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O My America: More on Progressive Jewish Identity

June 16, 2014
A RESPONSE TO ABIDOR'S RESPONSE by Lawrence Bush JEWS!Does really think it mere coincidence, unrelated to Jewish history, culture, and ethical consciousness, that some third of the seven hundred northerners who went to Mississippi to fight for racial justice in 1964 were Jews — this in a country with a population that was maybe 5 percent Jewish at the time? Even if we consider the fact that many of the volunteers were college students, and that American Jews were disproportionately numbered among college students — is THAT fact not related to Jewish history, culture, and ethical consciousness? As we wrote in our mammoth article for the 50th anniversary in our current issue of Jewish Currents, among those Jewish volunteers in Mississippi were some who directly acknowledged the Jewish roots of their commitment. We quoted Marilyn Lowen, who said: "From a very young age, as a Jew, I always felt my purpose was to be involved in fighting injustice, fighting for freedom... when I read biographies of Jewish women resistance fighters in Eastern Europe, I felt as if I knew them and as if I were there with them." We quoted Larry Rubin: "I grew up with Jewish Life and Jewish Currents. I went to an IWO Yiddish shule... I repeated all the things they'd taught me: what a mentsh does is fight for justice; the Jewish people will never be safe from disaster unless discrimination against any group is impossible..." We quoted Mark Levy, whose photographs formed the backbone of the article: "When I speak to students about why I went to Mississippi... I tell them the first and most significant factor was that I am Jewish. My Jewish teachings and values made it feel like the right thing to do..." All right, so let's say Mitchell didn't closely read that article, or has reasons to second-guess the volunteers' sense of Jewish connection. His critique of my broadside still deserves response, and my response is this: While it has been a great blessing for American Jews to be officially acknowledged in this land of church-state separation only as a religious group, it has also resulted in an unbalanced perspective on Jewish culture within the larger American culture and among activist Jews. The only time Jews get mentioned in the media as Jews is when they act as a religious community (for instance, when Hasidic sects take over school boards or hide crimes from law enforcement) or when a Jewish organization takes a stand, mostly in relationship to Israel (for instance, when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations recently rejected J Street from membership). Given that both these sects and organizations are oligarchic and do not accurately represent the politics of the Jewish grassroots, the impression left by such media reports — that the American Jewish community is dominated by Orthodox fanaticism and conservative politics — is actually false, but very prevalent. To boot, progressive Jews exercise in-group radar and name-recognition to see how very many neoconservative war-hawks are Jews, and how many Wall Street millionaires and their academic apologists are Jews. What self-respecting progressive Jew would NOT run in the opposite direction from such a Jewish community? Yet the reality of Jews and their politics is very different. Jews voted for Obama more than any other white ethnic group, by far, in both elections — 78 percent in 2008, more than 68 percent in 2012 — yet all we heard about in the media was how the [Jewish] neocons were calling Obama a danger for Israel, and how Jews in Israel preferred McCain and Romney. Jews were key players in the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, and the LGBTQ movement in the decades since World War II — but if the New York Times only identifies as Jews the bloc-voting ultra-Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, or the throngs who march in the Celebrate Israel parade, how are progressive Jews to feel pride or comfort with Jewish identity? And if they don't — if they don't even read Jewish Currents because it has the word 'Jewish' in the title, which must mean that we're religious, or obsessed with what's "good for the Jews" — how are we to preserve the tradition described in my broadside, and represented by our magazine for seven decades: our "great, humanistic, universalist tradition of fighters and poets"? How are we to preserve the broad liberalism of the American Jewish community as a political resource for our country? Again, does Mitchell truly believe that Jewish participation and leadership in all of those social movements is disconnected from Jewish history, culture, and ethical consciousness? Does he truly believe that the intense Jewish attraction to Marxism in the 19th and 20th centuries had nothing to do with Jewish identity? Does he truly believe that the general acceptance of women's liberation and gay liberation in American Jewish life (including within the liberal religious mainstream) has nothing to do with Jewish historical experience? Does he think the Jewish contribution to American literature, humor, and popular music are disconnected from the Jewish past? Just because we cannot name and identify the sources and processes of cultural transmission in every instance does not mean they are absent. Absent they will eventually be, however, if progressive Jews altogether abstain from participating in Jewish life. And yes, of course, as Mitchell writes, "the Jewish humanist tradition" involves "a selective and partisan reading of Jewish texts?" What identity or "tradition" in the modern world does not involve some measure of contrivance? (His other claim, however, that "Jewish Orthodoxy in its most hidebound forms was the only game in town for millennia" is cartoonish, ignoring centuries of liberalizing commentary and religious law and taking the Jewish religious experience entirely out of context of the rest of humanity's slow ethical development.) I made no claims, however, in either my broadside or its accompanying blog about the religious aspects of Jewish civilization (I've made plenty of those claims elsewhere). What I do claim is this: that we are in a struggle to define the soul of Jewish identity, a struggle with important implications for our larger American society and, perhaps, world beyond. It's an ongoing Jewish struggle, centuries old, between fundamentalism and humanism; between tribalism and universalism; between strict legalism and broad, interpretive liberality; between nationalism and internationalism; between controlling women and their bodies and liberating them; between enforcing uniformity and celebrating diversity; etc. etc. It's a hard struggle to conduct in a land in which the "national minority" status of Jews is really not recognized, and in which Jewish identification is widely associated with, and only with, Zionism and religious observance. Our side of that struggle needs reinforcements — progressive Jews who will apportion at least a part of their good energy towards cultivating progressive Jewish identity among American Jews. Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and JEWDAYO.