Just Folks

Donald Trump will sign an executive order tomorrow making Judaism a nationality rather than a religion. In doing this, he will make it possible for the federal government to withhold funding from universities who allow the BDS movement to be represented on their campuses. If this seems like a non sequitur, to supporters it’s not: if Jews are a nationality and not a religion, the argument goes, they can be protected under civil rights legislation, and since these supporters believe or at least argue that criticizing Israel’s policy toward the people living in its occupied territories is anti-Semitic, then that criticism becomes a violation of civil rights and so punishable by the withdrawal of federal funding to the institutions that allow that criticism to happen.

The New York Times headline–“Trump to Sign Order Targeting Anti-Semitism on College Campuses”–elides the leap the administration is taking in this order. With the stroke of a fat black Sharpie, Trump will, as if by magic, make individual Jews not coreligionists but members of the same nationality. The magic is that this is of course not the case–it ignores the diaspora of a couple of thousand years or so ago, some of it voluntary, some not so much. And it ignores the fate of the Jews since then, so often seen and treated as less than citizens, or natives, or sons and daughters of the countries in which they lived.

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Copy of relief panel from the Arch of Titus in the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish People, depicting the triumphal parade of Roman soldiers leading newly enslaved Jews, while displaying spoils of the siege of Jerusalem.

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I’m an American Jew. I was born and raised in New Jersey. I live in Missouri. My family tree has roots in Eastern and Western Europe, mostly the Eastern Europe whose national borders shifted and collapsed around them. It doesn’t have roots in Israel or some other imagined or historical nation. It has a branch in Israel–my aunt and uncle and two cousins made aliyah, or moved to Israel from the diaspora, in this case from New Jersey, in the early 1970s. I don’t support the occupation of the territories and I didn’t support BDS when it came before the delegate assembly of the Modern Language Association, my professional organization, for academic freedom reasons. It’s a complicated issue for me, as it is for many American Jews, and not because we’re anti-Semitic or, as they used to say more often back in the day, self-hating Jews. I’m an atheist and I love my mother’s brisket and a few weeks ago I introduced an undergraduate I took to a conference in Chicago to matzah brei and he was underwhelmed, as was I. These things are complicated.

There’s a lot to be said about the academic freedom question, as there is about so much of this. But I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling every day like the fate of the only country I’ve ever lived in–a country that has a horrific historical track record but that I’m naive enough to believe can do better–hangs on the fate of an ignorant hate-filled grifter. I’m tired of seeing the way Trump and the people he keeps around him treat people who have been feeling their entire lives what I’m feeling today–like I’m not at home. I’m just fucking tired.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 9.56.16 PMIn his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines what might have happened if anti-Semitism had gotten a foothold in the White House in the 1940s. He imagines an Office of American Absorption, which creates a program, called Just Folks, that sends Jewish boys to live with Christian families in the Midwest and South in order to Americanize them because, even though they were born in the US, their religion meant they weren’t real Americans. I don’t care if Trump and Jared Kushner, the ostensible mastermind behind this plan, think they’re doing the right thing or have convinced themselves that there’s a reason other than naked self-interest that’s motivating them. They’re not doing the right thing by campuses, by American Jews, or by America. They’re not doing the right thing by me or by any of the other people who were born here or came here to find a new home. We don’t need them telling us who we are. We’re Americans, which is a complicated thing to be these days, more for some of us than others, more recently for some of us than others, but it’s who we are, and we’re tired of this shit.