A Secret Jew Comes Out
For the past 24 years I have been teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the War on Terrorism, domestic terrorism, and American pluralism to college undergraduates. One would think that my strong Jewish identity would come to bear in all of those subjects. And, indeed, it has. In my thinking, my approach, my very understanding of those subjects and issues. But not in class. Not with my students. I hide my Jewish identity from them and do not tell them that I am a Jew. As I teach at a Catholic university, it has not been difficult to get away with this.
Now there is some rational thinking behind this, especially with respect to teaching our conflict with the Palestinians. I am convinced that my Jewish identity would impinge on how the students see me, how they would view and trust my teaching on the subject as opposed to just seeing me as totally biased for our people and not concerned for the just rights for–and deprivations faced by—those Palestinians occupied by or even citizens of our Jewish State. Most students would neither comprehend nor allow for the “liberal Zionist” perspective with which I was raised, and which has been part and parcel of my life. And this is just as true for the few Jewish students at my university as it is for the non-Jews.
After so many years of engagement, I strongly feel that it is best to keep my identity a secret as I review both Jewish and Palestinian Arab history in the Land of Israel/Palestine (both terms are used and explained in class), especially over the past 150 years. And I have had a good deal of success with the vast majority of students, getting them to see that the conflict is not zero-sum, with one side being totally right and the other totally wrong. In fact, I have a mantra I teach to all my classes, my variation on John Stuart Mill, which goes like this:
Make the best case for the side with which you disagree, then critique it.
The obvious corollary is to “make the best case for both sides, then critique them both,” but students recognize that most of us have biases and so the original formulation seems to work best.
But despite my efforts to teach them that Israel does have a case and a right to exist, Zionism and Zionist are slurs to them, well before they met me or took my class. Detailing the reasons for that will have to wait for a future blog but suffice to say that, despite having taught them that Zionism is Jewish nationalism and that there are right-wing Zionists and left-wing Zionists, the impression that a Zionist is a racist predominates for many students. Indeed, in a strongly positive evaluation I received last year, a student said that she was impressed with how fair and even-handed my approach was, but she heard other students outside of class say that they thought that I might be a Zionist. One could either be Zionist or strive to be as pro-Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination, as possible, but one could not be both.
So again, some rational thought behind me being what Seinfeld’s Jerry Stiller reportedly said about the Costanza family—a Jew in the witness protection program.
But what about the War on Terrorism, domestic terrorism, and American pluralism? Surely, I can out myself teaching these subjects for in teaching them, Jews can at least sometimes still be seen as a marginalized community in America, facing their own form of racism as evidenced by the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue terrorism attack. But, with my identity a secret, too much comes out from students about conspiracies involving Jews or Israelis being behind 9/11 or Jewish power or the Palestinian issue, but mostly because Jews are seen almost uniformly as wealthy whites and this is a problem for many progressive students, i.e. most college students.
In that course, students present on at least 10 American races, ethnicities, and religions and they tend to be positive, identity-affirming about all…..except when reporting on Jewish-Americans. This could be the pre-existing prejudice against us, but I think it has as much to do with the very word “Jew,” which is a slur comparable with the N-word for far too many, and the wide dissemination of antisemitic stereotypes on the web.
Marginalized communities typically get support from other marginalized communities as well as from those considering themselves progressive, no matter what their race, religion, or ethnicity. But that empathy often stops when it comes to our people. Either we are too well-off and white to possibly face impactful antisemitism or, more often, because of Israel, the pariah of nation-states, the only member of the UN regularly described as “the Israeli state,” as opposed to the State of Israel, in the New York Times as well as by most NGOs, in a variation of “the Zionist entity, “ a way to express non-recognition of the validity of Israel, the State of Israel.
Since October 7, these feelings of alienation have intensified as campus protests focus only on Israel’s response to the brutal terrorist attack that commenced on that day, as if serious collateral damage is not part and parcel of every nation’s, including every democratic nation’s, response to violent attacks by forces committed to that nation’s military defeat, if not destruction. If I had seen antisemitism up close before, it is nothing compared to how much it is in my face since the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated against Jews.
I have got to get over my fear and insecurities and get out of the closet, at least on this blog. If anyone from my university community reads this, please do not out me on campus for, like many Jewish students, I do not feel safe there as a Jew. But with so many Jews putting their lives on the line for their Jewish identities, for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, whether voluntarily or not, I need to muster just a little bit of courage myself, to put myself on the line, to share my thinking and experiences. Our tradition teaches me that I have an obligation to do this, and I am so sorry for my inability to do so outside of my synagogue and my family and friends before now. May all of us who identify with the Jewish people and Israel be strong and resolute for the trying times ahead.