I was once added to a group text with a number of individuals representing several progressive organizations. We were embarking on a collaborative campaign to advance reproductive rights. We were invited, warmly, to introduce ourselves and say hello in our native languages. It was refreshing to receive such an invitation. It was a shame, though, that I didn’t feel like I could fully participate.
My name is Neta. My native language is Hebrew. I was born in the state of Israel. Had I replied to the group with “שלום” and an explanation of the meaning of my name (a sapling, for those interested), I knew the response could be, at best, cold, and at worst, openly hostile. For many in the progressive movement, I’m “white” (Jews are not ‘white,’ an unhelpful and oversimplified category.); my grandparents who fled Europe and were founding members of their kibbutz community were “settlers” (The Jewish people are indigenous to the land of Israel.); and Israel is a “colonialist” enterprise (It is in fact the opposite, the return of an indigenous population to their ancestral homeland.). With these anticipated reactions in mind, I held back, sharing only my name and a kind hello.
These labels, these frameworks, isolate Jews in progressive spaces. And the fact that openly discussing my name, my origins, and my community might trigger hostility from others limits my ability to engage fully in those spaces. My identity is not a provocation. And I believe that one critical way to change how I am received, how Jews are received, in spaces like progressive campaigns and movements is to begin a shift in which we move beyond binary frameworks.
We’ve long understood, in the progressive world, that binaries are incapable of capturing the spectrum of identities that exist in the world. We are able to see how insufficient they are when it comes to, for example, gender identity or sexual orientation, and we encourage each other to embrace the spaces between the binaries and to understand each other with open hearts and minds.
But in progressive spaces, where Jews, Israel, and Zionism are concerned, binary frameworks endure, to the detriment of both the progressive movement and the Jewish community.
A binary framework might suggest that a Zionist is someone who is “pro-Israel” and thus “anti-Palestinian.” It pains me to even have to clarify that this is an egregiously oversimplified view of the matter. What about a Zionism, like my Zionism and the Zionism of so many others, that is compatible with and supportive of the self-determination of the Palestinian people? For those who see the world in terms of binaries, this approach simply doesn’t compute.
A binary framework might also encourage someone to understand a Jewish person to be “white,” a designation that would suggest to modern audiences that this community only benefits from privilege and never experiences oppression. But Jewish identity is of a kind that predates modern frameworks. We are a people, a nation, an ethno-religion. And the color of our skin, which is by no means uniform across our diverse communities, has never reliably protected us from discrimination, violence, murder, and even genocide.
Binary frameworks, already insufficient when applied to domestic issues, become even more problematic when we attempt to apply them to the politics of the Middle East. Framing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as one of white people versus people of color, or as a simple matter of oppressor versus oppressed, erases the racial and ethnic complexities of the region, the histories of the diverse communities involved, and the deep and overlapping connections to the land that lie at the heart of the conflict.
These ways of thinking lead to the erasure of the Jewish community, the undermining of our lived experience, and the silencing of our voices. And yet, we live in a world of binaries. In a media landscape that overloads us with information (and misinformation, and disinformation), we’re incentivised to pick a side and stick to it. To add layers of complicating nuance, or worse—to have to consider changing our minds—can feel overwhelming. Unfortunately, the reality of a complex geopolitical situation half a world away can’t be boiled down to a few infographics or catchy hashtags.
It’s time to move beyond binary thinking when it comes to Jews, Zionism, and Israel. Taking sides is easy. Flattening nuance and shutting down dissent is easy. It feels righteous and satisfying. It generates engagement on social media. But in a TL;DR world, all of our stories, all of our histories are in danger of being erased. And the fact is, reality doesn’t lend itself so easily to shortcuts, to oversimplification, or to generalizations.
One thing the progressive movement knows well is that only through thoughtful engagement with each other, in the fullness of our complex identities, can we find a way forward together. I ask that they extend this approach to my community, considering new and nuanced ways to understand Jewish identity, Zionism, and the conflict that acknowledge our history and our lived experiences. Delving into the details won’t make life easier, but it will make Jews safer, and it will push the progressive movement forward as it embodies its stated values. And I hope that in the future I feel safe to share my name, my culture, and my greeting in a new space, and that I am embraced when I do.