Maha Ighbaria has an article (Haaretz, 8/7/2018) entitled “I am a Palestinian Woman in Israel. You Don’t Get to Define my Labels”, where she describes how her application for a seminar in Germany has been rejected. Apparently, the seminar aimed at a dialogue between “Israeli and Palestinian women”, but since Ighbaria is an Israeli-Arab, she was thought to not neatly fall under either category – hence her rejection. Ighbaria is furious that she has not been accepted as “Palestinian Israeli”, which, she thinks, constitutes a violation of her “basic right to define [her] identity for [herself]”.
Of course, when Ighbaria talks about her “right to define her identity for herself”, she means her right to compel others to accept her self-definition. For, obviously, no one has claimed that she is not allowed to think or say that she is Palestinian Israeli. The only thing that the organizers did was not endorsing her self-definition for the purposes of the seminar. But Ighbaria thinks that this is unacceptable. Because she thinks that everyone has a “moral obligation” to agree with her definition of herself.
But that is nonsense. There is no obligation to agree with anyone’s self-conception.
To begin with, we are all free to think anything about anyone, because we are all free to think whatever we want. Just as Ighbaria is free to think that she is Palestinian Israeli, I am free to think that she is not. Perhaps I find ‘Palestinian’ as an ethnic term confusing, perhaps I am more Ottoman than Roman (and object to using Roman geographical terms instead of their Ottoman equivalents), or perhaps I am just an idiot. No matter. I can think what I want.
Ok, but even if I am free to believe whatever I want about a person, shouldn’t I grant that her beliefs about herself are more authoritative than mine? If Ighbaria identifies as Palestinian Israeli, who am I to question that?
Well, Rachel Dolezal, an American woman born to white parents, has darkened her skin, curled her hair, and identifies as black. Does that mean that we must regard her as black? A Canadian middle-aged man, father of seven, identifies as a six-year-old girl (maybe now he is seven…). Does that mean that he is a six-year-old girl? Surely not. I am not suggesting that Ighbaria’s self-definition is as implausible as these, but only making the general point that no one is automatically the ultimate authority on who or what they are. Just because you identify as a good cook doesn’t mean that you are one. Just because you are a biological male who identifies as a woman doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree that you are a woman. Just because you are born a Jew and have converted to Christianity doesn’t mean that an Orthodox Jew (who believes that you can’t convert out of Judaism) must revise his religious beliefs to accommodate your self-definition.
Civility and decency may require us to avoid challenging each other’s sensitive self-definitions unnecessarily. But they are not sacred. They can be questioned and rejected.