The Slippery Slope of Jew-‘ish’

All my life, I was informed it was not ok to be a Jew or identify as “Jew”. However, it was the only national identity I had. I was a Stateless Jew, born to a Stateless Iraqi mother and a soon to be Stateless Egyptian father. Stuck in Japan for 20 years, my parents were my “country” and Jew my “nationality”.

My nuns in International Catholic missionary schools didn’t mince words. Intransigent Jews (like my 13-year-old self) would not only “never see God,” but we would be victims of persecution until we gave up being Jews.

Later in life, as a 20-something new immigrant in my dream-come-true America, my best friend, a Brooklyn born Jew directed me to stop using the word Jew. “Say Jewish” she demanded.

I began to see a pattern of giving up the Jew not necessarily to get to Heaven, but to assimilate, to fit in. The “ish” softens the negative projections associated with Jew. I don’t believe it’s in our best interest to land there.

Recently an almost-friend whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors came to me with a dilemma. She wanted me in her inner circle, but her people were anti-Zionist. “Can you be less of a Jew?” she pleaded.

At least she made the connection between Jew and Zionist. When I shared this with another Jewish friend he responded how she should have said “can you be less of a Zionist, instead of less of a Jew.” He missed the point, she used exactly the right wording.

A Jew recognizes we are a People and as a people we are Israel.

Jew-ish, however is a different story — Jew-ish an adjective, gives all the space needed to disavow an identity that includes Zionism/Israel, and be “Just Jewish.” It can lead to a dangerous trajectory.

When I witnessed renowned Jewish Buddhist and Spiritual masters coming from the Counter Culture I embraced, get their laughs from quipping “I am only Jewish on my parents’ side” my heart hurt and this line of development scares me.

I grew up in a small foreign community with Jews who were either like me, Stateless Jews from Arab lands, or Holocaust survivors, or White Russian Jews from China. I was not ready for some of the Jews I met in the United States.

From the doctor, I went to see many years ago for my migraines, to an encounter this past year with another Jewish healer who wanted me to stop writing about Anti-Semitism and let my pro-Israel activism go, I was left feeling alienated by the “ish-ness” of it all.

The first one told me that he “used to think about Anti-Semitism” when he was a medical student at Colgate in upstate New York. Now enlightened, taking in a deep breath, he dramatically breathed out a long loud “Ahhhhh…but now I do Yoga!”

The most recent experience was with a Jewish bodyworker, who, after having “escaped” his background, was not about to alienate his Mendocino community of primarily counter-culture folks who demonized Israel by embracing Zionism. “You made it, you live in Paradise, California, why are you holding on to Israel…” I could be free, like him once I distanced myself, like he did, from a no longer “useful” identity as a Jew/Zionist. Problem is, I don’t accept denial as freedom.

As a feminist and queer Jew, coming from communities that identify as Progressive, variations on these alienating experiences are part of the dance. And too many Reform rabbis have to “come out” as Zionists in Jew-ish congregations.

In the mid-’70s into the ’80s I witnessed Arafat’s mantra, “Zionism is racism” embraced by friends in the Left. I had to leave.

Today, they usher in a younger generation supporting Israel-hating politicians like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

What once was considered extreme Israel Denial is increasingly trending in progressive circles. We have to do more to combat the growing anti-Israel group think. In my mind, it’s fine if a Jew is attached to the “ish” — what freaks me out is the progression, disavowal and distancing from Israel.

Just take a look at A Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP promotes BDS and idealizes terrorists.

JVP’s call for the destruction of Israel and turn it into an Arab state where Jews can live as a minority “other” in the region is not only insulting, it is the opposite of progressive. This political organization openly promotes disrespect towards the experience of fellow Jews, 850,000 of us persecuted under Islam and turned into traumatized refugees, brutally forced out in the fifties and sixties.

JVP and fellow Jewish Israel deniers refuse to care or believe that close to a million Jews from Baghdad to Yemen have already lived that life as Dhimmi ever since the Islamic Conquest.  JVP’s claims of our charmed life under Islamic rule is offensive.  Our pogroms, the Islamic version of Nuremberg Laws, and the bullying in the best of times, are meaningless to a group that features Linda Sarsour, “No Feminist can be a Zionist,” with convicted murderer and terrorist Rasmeah Odeh, on their stage.

In their “From the River to the Sea” mentality, these Anti-Zionists claim Mizrahi Jews are so naively ignorant we were duped by evil Ashkenazi Zionist recruiters, to leave idyllic lives I would like to see them suffer before they open their mouths.

It takes a lot of arrogance and contempt to believe we Jews in Arab lands just “left” everything, our communities, businesses, culture, penniless with nothing but a suitcase of clothing, for the maabarot, tent cities in a dirt-poor Israel is insane. Then again, Israel Denial, like Anti-Semitism is a mental illness.  A lot has changed since the ancient Romans renamed our country to distance Jews from Israel and destroy us as a People. And too much hasn’t changed.

When a progressive LGBTQ organization, A Wider Bridge, is attacked by a mob calling for Israel’s demise, when queer women are kicked out from Pride and Dyke marches for carrying a rainbow flag with a Magen David on it, the time is now for the pro-Israel progressive community to come out as Jews, for Israel, for ourselves, louder than ever.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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