You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Queer Jews: What Kind of Ancestors Will We Be?

Kate Shapiro
July 11, 2017

by Kate Shapiro and Amy Jaret

FOR MANY OF US, to be queer is to experience exile at some point(s) in our lives. To make what we need with our own hands. To know that family is bigger than wife and 2.5 kids. To be queer is not just a sexual identity, but an identity by which we define ourselves as outcasts and outlaws as we work for structural change to society, systems, and structures at their roots. To be queer is to look those that have been deemed “other” in the eyes of the status quo -- be that because of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or creed -- and say we will harbor and love you, we will take you as you are, we will fight alongside you for justice and safety because we belong here.

We grew up as Ashkenazi Jews in the Bible Belt South, then became dyke Jews in the Bible Belt South and experienced antisemitism. It manifested as bias, discrimination, and interpersonal ignorance, dynamics that we confronted as we also learned about broader systems of oppression and how they showed up in our lives.

The combination of those four things -- being dykes, being Jews, being in the Bible Belt, and being aware of structural oppression -- led us also to a fifth being and one that has created an exiling within our own Jewish community: to be part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in order to challenge the occupation carried out by the State of Israel.

Yet still, we also long for a place to worship and to weep.

THE LAST TIME either of us sought spiritual community in a synagogue was after the Pulse massacre last summer. The synagogues we have entered have welcomed us with ecstatic open arms for being dykes, but silence, suppress, and exile us for being anti-Zionist. We are not alone in our longing for spiritual refuge when the world hurts, but the community we need is one that will take us in our fullness. Many of our queer beloveds know the pain of exile from our houses of worship, for coming out. In progressive Jewish communities, we also experience this spiritual exile as a result of our anti-Zionism.

When we turn toward our religion, we do so not just in need of self-care but in need of self-work in our spirits. None of us are done growing, especially as Jews right now.

We long for rabbis who are not “out and proud” only to serve corporate interests or the Jewish establishment, the comfort of the upper-middle class, and the further entrenchment of institutions built on white supremacy, who are vocal when Judaism is perceived to be affronted but silent in the wake of the violence, racism and vitriol aimed at feminist, brown, queer, activists, such as following the Chicago Dyke March. Perhaps they too are afraid the mob will come after them as well -- a legitimate fear, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

We were compelled to write this after watching what happened at the 10th Dyke March in Chicago. The organization A Wider Bridge was victorious in mischaracterizing and misrepresenting the events at the Dyke march and turning it into a huge mobilizing moment in which Israeli and Zionists interests blanketed the airwaves and social media with their messages. We watched and engaged with people who know and love both of us personally yet joined the racist, misogynistic and homophobic jeering of the masses. Factual errors in early reports created a single narrative that portrayed the organizers from A Wider Bridge in a favorable light, while demonizing the organizers from the Dyke March Collective. From this single narrative erupted a global onslaught of media naming the organizers, the LGBTQ community, and the left as all antisemitic. It was horrific to watch unfold.

Attacking and threatening the lives of dykes of color for being antisemitic doesn’t help the cause of ending antisemitism. In fact, tethering Jewish identity so deeply to the State of Israel, and further entrenching communal norms of silencing all opposition to Israel by calling it antisemitism, quite starkly does the opposite. Instead of attacking and provoking activists such as Dyke March organizers out of fear, we must hold our community accountable for their words and actions, and engage in relationship building and principled political struggle with our allies in the struggle for justice. We must prepare ourselves for this work by engaging in deeper conversations within the Jewish community and among our interfaith allies, to strengthen our language distinguishing Judaism from Zionism and Anti-Zionism from Anti-Semitism. We created this discussion guide for Jewish communities to grapple together around some of what the Dyke March and A Wider Bridge war brought up; we call on our rabbis and teachers to create space for these important conversations.

NOW IS NOT the time for this kind of distraction and in-fighting, y’all. There is much work we need to do together around our relationship to power, white supremacy, and privilege. Privilege and power messes with our heads, grows calluses on our hearts, blinds our eyes, and breeds narcissism and fear. We are screaming at each other while the country and world is on fire. The political landscape is shifting faster than we can grasp. This broader political moment of chaos and escalating anti-poor, anti-Black, anti-Immigrant anti-Muslim sentiment and policy requires all of us to grow, to grapple and to act bravely in the face of structural oppression, policies, practices, regimes, cultural norms, and more.

It is not the first time that we have seen these things play out. Rabbis who say that they seek justice but who have withdrawn support from Black Lives Matter -- whether loudly or passively -- because of the platform’s brave endorsement of BDS stifle our growth as Jewish people of conscience, and sever relationships with existing and emerging Black leadership. Supporting the message, work, and action of Black Lives Matter is one of the key issues, opportunities, and calls of our time. We must also reckon with the fact that those who are the architects of the War on Black People are also antisemitic, even if they also support the State of Israel.

We must be willing to own our pain and to recognize the ways we act out of a protective stance to protect future generations from the pain of our ancestors. But we must also remember: U.S. Jews do not have the copyright on pain, trauma, ethnic cleansing. How devastating this notion is. We, too, have ancestors that died in the Holocaust, family in Israel and Argentina and New Zealand and Russia and England. But we can not justify or heal the suffering of our ancestors by backing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

As Alice Walker states, in a quote that Paulina Helm Hernandez brought to our work at Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and inspired us to hold close to our hearts, “To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves . . . We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before.”

What fuels our thirst and hunger for BDS and Palestinian sovereignty is not just an abstract set of politics. It is is spiritual: We need to know that we on this earth at this time did everything we could do to bring about justice and to transform the specter of trauma and memory so we no longer use collective trauma or the Holocaust to legitimate ethnic cleansing. We desire to stake a claim to our religious and spiritual traditions that span thousands of years, that do not belong to the Israeli government. We aspire to be powerful actors in the fight for Palestinian sovereignty and sovereignty of oppressed peoples from here to Jaffa. We crave to create a legacy of which future generations of Jews will be proud.

We ask not merely for tolerance of each other but for respectful struggle. Let us be ancestors we can be proud to be. Let us return to some of the best of our Jewish and queer traditions of being sanctuary for each other and not -- as SONG Co-Founder Mandy Carter cautions us against -- just invoke our values of justice for “just us.” To struggle often means we will have to change, transform -- which isn’t about changing our mind but changing ourselves fully.

We want to share and to practice the traditions and rituals of our ancestors in community, as we have done for generations. Be that because of our queerness, our Jewness, our outlaw-ness, our politics, and/or our class, we will have to build this community ourselves. Reach out. Come out. Join us.

Amy Jaret is a queer Jewish Atlanta native who co-leads a project called Ner Tamid / Light for Justice, which bridges cultural traditions, community building, and popular education to deepen our understanding of issues at the root of racial and economic inequality.

Kate Shapiro is a Southern Jewish dyke and Membership Director of Southerners on New Ground/SONG: a political home and grassroots organizing shop for LGBTQ Southerners across class, race, gender, sexuality, place and culture.