Dear Friends, Dear Colleagues, Dear Family,
This has been hard to write, but it felt a bit easier to write if I thought of it as a letter. First of all, it’s a letter to friends: two friends encouraged me to share my thoughts, and this post is chiefly a response to their encouragement (thanks David & Christa). It’s also a letter to colleagues I’ve agreed and disagreed with, been thankful for, and on occasion a little surprised and even (not intentionally) hurt by. It’s also a message to my family, which in zero ways is of one mind about being Jewish andabout Israel and Palestine. As evidence of how hard this has been to write, I point to the nearly two-month gap in-between blog posts. I haven’t known what else to say on this topic, and I haven’t felt comfortable saying much else in the absence of knowing what to say about being Jewish, Israel and Palestine.
Before I say anything more, I want to start with one humble caveat - I am a lucky person, with a life that is too full of gifts to count. I am privileged in the contemporary and deepest meanings of the term, and I don’t forget that; nor do I forget that many, many, many others - Jewish and from other (oft-marginalized) groups, and due to life’s circumstances - have and have had it unimaginably and unendingly harder than me. Again, that’s front-and-center for me, and part of why I haven’t felt comfortable sharing much about how I - and Jews in America - face discrimination and marginalization. Mostly, I - and we - haven’t. Exploring the mostly part, as well as how I relate to the we, is my goal.
I have one more humble caveat. The Judaism I grew up with is not “us vs. them.” I really, really don’t like to quote Chuck Schumer, but the story he told in his speech on anti-semitism around two weeks ago—as the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the history of the U.S.—captures the Judaism I grew up with. He cried when speaking about Trump’s Muslim ban because of the inhumanity and discriminatory nature of the Muslim ban, and the Jews I grew up with stand up for and stand with groups that are discriminated against. It was that simple, and maybe that’s partially a testimony to my parents or the particular denomination of Judaism I grew up with, or my Temple. Part of what this stance means to me is that the ongoing death of civilians in Gaza is tragic and it is entirely acceptable - and necessary - to bring context and nuance to conversations about this topic, and care for people in Gaza—oppressed by both Hamas and an Israeli government that has ended up in an untenable status quo. But all of this and that doesn’t mean that Jewish hatred is okay, or that the murder of any Israelis was okay, and in fact I think it means it is less okay, because the situation is indeed a complex and vexxing one.
Oh my, I need time for one last caveat. I’m an American Jew. I’m not Israeli, and that means that my views and perspective are limited to my experience. But I do love Israel, I am proud to have friends and family there, and I find myself wanting to speak up for what I see are blind spots or active prejudices toward Israel and Israelis, too. This caveat matters because of a point I will make later. It’s important to listen and understand the experience of others. I’m experiencing what has happened since October 7th, but my experience is a ripple from what my family and friends in Israel experienced. Many have lost friends or family, or know of friends or family who have experienced loss and tragedy. And many have friends or family in military service. I respect and appreciate how my experiences are different, but I want to hear about yours, friends and family in Israel.
I’ll start with a story I grew up Jewish, and I remember camping up north in Michigan with my parents; I don’t know how old I was - maybe my Dad and Mom could say - but I’d guess around eight or nine, maybe a bit older (or younger). It was one of those beautiful nights when the starry sky was clear, and I remember looking up after a nighttime walk or a trip back from the campground bathroom. My Dad shared with me that around six million Jews were murdered in something called the Holocaust, around 50 years ago. They were shot and they were gassed in gas chambers by Nazis. The stars had a role here - I don’t know if my Dad said it, or if I observed it, or if my memory filled this in post-hoc, but I remember thinking that that number was unimaginable—there were more Jews who were murdered than stars I could see.
A model of sorts
I have to back up a few steps. My brother (and maybe others) may make fun of me, but I am constantly analyzing, modeling, and conceptualizing — I’m an academic! I worked on a model of what it has been like being Jewish in my experience and in general. There are four categories that range from good to bad. I think the first two are good, or at least okay. The last two are not okay, or bad.
Being appreciated. I think of kids’ teachers, neighbors, colleagues wishing me a Happy Hanukkah; appreciating the important holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; me getting to share Jewish foods, words, and ways of thinking and being. It’s pride about other Jews doing good - and about the traditions I grew up with of Jews being friends to those who are also in groups that don’t fit into the majority. This is awesome, and an achievement by any historical or even contemporary standard. I grew up with this, and I didn’t realize how fortunate I was for it. I experience this a lot now, due to good luck and happenstance.
Fitting in. I have done this a lot, sometimes out of necessity (living and working in a small town in rural North Carolina) and sometimes as a privilege (it can be convenient to fit in). This isn’t bad. It’s sort of neutral; being Jewish isn’t really talked about, but in all senses and for all purposes the experience of being Jewish is fine.
Feeling different. This isn’t discriminatory or malevolent, but this is something I have experienced more or less at different times and in different places. When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas at a store, I have shrugged it off because I generally have felt appreciated and welcome—the first two categories. But when I lived and taught in a small town in North Carolina, the message I received repeatedly was that I was different, and even that I needed to change (i.e., convert). That leads into the next category.
Being treated badly. I have’t really experienced this directly. So, my short answer to the question, have you experienced anti-semitism, is “No.” Followed by, “But, it’s complicated.” I want to emphasize the “No” answer, and point back to my humble caveat at the beginning - I am lucky beyond words, and this isn’t in any way me equating my experience to that of others who can tell stories of systemic, unending mistreatment. That’s just not my experience, and I recognize that. But I remember feeling sick to my stomach when a friend in high school loaned me a dollar, and then told me that he was going to write my name down on a sheet of paper (he did) because he didn’t want to “get Jewed” by me not paying him back. I felt the same way when invitations to attend church transitioned into what people (colleagues and even friends) thought were clever ways of reasoning through how I could be a “completed Jew.” z As a segue to what I want to share next, I had the same feeling in the gut of my stomach when colleagues and friends refused to say that the murder of 1000s of Israelis on October 7 was wrong or condemnable. And before that segue, I’ll mention that I am well aware that many of my friends and colleagues just didn’t know what to say not from a place of not caring about Jews, but instead from a place of humility about the complexity of the situation and not knowing what to say to me (or others) about things, and that is entirely understandable. Embarassingly, I actually blogged about my baby on October 8th, not realizing the magnitude or horror of what happened the night before. That’s not what I had in mind so much as the willful, harsh unwillingness of some to express care or concern about what happened because the victims were Israeli.
What has changed since October 7th
I feel more of the third category, and I hear more of the fourth category, like a gate has been opened to it. But I also feel … the same. Some specifics.
I worked with colleagues to send a letter to NARST’s leaders after three members of the wider NARST community were murdered or kidnapped. When I first read a message from colleagues and friends, I felt like I had been sleeping, not responding or reaching out to check in before. We wrote the letter; it took too long, and it was a small thing, but it felt important and right, like doing a small thing to right a wrong. The response from NARST, though, was a disappointment - I felt that pit in my stomach. I don’t know how to classify this. It still feels wrong. It stings a bit.
I read stories like this one - reliable polling showing that around 20% of Americans think the Holocaust was a myth - and they make me feel sick. It’s not even the number that makes me feel sick. There are lots of wackadoodle anywhere, including in the United States. It’s that some of my colleagues and even friends seem unconcerned by these statistics, as if they don’t matter because of who they are about, or because of … I really don’t know. It’s as if they think Jews deserved it, or deserve it, or that it’s not a pressing problem, because … And it often turns to violence. I am not a cautious person by nature, but when I heard of our place of worship pursuing bullet and bomb-proof glass, it seemed like a good thing to do.
Yesterday, a non-Jewish neighbor wished me (and other neighbors) a Happy Hanukkah on a text chain. Multiple colleagues—the same. These are good things I am grateful for. I have had some very hard conversations with colleagues, some that made me feel ill and angry, but everyone has talked, and I feel no enmity from them now. I have reached out to colleagues in positions of leadership, and have had some hard but good conversations, and made new friends in the process. I had colleagues show up to support me in those conversations.
I wish more of my colleagues, especially, and some of my friends, had less of what seems like selective empathy. At once, I feel great support as a Jew, but also - this is the part that I think is hard to talk about precisely and clearly - a lot of the general sense of apathy or even enmity, is coming from my politically progressive and tolerant friends and colleagues. That’s part of what is hard, for the reasons around how the Judaism I grew up with is tolerant and oriented toward social justice. Moreover, many Israelis are tolerant and oriented toward social justice, too.
I’ll end with a thesis
What Hamas did on October 7th to Israelis (and others) was wrong. What I think more people should have done, more loudly, are the things they - we - would do for others in such a situation:
- Express support and show compassion
This also extends to Palestinians and those with friends and family there. My heart and our hearts can be begin enough to say both, and feeling like the response of so many to October 7th was wrong while also expressing concern for Gazans and Palestinians are not, in my view, incompatibile in any way. And there is a complex history to the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ contestation for the same land that is worth understanding and recognizing, but I am going to keep this brief for now.
And I’ll also share a story
Driving home from my son’s soccer game this morning, he randomly mentioned something to me that was weirdly related to what was on my mind in this letter. He said, “I am the only Jewish kid in my school. I mean, my class.” I know there are other Jewish kids in his school, but I wasn’t surprised that he was - or thought he was - the only Jewish kid in his class. I asked him how he knew, but I couldn’t really get the answer from him. His teacher and school has been thoughtful about Christmas, taking care to ask permission for whether he can create. Christmas ornament and asking what other holidays - if any - students’ families celebrated. I’ll note that our family isn’t wholly Jewish - my wife Katie is Christian, and we are an interfaith family.
A few weeks ago, we had a celebration at our house. It was a baby naming ceremony, and we tacked on a name for my son, too, as we hadn’t when he was born. The Rabbi and a few neighbors and friends came, around a little less than one-half Jewish, and a little more than one-half not, including a neighbor who I know is very active in her Church and in her faith. When I stood up in front of my baby daughter and my son, I said something similar to what I said at my wife and my (interfaith) wedding: I am so thankful to be together with friends old and new, feeling appreciated and also fitting in, I think. My son wanted the same Hebrew name I was given when I was born. Coincidentally (to all of this), my Hebrew name is Israel, and the Rabbi said his name, slightly modified from my own due to tradition, asking for a life of good health, loving relationships, and care for others. All others, including Jews, those in Israel, and those in Gaza and Palestine, too.
To my friends, colleagues, and family, I ask for your tolerance and care in a non-selective way. You can and should hold me to the same standard, and I would welcome any dialogue, constructive or critical, now or in the future.