race is Black)? Or if we accept that there are Black Jews and Latino Jews and Persian Jews, what am I? "Just Jewish"? How come I get the neutral descriptor? What makes my Jewish identity more central than theirs?

Are we an ethnicity? Much of the same issues with "race" seem to apply, and most of the usage of "ethnicity" around Judaism typically is more fine-grained around Ashkenazi versus Sephardic. But even there, it has been observed that these are minhags -- there are a great many African-American Ashkenazi Jews, after all -- so why should Ashkenazi be defined in terms of ethnicity, as opposed to liturgical community?

Are we a "nation"? Clearly we've often defined ourselves that way. But doing so seems to walk straight into a dual loyalty charge -- after all, isn't my nation American? Is there are difference between "Jewish" the nation and "Israel" the nation?

Sometimes I dodge and just say Jews are a "people", which works -- but only because it is so self-consciously vague. What is a "people"? What am I even trying to communicate in describing Jews that way?

Recently, I heard someone say that the best way to describe Jews is as a "civilization". A civilization can include people of an array of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, under a multitude of different political authorities. It might have an associated religion, but it can admit a diverse range of manners of practicing it or living it out. A civilization has distinctive art, culture, history, politics -- and not just one thread of these, but many. There is Jewish art, but not just one style; Jewish history, but not just one narrator; Jewish culture, but not just one form.

Is it a perfect fit? No. But if it doesn't fit, the problem might not be with the Jews, but with the categories which fail to fully account for the Jewish case. And for me, I'd much rather preserve the ambivalent, fuzzy contours of the Jewish civilization than I would attempt to shoehorn Jews into a category that wasn't built for us to occupy.


Adar said...

Are we a "nation"? Clearly we've often defined ourselves that way. But doing so seems to walk straight into a dual loyalty charge -- after all, isn't my nation American? Is there are difference between "Jewish" the nation and "Israel" the nation?

Wow. I am actually surprised. Your arguments, whether I agree with them or not, especially when they're in the longer form of a blog (as opposed to the shorter form of twitter) tend to be much better thought out than... this.

The first point would be that the US, amongst many other nations, accepts citizens with dual nationality. It simply solves the issue by clarifying that the dual citizen should show allegiance to both countries. Even today, in the rising climate of xenophobia, there is no widespread campaign to end dual citizenships. A person can belong to the American nation and to the South African nation, for example. In your northern neighbour, Native people are officially recognised as the First Nations - having their own nation, and still a part of the Canadian nation. So, belonging to two nations itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem, specifically, in the context of Jews. So it is not Jews defining ourselves as we've often done that raises the dual loyalty charges, but, how's the expression? Gentile fragility.

If your point is that minorities in general should accommodate blatant bigotry towards them in the manner that the define themselves, I would find that surprising, as it stands in opposition to pretty much everything you've ever written about bigotry that I'm familiar with. If your point is that Jews, specifically, should accommodate blatant bigotry towards us, I would also find that surprising, as that assertion does not characterise your work either.

Second point. Is there a difference between a Jewish nation and an Israeli nation? Yes, there is. As a part of the Israeli nation, I am of one nation with Haneen Zuabi and Sayed Kashua and Luna Abu Nassar and Nahed Bashir and Rawia Abu Rabiaa. I am of one nation with Stefan Legar and Sean Mongoza and Vaan Nguyen. As a part of the Jewish nation, I am of one nation with the direct descendants of the Anusim and with FSU Jews who had grown up not knowing anything about Judaism and with Prof. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and with you. If my country is crap at understanding that the majority of our citizens belong to both nations but some don't and they're just as much a part of our nation, then it's my job to stand up and call this shit out for what it is - racism. If someone tells me that when Haneen Zuabi or Sayed Kashua define themselves as belonging to the Palestinian nation they're betraying their country, it is exactly my affinity to you that I use to tell them to cut their shitty racism out and fuck off.

The existence of racism does not cancel out nationhood, or there would be pretty severe implications for many many countries, especially the US, I dare say.

Adar said...

And the third point.

When I refuse to write off individuals who are proud members of organisations that trade in antisemitic canards, or those who outright say that they wish they could go back to the days when it was easy for them to dehumanise me, it is because I'm a staunch believer that kol Israel arevim ze leze. Just as when I refuse to write off people who express support for a genocidal dictator, because we are of the same Israeli nation and that is just as meaningful. Their voices and perspectives matter because we are of the same nation, even if I vehemently disagree to the level of thinking their opinions are trash. Without that sense of nationhood, their voices and perspectives would mean to me as much as David Duke's, and I'd be happy to write them off altogether.

Mismos said...

As an adopted person raised Jewish but not very observant I learned this: it doesn't matter if you you observe Jewish law as close to perfect as possible,it doesn't matter how deeply you believe in and long for G-d ,for justice or for peace . It doesn't matter how good you are or what good you do.It doesn't matter how bad you are either.It doesn't matter what color your skin is or where you are from or what gender you are or what sexual preferences you have. It doesn't even matter if you yourself say you are a Jew and that you love the Jewish people with all your heart. It's not for you to say.In the end if your mother or mother's mother or mother's mother's mother and so on was not Jewish then you are not a Jewish PERIOD. You may have Jewish heritage a Jewish father but guess what? That doen't matter either. If you don't have Jews on your distaff side you can convert that's it and it probably better be orthodox just might not be a Jew who knows. Meanwhile someone else raised in another religion or atheism or church of satanism doesnt matter, a robber killer stealer molester comes to find out their mother or their mother's mother etc. was Jewish and it's welcome to the tribe or nation or civilization or whatever you want to call it.
Just don't call it late to brunch.

Mismos said...

Also people think it's crazy when people say Obama was Muslim but Islam works in a similar way as Judaism, if a persons father is Muslim they are Muslim. How they think of themselves is another thing entirely but there exists this religious definition beyond oneself. It would have been great if Obamas mother was Jewish that would have been trippy.