Toward an Expectation of Jewish Allyship in Radical Communities (with a lot of repurposed quotes from Trinh T. Minh-ha)

(All quotes from Woman, Native, Other* by Trinh T. Minh-ha)

Feeling especially struck by these lines as perceived through the lens of a Jew moving through left-wing subcultural circles, dominated by invisible(/visible) culturally Christian ideologies, prejudices and ways of being:

“An Asian American woman thriving under the smug illusion that I was not the stereotypic image of the Asian woman because I had a career teaching English at a community college. I did not think anything assertive was necessary to make my point…it was so much my expected role that it ultimately rendered me invisible…contrary to what I thought, I had actually been contributing to my own stereotyping…When the Asian American woman is lulled into believing that people perceive her as being different from other Asian women (the submissive, subservient, ready-to-please, easy-to-get-along-with Asian woman), she is comfortably content with the state of things.” –Minh-ha, quoting Mitsuye Yamada (elipses are Minh-ha’s, not mine.)

I think here especially about the pressure to come forth with an “appropriate” stance towards the state of Israel when identifying oneself as Jewish in radical-thinking and/or “anti-oppressive” social worlds. Sometimes this is spoken directly, other times, implied and waiting–as your listener scans the content of your stated relationship with cultural-religious background/identity for clues as to “what kind of Jew” you are.

The emotional impact here is further complicated when one is a Jew who feels themselves to be, in intent anyway, in solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people, who feels disturbed, frightened, demoralized, and “betrayed” (a word I believe should be used/read critically) by the actions of the Israeli government and those who back it…

Yet, if my requisite, demanded-expected statement falls into the party line, I have also inadvertently (or perhaps with concealed intent, submerged in the meat of internalized oppression) submitted myself to the hegemonic judgment as the “right” kind of Jew. Not the colonist, white-supremecist, hateful, conspiratorial, privileged-and-hiding-behind-a-mask-of-victimhood, holocaust-citing, manipulator-of-international-power, Fortune 500, sobstory, whiny, stingy, lying, paranoid Jew. No, I am a Good Social Justice Jew—a dying breed, surely, but, fighting with sweat and flying fists against the rigid generations of our parents-aunts-uncles-grandparents (traditional, bad-style Jews), we exist! we are here! we are loud! we know ourselves as separate from Those People!

Minh-ha, quoting Adrienne Rich, then continuing as herself:

We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us and our work according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be.

…Specialness as a soporific soothes, anesthetizes my sense of justice; it is, to a wo/man of ambition, as effective a drug of psychological self-intoxication as alcohol is to the exiles of society.”

In self-declared, anti-oppressive communities, identifying as a Jew, with “cultural” Jewishness and sometimes with “religious” Jewishness is encouraged. It’s cool to make jokes about your Jewish mom or grandmother, to feel pride in historical Jewish labor activism, to have a Passover seder centered around themes of Palestinian solidarity, to know the stories of the villages or towns your grandparents came from, to attend services at a synagogue that has declared itself to be against the occupation of Gaza, to share choice bits of Jewish lore with non-Jewish friends, to say “this is what this piece of ancient tradition means to me.”

Says Minh-ha:

“We no longer wish to erase your difference, We demand, on the contrary, that you remember and assert it. At least to a certain extent.” (my emphasis)

The problem comes when Jews ask for recognition of our cultural marginalization within radical communities. When we ask our non-Jewish friends to perform the authentic labor of making themselves informed allies. The problem comes when we are asked to be vocal Social Justice Jews (identifying ourselves simultaneously as Jews and as Pro-Palestine), but shamed into silence if we bring up doubts, concerns or protests about rhetoric or tactics used within the movement of allies to Palestine. The problem comes when we ask our communities to recognize their participation in Christian hegemony—whether they come from religiously identified backgrounds or not and although they may have other experiences of marginalization or oppression which complicate that participation.

This is about learning to really look at the values we perceive to be universal and interrogating them. This is about learning about the history of anti-Jewish violence and hate speech (which in Europe covers at least 2000 years) and taking heed when pro-Palestine work or personal opinions echo (or capitalize on) the mindset/language of demonization and scapegoating which characterize that history. It’s about letting Jews be whole people with whole histories and complex mapworks of identity, which—due to mixed backgrounds and strategies of transculturation and assimilation—are often contradictory, changeable and in conflict with themselves.

Whole person, in this case, means my Jewish cultural associations consist of links to, yes, social justice and also to colonist discourse, to marginalization and to domination, to inferiority and to superiority, to hiding or passing and to flaunting. I dare any of our cultures (the U.S. is one of mine; queer culture is another) not to reveal this treacherously complex heritage.

I’m curious how others, Jews especially, feel about this….(you can tell me if you want by commenting below.)

(For an excellent summary of this issue, see The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere at http://www.pinteleyid.com/past/)

*Minh-ha in these quotes is talking about sexism within the culture at large, about tokenizing and/or silencing of third world women within feminist circles and academia, as well as, i think, about broadly based and functioning dynamics of oppression. While anti-Jewish oppression is certainly unique from racism, sexism and first-world-ism, I feel Minh-ha’s analysis to be applicable (besides just brilliant and inspiring, helping much fall into place for me, from various layers of my own experience, as i read her).

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2 comments

  1. molly · April 16, 2011

    Thank you for writing this!

  2. Tara Rockstar · April 18, 2011

    Hey Luke,

    What comes to mind for me at this moment is what it’s like to work in a marginalized community (black, queer, low ssi) as a Jewish woman. It IS a complicated place to inhabit, and I am often aware of assumptions being made across many lines. I recently had a joking exchange with someone about my role as the white oppressor. As I type, a co-worker and several clients are discussing the character “Puck” on Glee, and his Jewishness. I am not participating in this discussion, only listening.

    I rarely bring up my Jewishness (heritage, politics, faith practices) in heterogeneous settings, allowing it to be the invisible difference. Instead, I chose to bring my queerness and feminism forward. Or i wait to be invited to talk from that lens. In homogeneous groups (for example, radical queer space that is primarily college educated white folks)my Jewishness, along with other spiritual identities, is “allowed” more space.

    Today is Pesach, and I am looking forward to a very small Seder at my home. I will be thinking about these things, and what impact they have on my own psyche, and the ongoing discourse of struggle, oppression, freedom, and healing change.

    Tara

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