Jeremy Burton

Tensions of our Jewish Identities and Safety

Why do some Jewish organizations and advocates — who profess fierce loyalty and commitment to the Jewish community — sometimes end up in partnership with individuals that other members of our community see as threats to Jewish security?

This is a question that, in some form or another, I am asked more and more of late – both by members of our community and by civic partners seeking to understand us. They wonder how champions of Israel and the Jewish future might find common cause with white nationalists. And, in the converse, they ask how others who are deeply committed to building a vibrant Jewish community might end up partnering with those who demonize and delegitimize Israel.

To answer this question, we need to zoom out and take a broader look at how Jewish identity formation has developed since the Enlightenment period.

It was only a few centuries ago when, in the wake of a hundred years of war between Catholics and Protestants, European thinkers offered a new form of national identity: one that defined religion as the private and personal sphere, and national identity as a collective one. You could be, they offered, fully German or French all week, and fully Catholic or Protestant on Sundays.

For Jews, as Leora Batnitzky brilliantly articulated, there existed a new promise: if we adapted our self-identity from belonging to a distinct Jewish ethno-nation into being primarily a Jewish ”religion” (as defined by the Christians), then we could finally come out from the ghetto and be fully free and equal Jewish citizens of “Enlightened” European nations.

Flash forward to the present: There now exist two primary magnetic poles of modern Jewish identity, and each is an opposite outgrowth of this promise.

The first, political Zionism and the construction of our own nation state, came from a fairly early recognition by Theodore Herzl and other nineteenth-century thinkers. After observing the Dreyfus show-trial in France, they understood correctly that this Enlightened promise was just plain false. Jews would never be fully accepted as equal participants in these Western nations. Our safety and security would only come through a state of our own.

The 20th century validated their prophecy through the devastation and horrors of the Holocaust and other oppressions of our people. This validation underscores the compelling logic of a Jewish identity in which safety is only found outside of the promise of the European Liberal nation-state – and makes this Jewish identity both natural and rational.

The second modern Jewish identity is rooted in the United States experience – the first new state created out of the Enlightenment. This identity derives from the promise of President Washington to the Jews, the reality of constitutional separation of Church and State, and from our narrative of prosperity in this country. We American Jews live in an Enlightened Liberal nation-state that has never expelled or eliminated its Jews. We engage as a faith community, with full freedom and equality in the workplace, civic space, and in our worship on Saturday.

This narrative, tied up in a uniquely multi-ethnic and immigrant nation-state, binds our individualized Jewish identity to the very idea of American exceptionalism. It also only makes us more affirmed in carrying all aspects of our identity at once, Jewish and American and any others that we chose to hold.

And herein the tension: When Jews are under attack, as we are more and more frequently these days, threatened with harm, experiencing discrimination and actual violence, these two equally valid (in the sense that they are both supported by our authentic lived experience) Jewish identities offer distinctly opposite and rational responses.

The first identity’s voice (let’s call it Israelism) says, “antisemitism will always exist, so the only logical response is to fight to ensure the safety and security of our own nation state and its ability to handle threats to our people”. “But if antisemitism will always exist,” says the second voice – let’s call this identity Americanism – “then the only response is to double down on the freedom of all minority faith and ethnic communities in this nation, to ensure the safety of Jews by ensuring our continued national exceptionalism.”

Some of the Jewish community’s partners who are committed to Israel’s security are also undermining American Liberal exceptionalism. Some of those working to secure our multi-ethnic gorgeous American mosaic are also threatening the legitimacy and existence of our nation-state, Israel. These facts become (quite rationally) secondary to the promise of the safety – as these Jewish identities each understand it – that those partners offer us right now.

For me, and for most of the Jewish Americans (I think), these identities are not mutually exclusive – they exists in dynamic tension within us. We identify as ‘elu v’elu (“this and this”).

Many who identify with Israelism are deeply committed to the Liberal national project and our freedoms in the country that we are citizens of. Many who identity with Americanism see Israel’s security, and the ‘Right of Return’, as the only guarantor of Jewish safety and survival – especially for Jews living in countries that are not as “exceptional” as ours.

I offer these two identities as a balance and a dynamic tension that I (and we) hold – committed as we Jewish-Americans are to both the American project and to the global Jewish future. I offer them as framing polarities to understand our community’s fracture. We can appreciate that each Jewish identity possesses different understandings about where Jewish safety is to be found – and will lead members of our community to work with different partners to achieve it. I offer the identities with the hope that we can hold more appreciation of those parts of our community with whom we may disagree, often vehemently. Each of these Jewish identities is informed by authentic aspects of our histories and experiences – and the differences we carry within our community.

And I offer this framework as an idea I am exploring and inviting discussion on. I am open to developing this framework further in order to create a shared, deeper understanding of the varieties of our Jewish identity.

I look forward to your feedback.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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