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Haute Kosher: On the politicisation of Jewish identity: or, why sometimes I wish I could care less

Leah Mitchell writes on the burdens and duties of care causing a politicisation of Jewish identity.

CW: Antisemitism

Being Jewish isn’t an easy gig. Or at least, it doesn’t always feel like it. That doesn’t mean I don’t also love being Jewish – it’s part of me and of my family history, and I’m fiercely proud of it. But there are times when it feels too hard, too exhausting. I distinctly remember during the escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which occurred last May (and which I’m sure many of those in the West who are neither Jewish nor Palestinian nor Israeli, but who were so keen to throw in their two cents at the time, have already forgotten) that one particularly difficult afternoon, turning on my phone to see more news headlines and viral infographics, the thought flashed through my head that I wished I could just opt out for a day. Or a week.

What gave rise to this feeling, I think, was my sense of the burden of care. I suspect that this is something which many people experience, particularly if they are at all engaged in politics, and even more so if they are inclined to follow the news and to use social media. These days we are bombarded with information all the time on terrible situations we can do very little about directly, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But what exacerbates this feeling for me is being Jewish, and also knowing the extent to which antisemitism is underreported and misunderstood, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mischaracterised and politically weaponised by those who have almost no direct connection to or real knowledge of it. Because this isn’t simply another news item for Jews; it’s our lives. 

More than that, I think sometimes it feels like our duty to care, and to care more than anyone else. Part of this derives from the antisemitic notion that Jews as a collective are to be held responsible for the actions of the Israeli state (and sometimes also, deplorably, for the antisemitism they experience). We are not given a choice to stand aside from politics; whatever our personal beliefs, as a group we are treated by left and right alike as simultaneously a conveniently tokenisable talking point and an easy punching bag. However, part of it also comes from the very real sense that we as Jews have a vested interest in our continuity. We have a duty to live for those of our ancestors who could not owing to antisemitic violence, and to ensure that Jews now and in the future can experience the protection they did not have. And, for those of us who owe a debt of gratitude to Israel’s existence for our very lives (which is many of us), we feel (or should feel) the need to  make sure that the country which means so much to Jews all over the world is a place which upholds justice and dignity for all. If you love something, if you depend on something, you have to be willing to strive for it to be better. But at what point will we collapse under the strain? 

I am by nature a person who cares about politics, because I care about people. Only the most inordinately privileged among us are granted the option of true apathy; for the rest of us, our rights, our security, our very lives hang in the political balance. Even if I could care less, in general I wouldn’t want to; what kind of a life is it not to care about the world around you? Not to care about the lives of others and the values according to which society is run? Moreover, not caring feels decidedly un-Jewish. Jewish values mandate that we take care of others, and Jews have been driving activism and social justice movements for literal millenia, from resistance against violent oppression in ancient Judea and 20th century Europe to the fight for better labour conditions for working-class factory employees following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the key allyship of Jews in the American civil rights movement, and the prominence of Jewish women in leading feminist activism. 

Our own experiences of subjugation and discrimination throughout history have, at our best, made us compassionate and devoted advocates for justice. They also, at our worst, have made us fearful to the point of paranoia and bullishly defensive. The impact of intergenerational trauma is enormous; in fact, the concept of intergenerational trauma was developed by studies of the descendants of Holocaust survivors, who have been shown to be disproportionately predisposed to mental health problems. Our pain is literally imprinted on our psyches and epigenetics, with sometimes disastrous consequences. As a result of this and of our own experiences, news regarding antisemitic incidents or escalations in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict can send us easily into a tailspin of stress and very real fear. Compounded by how such events tend to encourage a global rise in antisemitic rhetoric, the targeting of Jews, and the sharing of misinformation and gaslighting by Western ‘activists’ who have no relationship to these issues and even less knowledge of them, sometimes it all feels too much. 

Being Jewish can be exhausting. Arguably I make it harder for myself than it needs to be; it is true that other Jews don’t always talk about antisemitism as frequently or track it as obsessively as I do. I’m also very outspoken about my political beliefs, and always have been, which I’m sure doesn’t help. But very few Jews can switch off their engagement with these matters, and the emotions they provoke, completely. All of us are bound up in this web of care somehow. For me, whether owing to some quirk of my personality or something else, the only possible response has seemed to me to be, somewhat paradoxically, resisting by giving the people what they want. You want to politicise my Jewishness? I’ll politicise it myself and reclaim the narrative. You just read up on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a two-minute infographic and want to give me your hot take? Joke’s on you – I’m out here talking about it year round. You’re annoyed that I won’t pipe down about my Jewishness or allow you to tokenise it for your political agenda? Tough luck – my Jewishness is mine, it’s beautiful, and it’s here to stay. 

Maybe I can’t simply care less; but I can celebrate the joyful parts of Jewish existence and identity, and that’s so much more powerful than any brief moments of tiredness and despair. There is a Jewish blessing which celebrates the rooster, because the rooster tells us the boundary between night and day. The point here is that the rooster knows and confirms, while still in dark, that the light is coming. Jews, like the rooster, know in our moments of darkness that there is still light; we know in our fear that there is still hope. It’s ok to be exhausted and frustrated; it’s ok sometimes to want a break from the weight of care. Because I know that this is never permanent – light is coming.

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