Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content


Weekly Roundup - 06/24/24

This week: In a line-by-line reassessment, Shane Burley and Jonah ben Avraham expose the flawed methodology of the Anti-Defamation League’s recent antisemitism audit.

On a new episode of our podcast, On the Nose, culture editor Claire Schwartz speaks with Palestinian American poet Fady Joudah about his experience publishing a new book, [...], amid this long moment of genocide in the Gaza Strip.

In light of our recent podcast episode “Religion, Secularism, and the Jewish Left,” which generated passionate responses from many readers, we are sharing several letters from our readers about the episode’s Ashkenormativity, the Protestant roots of viewing religion and secularism as a strict binary, Torah study as embodied ritual, and more.

Examining the ADL’s Antisemitism Audit
A line-by-line reassessment of the organization’s data illuminates the flaws in its methodology.
Shane Burley and Jonah ben Avraham
“Beyond the Capacity of English to See”

Letters from Our Readers

The recent On the Nose episode about religion and secularism reflected an entrenched Ashkenormative approach to Jewishness—that is, the assumption of Ashkenazi culture, history, and religious practice as the “default” in Jewish life as a function of internalized Eurocentrism, and even white supremacy, within Jewish society. I was disappointed that the podcast’s participants showed little awareness or interest in the multiplicity of Jewish cultures. Importantly, the secular/religious dichotomy makes little sense in varied Sephardic and Mizrahi contexts, where Reform and Orthodox Judaism did not emerge. While “secularism” did indeed play a role, the rift with tradition was not necessarily as pronounced. The idea that one must abandon Judaism in order to become a Jewish leftist—an axiomatic belief of the previous generation of Ashkenazi leftists—makes little sense among Sepharadim, at least for Ladino-speakers of an earlier generation. Indeed, two of the main figures in what I term in my research the “Ladino Left” of the early 20th century went to rabbinical seminary in Salonica; one was both a socialist and Talmudic scholar known by the title “haham” (rabbi in the Sephardic tradition), and the other used rabbinic Jewish texts and commentary on the perashá to introduce the masses to principles of socialism and mutual aid. If we want to have a robust conception of the historical antecedents to today’s Jewish (and not merely Ashkenazi or Yiddish) left, room for additional histories and perspectives must be made in the conversation.

This background helps explain why I was disturbed by the endorsement of American exceptionalism that underpinned the older generation’s approach on the podcast. There are many ways of explaining the Protestant-style “city upon a hill” allusions featured in the conversation, an important one of which is the embrace of whiteness. This embrace was made possible not because the US has been a more “just” society than the “old country” but rather because in the US, there have always been other (nonwhite) Others who have received the bulk of the wrath of the state and society. Crucially, the Ashkenazi embrace of whiteness entailed the denigration of other Jews who may have posed a challenge to their being seen as white and European. More than a century ago, a (non-Jewish) sociologist observed that “Levantine Jews” in New York experienced more discrimination from other Jews than they did from non-Jews. The continued exclusion of non-Ashkenazi Jews from the Jewish conversation today—especially on the so-called Jewish left—unfortunately reflects a failure to come to terms with a past of intra-Jewish prejudice that persists today, to everyone’s detriment.

Just as Jewish Currents has worked to combat white supremacy, heteronormativity, Islamophobia, and other loathsome discourses, so too must it strive to raise awareness of, and guard against, the perpetuation of Ashkenormitivity. The Yiddish roots of the magazine need not be severed to make way for additional branches of Jewishness. On the contrary: This exclusivist approach, which emphasizes Yiddishkeit and Ashkenazi leftist forebears alone and perpetuates the sharp dichotomy between religion and secularism, reveals the failure of the magazine to uphold its stated commitment to the “rich tradition of thought, activism, and culture on the Jewish left.” Perhaps the magazine would consider rendering some of these key terms in the plural—”traditions” and “cultures”to reflect a more robust and inclusive vision for the future.

Devin Naar
Seattle, WA

Read the other letters from our readers on “Religion, Secularism, and the Jewish Left.”