Judaism and Zionism: Not Inseparable

Here’s the post I mentioned in my GHD Review Post for this month (August 2015). It’s a long one, about something very personal to me.

A few months ago, I came across this insightful post: A Letter to My Rabbi about Palestine. I left this comment:

Thank you for writing this much-needed letter! As a young(er) Jewish activist (I protested the Iraq Invasion by the US when I was in high school), I struggled with what to feel about Israel. I didn’t know as much about the history as I do now, and I only heard the Israel-supporting US news. I did not speak out, because I didn’t know what to say, or even that the situation was as bad as it was/is.

As I have grown older, learned more, and solidified my own politics and morals, I have moved to speaking out. As a Black-white biracial Jew, the idea of a homeland that is always open to me is such a tempting one, but I know that the modern Israeli state can never be that homeland to me. I have considered Birthright trips in the past, but I cannot–even tacitly–condone the Israeli state, nor support it with my money (beyond, unfortunately, the aid that my tax dollars go to).

This stance is not a popular one in Jewish communities. We have been taught to conflate our Judaism with Zionism, as you stated, and the anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence that is on the rise globally leaves us fearful of another Shoah. That violence is real, and the fear may be justified, but that is no excuse for abandoning our morals and our duty to humanity. A Palestinian life is precious, worth as much as any other life! (Destroy a life, and you destroy the world.)

Thank you for writing this letter, and sharing it. We must be willing to hold ourselves and each other to this high standard, to acknowledge the wrongs of Zionism, and move towards peace, and a better way.

My own journey on this topic has been a difficult one. As mentioned in another post on the same blog, Hebrew schools and Jewish youth programs foster pride for Israel in the children who attend them; I was not immune to this. But until very recently, all of the Jews I knew were liberal, middle class white people, and for all that we have religion in common, we come from very different places.

The promise of Israel meant a lot to me as a teen. I thought about going on a birthright trip, even looked into queer & trans specific ones, but I never really got things together to go — I struggled with juggling 1-2 jobs and a full-time course load right out of high school, then withdrew from school for a time to work. Scrambling to survive, the desire to stay housed and get enough food was my priority, and left little time for something like travel.

Then, I began to learn more about the history of Israel and the present state of occupation, and I struggled with myself. I explored the idea of a “two-state solution”, looked for any way to validate the Israeli state; very quickly it became obvious to me that there was no justification for the continued existence of such a wholly immoral nation. Through exploring the work of anti-Zionist Jews, I realized that this was a truth I needed to speak on. So I did.

On August 4th, my latest piece went up on Black Girl Dangerous. On the phone with my mother a few weeks ago, I sarcastically referred to this BGD piece as the one that would make me super popular in any Jewish community; I feared the opposite, of course. But for the first 48 hours or so, I received only positive feedback — a lot of folks have been contacting me to let me know that this piece resonated with them — and while that is nice to hear, I was waiting for the backlash. The longer it went without any negative comments, the more anxious I became.

And then Thursday, it hit. A progressive Jewish group shared my piece on their page Wednesday afternoon, and it was like a feeding frenzy. Abusive trolls showed up in their comments to accuse me of being a terrorist sympathizer, to ridicule my appearance, to question my identity as a Jew, to mock my intelligence. Eventually, they spilled over onto my Facebook page, commenting on the most recent posts and sending hateful messages to the inbox. Two separate commenters likened me to kapos. Overnight, a wave of hate flooded my page. I spent 3 hours banning and blocking, going from a single banned individual Wednesday night to 63 banned individuals by noon Thursday.

At first, each comment and message hurt. Though I knew that it might happen, I still wasn’t prepared for it. But as I read through roughly 140 comments, I stopped caring about the opinions of the commenters. Anyone whose only argument for my being incorrect was that I am ugly doesn’t mean anything to me. Still, the tension and anxiety started to activate my chronic pain, and after 3 hours, I was exhausted.

I’m pretty sure many of the critics never even read the piece, but merely reacted to the title: “I’m Jewish But I Don’t Support Israel — And Neither Should Any Jew Dedicated To Social Justice”. It’s not the title I submitted the piece under (I’m not very good at titles, in general), but I wrote it nonetheless; that’s most of the first line from the second paragraph. Much of that line is fact — I am Jewish, and I don’t support the Israeli state — but some of it is opinion, my opinion.

This opinion is so widely reviled by members of my own religion that I expected this to happen, tried to prepare for it. My previous pieces, despite the vitriol that some USians fling at Black Lives Matter, didn’t receive this much hate. In fact, I’m not sure I saw any. But I started the piece with this line for a reason: “If there’s a faster way to be reviled in the United States media than denouncing Israel, I’m not sure I know it.” Now, it’s mainly been visible to me on Facebook (and I admit I haven’t gone looking for it anywhere else), but even this reaction is vastly disproportionate.

In the piece, I make a distinction between Judaism — a curious mix of culture, religion, and ethnicity dating back millennia — and Zionism, which is a nationalistic movement to establish a Jewish homeland that began around 1897. I am Jewish, but I am not a Zionist. Yet, many of those spewing hate my way claim the two are inseparable. My anti-colonial values invalidate my Judaism to them.

I spent several days last week being afraid. I worried that I’d be doxed, that someone would vandalize my home (or worse). Anxiety is not rational, but I can’t actually assess the validity of that fear, because this kind of internet bullying does escalate to real life. I’m no Anita Sarkeesian, nor am I even Caroline Criado-Perez, but I’ve received violent threats and harassment before, and while this instance is smaller in scale than what Sarkeesian and Criado-Perez faced, it’s no less vile.

But in the end, despite my fear, I’m still here; being simultaneously Jewish and not a Zionist, because the two terms are not synonyms for each other. I’m here, and I’m not shutting up.

(Not even for the dude who messaged me only this: “Shut up tessara… Seriously. Thanks“)

Vogue and Sara Baartman and a Poem

This morning, I woke hours before my alarm. It sometimes takes me a little bit to realise whether I’m awake because of anxiety, adequate rest, or low blood sugar. Often, I struggle to get back to sleep until I figure out which one, and address it (if possible). Sometimes I never get back to sleep.

Rather than lie in the dark waiting, I checked the time on my phone, and noticed I had a notification on Twitter. I checked that, and spotted a tweet from someone I follow about an article posted by Vogue Magazine, titled “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty”:

Vogue tweet 09-10-2014
The original tweet from Vogue Magazine’s Twitter account

The article is as bad, if not worse, as I anticipated. And one of my first thoughts was about Sara Baartman.

For those who don’t know about her, I encourage you to read about her, though I warn that the story is a hard one if you dig deeper into it. Sara was a young African woman in colonial South Africa who was sold into English and then French hands, and displayed as a sideshow attraction under the demeaning name “Hottentot Venus” until she died six years later. After her death, her body was given to a scientist for dissection. He concluded that Sara—and other Africans like her—was subhuman, and her skeleton, brain, and detached genitals were displayed at the Musée del’Homme for the next 150 years. But even once they were removed, it took 20 years of fighting for her body to be returned to South Africa and finally laid to rest.

I could not go back to sleep, because I felt sick with anxiety and sorrow and anger, and so I wrote a poem.


Mourning the Living and the Dead

today, I mourn the life and death of Sara Baartman
my rage at the indignities she suffered
rests at the base of my throat
chokes my voice with tears unshed
today, I cannot strangle down my anger for her
Sara, Saartjie, name unknown
forced from family after her fiancé’s murder
she was a slave sold to sideshows
spending six years poked and prodded
examined and talked over and mocked
lied to, looked on, lost
this woman of six and twenty years
it is 200 years since she passed
from alcohol or pneumonia
or a broken heart
and even in death disrespected
her most intimate parts displayed in jars
as curios for detached Europeans
to view
this history of colonial gaze
of taking and keeping and displaying
the most intimate parts
continues to this day
the roundness of Sara’s body fascinated
and repulsed the gazers
now vogue divorces this largeness from Blackness
makes it safe for mainstream commodification
makes it safe by denying Black women again
taking this aspect of our bodies
claiming our identities for themselves
passing profit over our heads
and leaving us to die like Sara
the world is not safe for my sisters
I know
so I am left to mourn