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.



4 thoughts on “Just Folks”

  1. Jews who lived in Western and Eastern Europe were ethnic Jews whose ancestors had moved there within the past 500-1000 years. They share the vast majority of their ancestry with OTHER Jews, not with their non-Jewish neighbors. And this ancestry is almost entirely Levantine and East Mediterranean, with very little indigenous Western or Eastern European.

    Claiming that your “roots” are in these regions and not in some “imaginary” nation of Israel is both factually inaccurate and an insult to Jewish history. This mindset is entirely a product of European nationalism, not of continuous Jewish history. What I find amazing is how consistently leftist Jews, most of whom seem to identify as non-religious, ignore or reject Jewish history for their own political motives. If being Jewish is an entirely religious identity, then non-religious Jews should no longer self-identify as “Jews,” and yet non-religious Jews have self-identified and been identified as Jews for as long as secularism has been a popular lifestyle.

    I’m no fan of Donald Trump and I think that “nationality” is the wrong word, but the leftist reactions perfectly exemplify so much of what is wrong with American Jewry and why American Jewry is in so much trouble.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about what is wrong with “leftist Jews,” “American Jewry,” and my thoughts on the president* telling me who I am. I shared them publicly and I’m allowing your comments to post for that reason. I asked for it. And I’ll respond briefly: you’re of course right that there’s an ethnic dimension to all of this. Nobody’s denying the fact that there is shared DNA and shared cultural history here. What I and many others object to is Trump’s officially declaring that American Jews must be identified as part of a nationality purely in an effort to pander to Sheldon Adelson and Evangelical Christians, an effort that will have all kinds of negative consequences that I don’t expect Trump even understands.

      1. I’m not going to defend Trump, I think he’s reckless, immoral, and uninformed, and his presidency is a disaster. I think the wording if this order is very problematic, but from what I understand, “national origin” is another term for ethnicity, which is an accurate designation.

        That being said, I singled out “leftist Jews” because the seemingly-universal backlash is being loudly voiced by people with asymmetrical political motives. Contrary to what you stated, many people (especially on the left) regularly deny Jewish ethnic identity, often in relation to Israel but also sometimes with explicitly-racist implications.

        Throughout the past 2000-odd years that Jews lived around the world without a centralized autonomous homeland, they considered themselves to be a “nation.” This sentiment is supported by historical evidence as well as more recent genetic evidence that demonstrates a common origin for the vast majority of modern Jews.

        So, yes, Trump’s move is irresponsible, potentially dangerous (emphasis on potentially), and clearly political. But none of that changes that fact that Jews are more than a religious group and anti-Semitism, which is widespread on both extreme ends of the political spectrum, is more often racist than anti-religious. And none of that changes the fact that Jewish college students are being harassed on college campuses regularly.

      2. I don’t have a lot of use for nation in quotes, whatever it’s supposed to signify, so I don’t think we’re going to agree on terms or anything else here.

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