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An Enemy with Outposts in Our Head

February 24, 2014

Women and Internalized Anti-Semitism

by Liz Manlin Reviewed in this Essay: Hope Into Practice: Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite Our Fears by Penny Rosenwasser., 2013, 417 pages. female-gender-symbolAlthough many books have been written about the legacy of anti-Semitism — its various historical manifestations, its manipulation for political ends, and its pervasive staying power — few have focused on the insidious force we carry within, as Jews: internalized anti-Semitism. Penny Rosenwasser also refers to this as “internalized anti-Jewish oppression” in her book, Hope Into Practice: Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite Our Fears, which illustrates how centuries of prejudice, persecution, and genocide have had a devastating effect on our psyches as Jews — and for Jewish women, in particular, on our ability to love ourselves just as we are. Rosenwasser begins her book with a story from performer/poet Vanessa Hidary, also knows as the Hebrew Mamita, in which she describes an encounter in a bar with a cute guy who tells her, “You’re Jewish? Wow. You don’t look Jewish.” The combination of his complimentary tone and her flirtatious response translates into a “thank you” — which resonates deeply with Rosenwasser, who grew up in a white, Christian, middle-class suburb in Northern Virginia in the 1950s and ‘60s and learned to say “Thank you” when someone told her she didn’t look Jewish. It wasn’t until adulthood that Rosenwasser understood the inherent problem with this seemingly innocuous exchange:
It took many more years to grasp what the “thank you” signified: the dominant U.S. culture’s mindset inside me. This was my first clue about internalized anti-Semitism — the way so many of us, Jewish girls, got the (ridiculous, toxic) message that something was wrong with us. That we just didn’t fit the white Protestant mold this country valorized. That our bodies weren’t svelte enough; that we were too outspoken or needy or intense. Maybe our anxiety showed a little too much. That we were just a tad repugnant . . . I had to write this book to stop that inner monologue in its tracks, to turn it around. It’s a devastating rant; and it is changeable. These internalized critiques, along with fear and grief, outrage and powerlessness, passed down through Jewish families for generations, are not personalized pathologies; they are a communal response to anti-Jewish prejudice, persecution, genocide. Just like Second Wave feminism taught us, the personal is political.
Rosenwasser’s book is adapted from her dissertation research, in which she organized and led a series of dialogues with a group of Jewish women, similar to the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism. Rosenwasser draws upon the wisdom of such feminist thinkers as Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and Adrienne Rich, who sought the dismantling of oppression through the building of relationships with other women, creating safety and space to uncover the personal and political repercussions of centuries of male domination. Similarly, Rossenwasser sees the project of liberating ourselves from internalized anti-Jewish oppression as a revolutionary act that requires a great deal of courage, clarity and solidarity with other Jews. It can be tricky to “fight an enemy with outposts in our head,” writes feminist Sally Kempton, and Rosenwasser draws on this imagery to illustrate the challenge of healing from internalized oppression. Rosenwasser outlines a compelling case for why this healing is necessary for each of us individually, as Jews, and as a people. Most powerful, and at times chilling, is her chapter called, “Taking Egypt Out of the Jews” in which she argues that any movement dominated by a fear-based narrative undermines an effective and justice-centered approach to ending the occupation in Israel/Palestine. Rosenwasser especially beckons female readers to imagine the possibility of liberating ourselves from negative self-talk related to being female and Jewish and choose a “Jewish positive” position instead. As a long-time activist, she is particularly focused on sharing her message with fellow activists, organizers and community leaders, arguing that we cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with other oppressed groups if we cannot first stand up for ourselves. Despite decades of activism as a feminist, anti-racist educator, and being a founding board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, Rosenwasser did not come to terms with internalized anti-Semitism before she began a doctoral program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in Transformational Learning & Change. After several months of grappling with racism as a member of her multiracial student cohort, she began to realize that living in a Christian dominant culture had a huge impact on how she saw herself in the world. The intense pressure to assimilate that her Jewish family experienced living in a Protestant neighborhood in the 1950s robbed her of a “precious sense of belonging to my people,” she writes. Backed by the African American women in her study group, she decided that in order to be the best ally to people of color, she would have to come from a “solid, self-knowing, [and] proudly-Jewish” place. To investigate how individuals heal from internalized oppression, Rosenwasser utilized a research method called Cooperative Inquiry (CI). CI is democratic and collaborative in nature: It valorizes emotion, demands full participation, and results in experiential multi-dimensional learning. She recruited a group of nine Jewish women of diverse backgrounds to meet together over the course of ten months. The group discussed a range of topics like assimilation, perfectionism, and victimhood. Her chapter titles include “Suckled on Worry,” “Hello Assimilation, Goodbye Persecution,” and “Jewish-Positive.” At times, Rosenwasser’s tone is entirely too California and touchy-feely for this Northeastern reviewer, like when she describes the group’s final closing ritual, which began with: “We’ve grown together, like a grove of giant redwoods.” Despite the abstract, New Age sentimentality, I was certainly moved by the goal of her research and the real intimacy the group achieved. The book is peppered with quotes from members of that group, which give weight to the wisdom and lived experience of regular people who every day face anti-Jewish attitudes and the internalized material she describes. In the chapter, “Push/Push/Push for Perfection,” Rosenwasser includes several lines of dialogue from a group session in which members talk openly about the pressure they feel to be perfect as a way to seek approval, feel worthy, and never make mistakes for fear of not being liked, especially by their Gentile peers. One of the group members pipes up: “What I hear you describing . . . is that risk factor that Jews sometimes feel, that survival’s at stake.” Rosenwasser includes extensive research of historical and recent examples of anti-Jewish oppression and examples of compensatory strategies we’ve adopted to avoid further persecution. In the U.S., assimilation has been the most common strategy. For example, in the 1950s, many major musical theater writers and composers were Jews, such as Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, though “none risked writing a Broadway musical about their cultural roots.” One could argue that West Side Story was Bernstein and Sondheim’s way of addressing universal prejudice, but it’s interesting to consider why they chose not to portray a Jewish/Gentile love story. Assimilation, though perhaps necessary at one point, resulted in an erasure of culture and self-hood, and this doesn’t come without some “psychic cost,” as Rosenwasser discovered later in life. Instead they chose the path of assimilation, because blending in felt safer. This is where Rosenwasser’s voice shines: in her ability to connect historical truths about anti-Semitism to the long-term emotional and psychological implications of oppression on generations of Jews. Rosenwasser knows her audience. I felt that she was writing to me and my cohort of young adult, Jewish female community organizers and activists trying to live a principled life in a world rife with contradictions. Looking to our baby boomer elders for guidance and wisdom, we find that they too feel confused about how to hold on to the radical ideals of their youth while being squashed by a harsh capitalist agenda. As young adults, we are continually readjusting our moral compasses, and it is comforting and inspiring to know that there are thinkers like Penny Rosenwasser working hard to understand how history informs us but does not define us. She shows us that we have the power to question history and learn from it. Another Jewish female author, Sheryl Sandberg, recently published a book, Lean In, which, similarly to Hope Into Practice, outlines the danger for women of latching onto false messages about our innate intelligence and worth. Sandberg asks her readers to rise above the victimhood sensibilities that often cloud our thinking and hold us back from taking risks and asking for what we want in our professional lives. She argues that women deserve to have the same opportunities as our male counterparts, and that if we only “lean in” we’ll be able to undo thousands of years of sexism and achieve success like we’ve never known. What’s missing from Sandberg’s book, Rosenwasser offers: acknowledgement that oppression is devastating and that we (women/Jews/people of color/gays) carry harsh internal messages because of it. While Sandberg briefly touches on the history of sexism in the workplace using statistics and anecdotal research, Rosenwasser lets us linger in the muck of history a bit longer, but doesn’t leave us overwhelmed and numb (the way many of us felt after sitting through the Holocaust unit in Hebrew school). Rather, she gives us space to look at how bad things really were (see Chapter 1: Antisemitism 101) while providing practical tools for doing the emotional work and self-discovery necessary to move on from it. As a self-identified feminist activist in my early thirties, I have a certain romanticized image of women’s consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and ’70s — but they also seem dated to me. Yet when I consider ways to make women’s liberation central to my life, I often end up thinking about gathering a group of my female friends to talk about how sexism affects us every day and how we can better support each other to love ourselves and each other more. Rosenwasser makes a strong argument — and provides several pages of practical tools — for reviving such groups around healing from internalized anti-Jewish oppression. Her message is so powerful that I wish she had a tighter argument for voicing it. At times, I found myself needing to refer back to chapter titles or the numerous headings to remember what she was talking about. At other times I found myself getting lost in the constant back and forth between quoted dialogue from the Cooperative Inquiry group sessions and citations from contemporary scholars or references to historical events. A stronger organization of her research would enhance the message and likely reduce her page count. Rosenwasser provides compelling examples of internalized anti-Semitism through her own and others’ personal narratives, all of which I could relate to as a Jewish woman. However, she neglects to offer a comprehensive definition of internalized oppression. This is surprising from an anti-racist educator who is surely practiced at distilling complex concepts into digestible terms for her students and workshop participants. However, even if Rosenwasser included a more scholarly definition, I wonder if personal stories wouldn’t remain to be the most effective method for appealing to the hearts rather than heads of her readers — which, I believe, is her goal. Rosenwasser’s personal narrative and the relational quality of her writing are what make the pages readable and the book unique. I urge skeptical readers to consider what Rosenwasser offers us through Cooperative Inquiry, to embrace the validity of our own experiences and emotions and to share them and learn from them with others. Regardless of what the book is missing, its pages are saturated with Rosenwasser’s brilliant thinking and unwavering love for the Jewish people. There are several sentences within each chapter that so stunningly dismantle internalized anti-Semitism that, in an instant, long-time confusions I’ve carried about myself as a woman and as a Jew were squashed. I was brought to tears more than once. This one feels especially powerful for me: “How to hold the suffering of so many in our world who are daily impoverished . . . brutalized — and also hold the absolute validity of Jewish pain, whether or directly from genocide or pogroms, or indirectly from self-disdain, without exaggerating, without diminishing (author’s italics).” As with so many complex questions, how do we hold two truths in one hand? Rosenwasser does not shy away from dilemmas such as this, which may leave readers with more questions than answers. This, I believe, is the spirit of Cooperative Inquiry that Rosenwasser offers, an ongoing process that you do not alone but with others. Hope Into Practice is an absolutely inspiring call to action. Because, if not together, how? Liz Manlin is a licensed social worker and community organizer in Philadelphia, PA.