What I have to say about being Jewish will be painful for many people I love. With President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, however, I can no longer stay silent for the sake of sparing their feelings.
Friedman is a man who has called liberal Jews “far worse than kapos,” a reference to Jewish concentration-camp inmates who cooperated with their Nazi captors. He has been even more emphatic about supporters of J Street, the left-leaning Jewish lobbying group: They aren’t Jews at all. And just like that, the purity test for our community has become more than a blood matter.
What do I mean by "purity test"? Well, that goes back to the main reason why my Jewishness is difficult to speak about.
It has to do with my feelings of illegitimacy, you see. Feelings that stem from being half-Jewish — and the wrong half at that.
My late mother was a shiksa — tall, strawberry blonde and Midwestern — and that’s often enough for other Jews to disown and dismiss me: “Oh, so you’re not actually Jewish.” No matter that my father sought refuge from Soviet anti-Semitism, first in Israel and then in America, or that his immediate family fled the Nazi invasion on cattle trains leaving Odessa. Never mind that my mother insisted on sending me to crunchy Jewish summer camp every year, and prepared a beautiful seder. Forget that it was my father, not my mother, who talked me out of a bat mitzvah ceremony.
The sad irony is that what matters to far too many of my fellow Jews is the “purity” of my blood. I cannot be married or buried as a Jew in Israel, for example, because those institutions are under the control of an Orthodox rabbinate to whom I’m irrelevant, at best. My only option to avoid discrimination is a full-blown conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Other options, including Reform Judaism, agnosticism and even atheism, are reserved for purebreds.
Though religious customs seek to deny me, I consider myself ethnically and culturally Jewish. I’m not alone. Intermarriage is a factor in modern Jewish life.
David Friedman did not arise in a vacuum. Equating Jewishness with political support for far-right extremism has been on the rise in Israel for years. Let’s not forget Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s twisted lies to increase last-minute Likud turnout in the 2015 election: “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing organizations are bussing them out.”
Many Jewish people of Russian origin share those politics, in large part because they hold a blanket hatred of the left, a residue of their understandable aversion to Soviet Communism. Criticizing the Israeli government can invite furious accusations of anti-Semitism, hurled against Jews and non-Jews alike.
How did it come to pass that right-wing politics and anti-Arab racism have come to define Jewish identity more than a love for humanity? When is it ever OK to negotiate in bad faith, as if the Palestinians were animals and therefore undeserving of peace? Have we not been on the other side of this equation before?
This is why I’m begging those of you unwilling to pledge loyalty to far-right politics to hear me out:
Jews, you are my people, but I cannot be a member of your tribe. It’s not just because the tribe will not accept me: It’s because I reject tribalism.
Tribalism is what keeps us from thinking critically about both the American and the Israeli government. Genuine criticism is deeply productive. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that ignorance isn’t actually bliss, or that “wait and see” is not a viable option. Israeli and American exceptionalism feed off one another, and that combination is about to become downright toxic with Trump and Netanyahu.
Just look at how they treat the press. Although the press in Israel has traditionally been much more open about its domestic affairs than the American media, just this past April, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press to “partly free.” Trump hasn’t held a press conference in 148 days.
Why are we self-censoring? For too long, Jews in America have unquestioningly accepted myth-making about Israel, whether in school or on Birthright Israel trips. I remember attending a meeting of the Duke Students for Israel as a college freshman during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. The purpose of the meeting, we were told, was to make us into pro-Israel advocates. We were handed a pamphlet with the modern history of the Middle East, presented as talking points. Each war had its own bullet point, arguing something like "They started it." No one in the room questioned such simplistic, zero-sum propaganda, myself included.
Despite the rise of alternative viewpoints on college campuses, I still hear variations on those bullet points. They have barely changed in 15 years, other than becoming more overtly racist and despairing. If only they were just words.
When I was in law school, I spent part of a summer in Tel Aviv working for an organization, Shurat HaDin, that tried to freeze bank accounts associated with terrorist activities. This was not my first trip to Israel, and my primary motivation was a summer by the beach and quality time with family and friends. While I felt few moral ambiguities about my particular assignment researching Iranian banks that were funneling money to Hezbollah, the organization’s other work included limiting Palestinians’ freedom of movement and promoting Jewish settlements.
Before flying to Tel Aviv, I asked a very close Jordanian friend whether it bothered him that I was going to work for über-Zionists. Like many Jordanians, my friend is part Palestinian, but he has never been to Jaffa, the historically Arab port city where half his family originated. He gave me his blessing, which was more generous than I deserved. I’m still grateful that he didn’t begrudge me my curiosity, especially when he couldn’t assuage his own.
That summer was eye-opening. I will never forget the office field trip we made to the West Bank, escorting members of the Upper East Side Chabad to visit military courts and meet the judges working there.
We were on a bus driving along the wall that divides Israel proper from the West Bank, passing Palestinians waiting on foot at numerous checkpoints. During a pause, an older woman sitting behind me on the bus remarked loudly, “Why don’t they just electrify the fence?” Just like that. The inhumanity was completely casual. I whipped my head around, but saw only a few vague nods and general indifference.
This woman, a New Yorker like me, had suggested electrocuting children for touching a fence. I said nothing.
I can’t stay silent anymore. I’ve spent years studying genocide, especially the Holocaust, trying to understand how and why good people do evil things. I’m always struck by the way language is used to dehumanize others.
I worry about the direction our mutual discourse is taking. Israel’s leaders already talk like that ignorant woman on the bus, and starting in January, so will American leaders. I’m afraid that too many Jews are blind to how the trauma of the 20th century has shaped our collective worldview, and that we can’t see the ghetto we’ve built to contain the Palestinians. I worry that we think our nation-state is superior or that our people are superior, but only if their blood is pure.
David Friedman’s extremist views are about to be legitimized by Trump. The future ambassador no doubt regards me as a traitor for a variety of reasons, and I realize that my views are anathema to him. That’s why I’m appealing to you. Friedman and Trump are not the owners of common sense. They do not get to dictate a hateful future and then make it real because we did nothing. We carry the scars of past suffering in everything we do, which is all the more reason to fight against hate and intolerance. Never forget. Use your moral compass. Imagine if it was you.