On Refusing to Be a Useful Jew

As a people, we often look back with pride at our long history of fighting for justice. We marched with MLK, played an indispensable role in women’s suffrage, fought for LGBT rights, stood at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, enthusiastically participated in the Dakota Pipeline protests, and even vowed to register as Muslims should Trump’s campaign promises ever become a reality. Time and again (but without tooting our own collective horn), we’ve put our necks on the line for the greater good, even when there were no obvious benefits in it for us. We call this practice “tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world”. Although at first it simply meant resisting idolatry, tikkun olam now refers to an alleged “obligation” we have to be a light unto the gentile world, heal society’s wounds, and ultimately bear responsibility for our non-Jewish neighbors.

Of course, not every Jew practices Judaism or, by extension, tikkun olam. And as an agnostic Jew with atheistic proclivities, I believe that our main priority should be tending to our own communal wounds, fighting structural anti-Semitism, and renewing our national consciousness as an indigenous Levantine people. After all, if tikkun olam means repairing the world, and we too are a part of that world, then it is incumbent on us to keep our own backyard in order before casting our gaze outward. And therein lies the problem with tikkun olam: it is all too often a form of sniveling sycophancy which places our own best interests, including our dignity, identity, national rights, and even our lives on the back burner. This behavior frequently dovetails with ingrained anti-Semitic patterns on the left, which demands that we “sacrifice” ourselves (i.e. that we either disappear or defer to our “betters”) for the good of humanity, consequently reifying Jewish invisibility and subordination. It is a pervasive form of anti-Semitism which I will henceforth refer to as Useful Jew Syndrome, or UJS.

The left, for its part, has no problem showing solidarity with gays, women, or non-Jewish ethnic minorities. But for Jews, communal solidarity is something that we are supposed to give, never receive. That is how UJS operates, and it persists because we continue to grease its wheels, as opposed to letting them rust and collapse. For example, a large number of Jews are involved in BLM despite its stridently anti-Semitic platform. And by refusing to condemn or combat its anti-Israel politics, we gave them our tacit approval. In other words, the noble actions of my co-ethnics didn’t exactly inspire the left or other minorities to stand with us or revisit core presumptions. All it did was send a message that they can be as anti-Semitic as they want because they know we will support them anyway. This approach is not a sustainable one. Solidarity is a two way street – it needs to be reciprocal, otherwise it’s worthless.

Another example would be the ongoing nationwide Women’s March. Although it aims to be a progressive, anti-Trump protest, one of its key organizers is Linda Sarsour – a vicious anti-Semite who is on record denying Israel’s legitimacy, advocating BDS, praising Hamas, and referring to Muslims who work with Jews as “sellouts”. Needless to say, her racism is very much at odds with the progressive left’s purported opposition to “all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism”. Giving someone like her a space of any kind within progressive, left wing, or otherwise anti-racist movements is to spit on the Jewish community and tell them that anti-Semitism is either very low on their priority list, or completely irrelevant. This too is a manifestation of UJS. Instead of condemning her views or ostracizing her from the march altogether, we have been met with a deafening silence. Anti-Semitism is once again being given a stamp of approval, and solidarity with the Jewish community is nowhere to be found.

It is entirely possible that my co-ethnics are content with being Useful Jews, but I’m not. I want our humanity recognized, and our suffering taken seriously. And yes, this will require non-Jews (particularly white people) to actually listen to us, cede power, and eschew cherished beliefs, because genuine equality is impossible otherwise. I will not cater to the whims of my “betters”. I will not “remember my place”. And I will not be a Useful Jew.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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