June 13th: The Jewish Whiteness Question

I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.

As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.

In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.

Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.

The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.

The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.

One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.

It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.

May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

April 12th: It Isn’t What Sean Spicer Said, It’s What He Meant…and That’s Just As Scary

When Sean Spicer says something ridiculous, I’m usually fine to chock it up to an ignorant loudmouth who just can’t seem to help himself. This week, though, he officially crossed over into new territory, and not only profoundly messed up, but blundered every opportunity to fix it.

In a press conference earlier in the week, Spicer was discussing America’s use of force against Syria. He was talking about the atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad, and attempting to justify why America needed to get involved. To accomplish this, he made the statement that even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his people. To which, of course, all American Jews said “of course he did, you epic moron.”

Now, it would have been one thing if he said that while he was swept up in the moment. But, one journalist gave him a chance to redeem himself, asking him to clarify what he meant. Spicer, realizing he had gotten himself into hot water, attempted to walk back his statements. In a later press release, he made the comment that Hitler had never used chemical weapons on HIS OWN people, but the atrocities of Hitler shouldn’t be undervalued, and it wasn’t what he meant. To make matters worse, he referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust Centers,” which sounds more like guest services at a tourist attraction than death camps where millions of Jews and other marginalized people were murdered en mass.

At first, his blunder could have been swept away as having been caught up in the moment and saying something foolish. That could have been forgotten, if not forgiven. When he had plenty of time to craft a response, clarify his point, and do what he could to mitigate the problem, he instead decided to say that Hitler hadn’t ever attacked his own people, implying that German Jews weren’t really Germans, and dehumanizing them in much the same way that Hitler had. Not only was Spicer dumb enough to use Hitler as his example, but in some ways he literally bought into the deranged and horrifying thinking of the Nazis.

The defense of Spicer will be that of course that wasn’t what he meant, and that we are all just being too sensitive. But, the reality is, Spicer WAS trying to insinuate that Assad’s actions were worse than Hitler’s. He was attempting to say that America did the right thing, because if we didn’t, it would get to THAT level of bad. By saying this, Spicer so entirely undervalues and disrespects the experience of the Holocaust, and directly attacks the Jewish community (and others) across the world who know all-too-well what “worse” looks like.

American Judaism has been under attack for months. We have been threatened, defaced, belittled, and marginalized. To this point, the White House hasn’t done nearly enough to protect or defend the rights of the Jewish community, and has demonstrated zero interest in making sure that the kind of anti-semitism of the the first half of the 20th century.

Now, the man who speaks with the voice of the White House has the audacity to belittle the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. In February, Trump failed to mention the Jews at all in connection to the Holocaust. Now, Spicer states directly that the Jews weren’t real Germans, so Hitler wasn’t killing “his own people.” We have now crossed a line from the blunders and goofs that we have come to expect from the Trump White House, and crossed into the kind of underhanded attacks that should never be taken out against a group of Americans in this country.

Hitler treated us like we weren’t real Germans. But Jews damn well are real Americans, and it’s about time that the office of the president treated us as such. Sean Spicer’s comments were ignorant, were stupid, were insensitive, and were wrong. And he must be dealt with appropriately. If he is not, than that is a not-so-subtle reflection of agreement from the President, something that cannot be ignored or overlooked.

January 4th: We Aren’t Going Anywhere

In 2016, hate was a concept. We talked about it a lot, but for me, I had the luxury of talking about hate directed at other people. I didn’t have to deal with the feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and fear myself until my own community was targeted yesterday.

Hebrew Union College has served as the home base for the education of Reform Jewish Rabbis for over a century, and Cincinnati has been the home to the College since 1875. On Tuesday morning, a swastika was discovered, painted on the sign on Clifton Avenue outside of the campus grounds.

The swastika, by all evidence, appears to be the work of a petty vandal, hastily drawn before moving on. No direct threats were made, nobody was harmed, no property was damaged beyond simply wiping away the symbol. Yet, Jews all over the country feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and fearful, that their place as American Jews has somehow been called into question. Facebook, in the last 36 hours, has been filled with unending posts of sadness, support, and determination. We say “Never again,” referencing the Holocaust and origins of the Swastika, and Jews all across the world are programmed to stand up for ourselves to ensure that we will never been attacked like we were back then.

HUC has been home to Reform Judaism in Cincinnati since 1875, and will continue to be a strong part of this city and this community.

For me, the hardest part was the inability to do much of anything productive. Sure, we can voice our displeasure, we can cry and stamp our feet and call attention to this injustice of it all. But an act committed by a silent criminal with no face is awfully hard to do anything about. We don’t know if this is a doodle by an ignorant punk or if this is a first step for a series of hate crimes. What we do know is that someone found the need to paint a specifically Jewish-motivated symbol of hate on our institution, and we cannot allow our fear to get the best of us.

The Jewish community of Cincinnati and America need to use this as a wake-up call. If we weren’t aware already, there are those who are intimidated by the presence of Jewish people and Jewish values in our country. My hope is that they are scared out of ignorance, not out of hate. Which means our job is to do two things.

First, we need to be educators. We need to be vocal about our Judaism, welcoming questions with sincere and kind answers. We need to tell others what we stand for and show non-Jewish America that our country is stronger with Jews in it than it would be if we weren’t here. We have an obligation to help demystify the “other”, to give an introduction to those who have never seen past their own identities.

Second, we need to be strong in our commitment to stand up for our values and stand up for ourselves. This first act is one of vandalism, but we don’t know what might happen next. This serves as a wake-up call for Jews all across the country to speak up for ourselves, to ensure that we continue to wear our Judaism with pride.

It would be easy to be afraid of going back to school after Winter Break. It would be easy to turn this small act of disgusting defacement as a threat, to scare us, to intimidate us, and to push us away. But what we have the opportunity to do now is to come out stronger, to show our Judaism and who we are as Jewish people.

The most beautiful thing has also come out of this dark moment. The administration of HUC as identified that support and offers of help and commitment have been rolling in, both from the Jewish community of Cincinnati and from the University of Cincinnati which is located just down the street. Members of the College Institute and the Cincinnati community at large have made it abundantly clear: HUC is here, HUC belongs here, and there are many people who will fight to make sure that remains true.

I am proud to be a student at Hebrew Union College. I am proud to be a Jewish member of the Cincinnati community. And I am determined to ensure that this city and this world knows what it means for Jews to be the agents of peace in all corners of the earth.

More information about the incident.

December 31st: The World Can’t Settle When It Comes to Israel

It seems that, over the past few years, the United Nations has made it a habit of putting forward a piece of toothless legislation meant to slap Israel in the face, only to have the American Jewish population cry out in protest. The American government has gotten quieter and quieter in their support of Israel, moving from a die-hard support of Israel to a far more tepid policy, one that says support out of the mouth, but actions that leave the question open to interpretation.

This time around, the UN has put forward a resolution in which it calls out Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, and the pattern starts all over again. The problem is, the situation appears totally devoid of context, and leaves Israel open to fundamentally unwarranted character criticism. 

Let’s start with the settlements. In the early 2005, the Israeli government disengaged from Gaza, essentially forfeiting the territory to complete Palestinian rule. The Gaza Strip and West Bank proceeded to become the central hub for Palestinians living in the Middle East, and, today, is controlled by the majority party of the Palestinian authority, Fatah. It is vital to note that Fatah, in an election in 2006, turned over control to Hamas, a known terror organization with rampant hostility to the Jews and the Jewish state.

After the removal of Israelis from Gaza in the mid 2000s, Jewish settlers have since moved into the areas at the boundaries of the settlements, slowly choking off what little spaces exist in the territories to begin with. These are Jewish families who believe that Israel’s government had no right to give land away, and that they will ignore whatever anyone has to say about it: this land is Israel. Period. It is impossible to ignore the fact that cost of living in these areas is also dramatically lower, making it to one’s financial benefit to intrude on Palestinian land, rather than to live in Israel proper.

This is where today’s politics get nasty. On the one hand, the settlements are terrible for the state of Israel. In effect, these individuals are forgoing Israel’s policy on land and impeding on the land that Israel gave up. To the international community, this looks as though Israel is unwilling to follow the agreements they established a decade ago. Yet, to attack the settlers, one essentially must attack Israel for not having done enough to stop them, and thus seem to be in opposition with Israel.

Israel, of course, has an obligation to ensure that its citizens are abiding by the law and living where they are supposed to live. But, that means that Israel is guilty of being negligent, not malicious, or unable to control its people, not governmental encroachment. Israel would hardly be the only country in the world without a strong grip on their population. It’s part of the cost of a democracy, something that Israel knows in a Middle East without a peer in that regard.

To make matters worse, Fatah seems to love talking about the settlements. By continually having Jews encroaching on their land, they are able to argue that the Israelis are bullying them, that they are somehow abusing them day in and day out. It doesn’t matter what else Israel does in aid, it doesn’t matter what other humanitarian actions Israel takes. This is a constant ace-in-the-hole for the Palestinians to remind the world that the Israelis refuse to keep their people where they belong. Regardless of what Palestinians do to Jews in Israel, the fact that Jews encroach on their land is enough to play the sob story on international television.
What had once been a fairly mundane plot to make Israel look bad has now turned into a real problem, because America fell for the trick hook, line, and sinker. America has every right to be in opposition to settlements. Settlements are not only bad for Palestinians, but bad for Israel’s own work in defending itself on the world’s stage. To say that settlements are bad for peace is a relative no-brainer. The problem is, those statements need to come within the context of full support of Israel and the work that Israel is doing to create a safe homeland for Jewish people, and for the right of Israel to exist.

Where the Obama administration has failed the Jewish people isn’t in agreeing with the notion of UN’s issue with settlements. The issue is that they haven’t said anything else. They haven’t done nearly enough to establish that the settlements are an ill created by a fringe community of rogue Israelis, and that the real, true state of Israel is better than that. The President and his staff have an obligation to educate the public and create understanding regarding what role Israel has to play, and why a country with a bad situation is not inherently a bad country (a notion that a country as divided as America right now should be able to understand.)

The political situation in the Middle East right now is playing off of the ignorance of the public. The settlements are a problem for Israel, and one that, if Israel was smart, they would get control over immediately. But by the United Nations taking cheap-shots at Israel for their treatment of the Palestinians, it helps to establish a global distrust and animosity toward the Jewish state that it does not deserve. By stripping the situation of its context, the Jews and the Israelis are left completely open to criticism and critique, and need the help of the American people and the American government to stand up for them.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been working hard to try to create an environment for peace in the Middle East. Along the way, they have tried to get the Israelis to play nice while they are chastised and ridiculed in front of the world, while the Palestinians continue to refuse to come to the negotiating table. Why would they come to the table when the world will create bad press and hatred toward the Jews for them? It’s time that the American government stop holding different standards for the Israelis and the Palestinians, and demand that the Arabs meet the same level of scrutiny, something that has been woefully absent in the discussion.

Settlements are a problem for Israel, and should be dealt with. On their own, a criticism of the settlements is perfectly reasonable. But without the proper context, a political attack on Israel of this nature could have catastrophic repercussions not only for Israel, but for the relationship with the United States.