Reflections on Being a Jewish Progressive in 1985

Adrienne Rich, 6/17/2005

I joined New Jewish Agenda and have come to this convention in hope, need, fear, pride, and longing. Those are the voices I can hear within me as a Jewish progressive, as a Jewish woman, in the year 1985. And they are voices I recognize in the conversations, letters, articles, essays, poems of other Jewish progressives, American and Israeli, women and men, the more I listen as a Jew to others who speak from the heart as Jews. And so I would like to ask you to listen with me to some of the things I hear those voices saying. Not because I think my own feelings and reflections are typical who is a typical Jew? We are a breathtakingly diverse and complex people, a character we dare not sacrifice or allow to be taken from us.

After much confusion and doubt as to how to describe myself - as half-Jew, Southern Jew, secular assimilated Jew, self-invented Jew, Mischling (there was never a question of denying Jewishness altogether) I began to discover how many of us there are, daughters and sons of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, raised in the hope that we would never have to suffer our Jewishness because it would be irrelevant and invisible.

There are a lot of us Mischlings in America. And there are a lot of children of two Jewish parents raised in houses of silence and denial. Some of us, coming into adulthood, have felt our Jewishness claiming us, or we have claimed it, in terror, astonishment, relief, joy, and the commitment to new struggles. To come out as a Jew, to come out as a lesbian or gay man, are not the same thing but there are parallels: the breaking of an internalized taboo, the taking on of new kinds of vulnerability and pride, the search for a group history we did not learn at our parents' tables or at school; the hope of a new community.

Hope, then, first of all: I am here, not just at this convention, but in New Jewish Agenda, because the work of other Jews, founding this organization, setting its initial course, has given me hope. I have been working in the lesbian-feminist community for more than a decade, as a feminist even longer. It is feminist politics - the efforts of women trying to work together as women across sexual, class, racial, ethnic and other lines that has pushed me to look at the racist in myself, not just "out there;" at the anti-Semitism I have taken in from "out , at the American middle-class white solipsist in myself, the starved Jew in myself finally, to seek a path to that Jewishness still unsatisfied, still trying to define its true homeland, still untamed and unsuburbanized, still wandering in the wilderness. Over and over the work of Jewish feminists has inspired and challenged me to educate myself, culturally and politically and spiritually, from Jewish sources, male and female, dead and living, to cast myself into the ancient and turbulent river of disputation and debate and inquiry which is Jewish culture. And I joined New Jewish Agenda in the spirit of Hillel's third question: If not now, when?

I have often reflected on what feels so familiar about all this: to identify actively as a woman and ask what that means, to identify actively as a Jew and ask what that means. Jews, like women, exist everywhere, our existence often veiled by history. We have been "the Jewish question" or "the woman question" at the margins of leftist politics, while right-wing repressions have always zeroed in on us. We have women and Jews been the targets of biological determinism and continuous physical violence. We have been stereotyped both viciously and sentimentally by others and have often taken these stereotypes into ourselves. Of course, the two groups interface -large numbers of women are Jews and more than half of all Jews are women - but what that means for the Jewish vision, we are only beginning to ask. We exist everywhere, under laws we did not make, speaking a multitude of languages, excluded by law and custom from certain spaces, functions, resources associated with power, often accused of wielding too much power, wielding dark and devious powers. Like Black and other dark-skinned people, Jews and women have haunted white western thought as the Other, as fantasy, as projected obsession.

Hope: that we here can further the conscious work of turning Otherness into a keen lens of empathy; that we can bring into being a politics based on concrete, heartfelt understanding of what it means to be Other. We are women and men, Mischlings and the sons and daughters of rabbis, Holocaust survivors, freedom fighters, teachers, middle and working-class Jews. We are gay and straight and bisexual, older and younger, differently abled and temporarily able-bodied, and we share an unquenched hope for the survival and sanity of the human community. Believing that no single people can survive being only for itself, we want a base from which to act on our hope. "We exist in our complicated dimension as American Jews who must address our own American Jewish communities, whether of family, neighborhood, synagogue, or organizations longer-established than this one. And we also have to address that part of us which is Israel. We need to address all our communities in hope, however they first see us, whether as communists, or faggots and lesbians, or self-hating Jews, or Diaspora Jews, or lost Jews, or non-Jews: We have to turn these definitions around, in persistence and belief.

Need: I need the people here. We need each other. We need to know we share a certain ground from which to struggle, argue, work through our differences, and act. For myself, I need to feel that I am working in a Jewish context where racism, male supremacism and heterosexism are taken as seriously as anti-Semitism. As a woman, as a lesbian, I need to find both brothers and sisters here. We need a context where we can criticize the racism, the ultra-nationalism, the religious fundamentalism, of Israel along with the racism, ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalisms of the white supremacist Christian United States; a context where neither nation is sacrosanct as Promised Land or perfected democracy. We need each other to grasp just how liberation-minded Jews have been and can be. Cold War and Red-baiting politics cut a whole political/generation off from the heritage of a magnificent older Jewish activism - rebellious, radical, often catalyzed by women, boiling up out of the Yiddish ghettos and factories of the 19th century and overflowing into the history of European and American dissent. Many of its participants, dedicated to social justice, identified as working class, identified with Black struggles, fought for the economic and sexual liberation of women, but did not integrally identify as Jews. Many others did. I need, I believe we all need, a sense of that history to let us see ourselves both as something old and as something new. We are Jews who honor our people and out history, not only for their own sakes but as essential to living "in a land where other people live" (Audre Lorde's phrase), who are committed to opposing anti-Semitism wherever we find it - in the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party, in mainstream America, among our political allies and comrades, or in our own hearts. Who are determined to respect and care about our tribe without becoming tribalist.

Fear: I would be less than honest if I did not admit to fear. I fear both what this country has become, and what Israel has become, states increasingly dangerous to their own and other people, whose priorities are dictated by the casting of all problems and solutions in military terms. I fear the extent to which both Americans and Israelis, in their national consciousness, are captives of denial. Denial first of the existence and rights of the people who dwelt on this land and in Palestine, before either the United States or Israel existed - people who were swept aside, their communities destroyed, relocated, pushed into reservations and camps, traumatized, by superior might calling itself destiny - the "civilizing" and Christianizing mission of whites in North America, the mission of Zionism in Israel. I fear that this denial, this moral unaccountability for acts which are still continuing, is a deep infection in the collective life and conscience of both nations. America wants to forget the past, and the past in the present; and one result of that was Bitburg. Israeli denial is different; years ago, I remember seeing, with great emotion, on the old Jemsalem-Tel Aviv road, rusted tanks left from the 1948 war, as memorials, on one of which was painted, "If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem..." But Palestinian memory has been violently obliterated, and in the words of Ainos Oz, "he who denies the identity of others is doomed to find himself ultimately not unlike those who deny his own identity." 1 I fear for the kind of "moral autism" (to quote Oz again) out of which both the U.S. and Israel, in their respective capacities of power, have made decisions leading to physical carnage and to acute internal disequilibrium and suffering.

I say this here, knowing my words will be understood or at least not heard as anti-Semitism. But many of us have experienced a censorship in American Jewish communities where the term self-hating Jew is used to rebuke all questioning of Israel, or dissent from official Israeli policies and actions and Jewish critical introspection is silenced. "The armored and concluded mind" (Muriel Rukeyser's phrase) is not what the Jewish mind has been, overall. Torah itself is not a closed system; we have been a people unafraid of argument, a people of many opinions. Our forebears were instructed to commit suicide sooner than idolatry; yet Israel has become a kind of idol for many American Jews. Israel is not seen, and cared about, as an unfinished human effort, harrowed and flawed and full of gashes between dream and reality, but as an untouchable construct: The Place Where Jews Can Be Safe. I fear this taboo on dissent among American Jews, a taboo which ignores the dissenting voices of thousands of Israeli Jews. I fear that this taboo is damaging to all Jews who, in the wake of the Holocaust and the creation of a Jewish state, are trying to imagine a Jewish future and a Jewish consciousness that does not stop with Hillel's first question.

The word "safe has two distinct connotations: one, of a place or situation in which we can draw breath, rest from persecution and harassment:, tell what has happened to us, lick our wounds, feel compassion and love around us rather than hostility. The safety of the mother's lap for the bullied child, of the battered women's shelter, of the house opened to us when we need a retreat, the safety of the group among whom we feel at home. Safety in this sense implies a resting-place, a needed refuge, a place to gather our forces, a place to move from, not a destination. But there is also the safety of the "armored and concluded mind," the safety of the barricaded door which will not open for the beleaguered stranger, the psychotic safely of ihc underground nuclear bomb shelter, or the walled and guarded crime-proof condominium, the safety bought with guns and money, at no matter what the cost, the safety bought, and sold, at the cost of shutting-up. And this safety becomes a dead-end in the mind and in the mapping of a life, or a collective "ision. When I hear phrases like "the safety of the Jewish people" I want to say that America's arming of the Middle East makes me more, not less, afraid for the Jews of Israel, and for the world. And I want to to say that though the longing for safety has been kept awake in us by centuries of danger, mere safety has not been the central obsession of the Jewish people. It has not been an ultimate destination. How to live in compassion and justice, to create a society in which "what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor," how to think, praise, celebrate life these have been fundamental to Jewish vision. Even if strayed from, given mere lip service, even if in this vision Jewish women have remained Other, even if many Jews have acted on this vision as social reformists and radicals, without realizing how Jewish though not exclusively Jewish - a vision it is.

Pride: I feel proud to be here as a Jew among Jews, not simply a progressive among progressives, a feminist among feminists. And I ask myself, what that means. What is this pride in tribe, family culture, heritage? Is it a feeling of being better than those outside the tribe? The medieval philosopher Judah Halevi claimed a hierarchy of all species, places on earth, races, families and even languages. In this hierarchy the land, language and people of Israel are naturally superior to all others- As a woman, I reject all such hierarchies. Then is pride merely a cloak I pull around me in the face of anti-Semitism, of the despisal and suspicion of others? Do I invoke pride as a shield against my enemies, or do I find its sources deeper in my being, where I define myself for myself? Difficult questions for any people who for centuries have met with derogation of identity. Pride is often born in the place where we refuse to be victims, where we experience our own humanity under pressure, where we understand that we are not the hateful projections of others but intrinsically ourselves. Where does this take us? It helps us fight for survival, first of all, because we know, from somewhere, we deserve to survive. T am not an inferior life form' becomes 'there is sacred life, energy, plenitude in me and in those like me you are trying to destroy.' And if, in the example of others like me, I learn not only survival but the plenitude of life, if I feel linked by a texture of values, history, words, passions, to people long dead or who I have never met, if I celebrate these linkages, is this what I mean by pride? Or am I really talking about love?

Pride is a tricky, glorious, double-edged feeling. What of that in our people — whoever "our" people may be that feels shameful or regressive to us? What of Ashkenazi Jewish pride and the Oriental Jews? What of the Jewish woman's pride in her culture alongside her knowledge of having been, in Cynthia Ozick's words, "exempted, excluded, debarred, demoted, demeaned in Jewish tradition?"- What of progressive Jews and Israeli pride? Where does pride become male self-idolatry, or tribalism? The poet Irena Klepfisz has confronted in her long poem "Bashert" the question of sorting out a legacy without spuming any of it, a legacy that includes both courage and ardor, and the shrinking of the soul under oppression, the damages suffered.

I don't feel proud of everything Jews have done or thought. Nor of everything women have done or thought. And, in any one like me, I have to see mirrored my own shrinkings of soul, my own damages. Yet I must make my choices, take my positions, according to my conscience and vision now. To separate from parts of a legacy, in a conscious, loving and responsible way, to say - " This is frayed and needs repair, that no longer serves us, this is still vital and usable" is not to spurn tradition but to take it very seriously. Those who refuse to make these distinctions (and making distinctions has been a very Jewish preoccupation), those who suppress criticism of the Jewish legacy, suppress further creation. And I can't believe that the Jewish genius has completed itself on this earth. I think it may be on the verge of a new, if often painful and disorienting, renaissance.

Yet. another phrase used to silence Jewish self-criticism is, "What will the goyim say?" To this, Joan Nestle, Jewish lesbian, has responded: "If anti-Semitism, like anti-lesbianism, forces me into silence about what I have seen in life, then I have no inner life left. My people both Jews and lesbians cannot run scared and still be able to know deeply who we are. This does not mean that anti-Semitism should not be scourged, but neither will I dwell in the desert of the fear of the Gentile eye.' In the words of Cynthia Ozick, again: " own striving is to be one thing all the time, and to everyone; to speak in the same voice to every interlocutor. Gentile or Jew; not to have one attitude or subject matter (or imagining or storytelling) for one kind of friend and another for another kind. To be inwardly inhibited from this openness is mental abasement. Intellectual and spiritual freedom means to be peacefully all of a piece always, no matter who is being addressed. Anything else is parochialism.3 In the words of the National Platform of New Jewish Agenda, 1982: "Our agenda must be determined by our ethics, not by our enemies."

Longing. All of us here live in two dissonant worlds. There is the world of this community and others like it in America: Jewish and gentile, men and women. Black and brown and red and yellow and white, old and young, educated in books and educated in what Tillie Olsen has named "the college of work," in poverty or in privilege the communities of those who are trying to "turn the century" in Black activist/musician Bemice Reagon's words. In this world of vision and struggle, there is of course myopia, division, human limitation; there is male supremacism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism. But there is also passion, and persistence, and memory, and the determination to build what we need, and the refusal to buy safety or comfort by shutting-up. We affirm the diversity out of which we come, the clashes and pain we experience in trying to work together, the unglamorous on-going labors of love and necessity.

And there is that other world, that America whose history is Disneyland, whose only legitimized passion is white male violence, whose people are starving for literal food and also for intangible sustenance they cannot always name; whose opiate is denial. As progressives, we live in this America too and it affects us. Even as we try to change it, it affects us. This America that has never mourned or desisted in or even acknowledged the original, deliberate, continuing genocide of the indigegenous American people now called the Indians. This America has never acknowledged or mourned or desisted in the ordinary, banal, murderousness of its racism — murderous of the individuals and groups targeted by skin color, and murderous of the spiritual integrity of all of us.

As Jews, we tried to comprehend the losses encompassed by the Holocaust not just or communities, or families, or individuals, but in terms of unknown visions, spiritual and ethical - of which we and the world are irreparably deprived. As American Jews, our losses are not from the Holocaust only. We are citizens of a country deprived of the effective moral, ethical, and aesthetic visions of those whom white racism has tried to quench in subtle and violent ways; whose capacity, nonetheless, to insist on their humanity, to persever and resist, to educate their fellow citizens in political reality, to carry on their "message for the world" as W.E.B. DuBois called it, should be supported and celebrated by Jews everywhere. For progressive American Jews, racism as it exists here in America, around and within us, in the air we breathe, has both an ethical and pragmatic urgency. We can't continue to oppose Israeli or South African racism and take less oppositional stands on the malignancy of racism where we live. The depth of the work we do depends on its rootedness in our own knowledge of who we are, and also of where we are - a country which has used skin-color as the prime motive for persecution and genocide, as Europe historically used religion. As Elly Bulkin mind-stretching essay, "Hard Ground," "In terms of anti-Semitism and Racism, a central problem is how to acknowledge their differences without contributing to the argument that one is 'important' and the other is not, one is worthy of serious attention and the other is not."6 " It is difficult to move beyond these polarizations but we are learning to do so and will, I believe, continue to help each other learn.

New Jewish Agenda has insisted that the concepts of Jewish survival and "what is good for Jews" have an expanding, not a constricting potential. In the National Agenda of 1982 an extremely wide range of issues were defined as Jewish issues. I long to see the widest range of progressive issues defined as Jewish issues everywhere in this country, I long to see the breaking of encrustatuins if fear and caution, habits of thought ingrained vy centuries of endangermentan by the spiritual sterility of white mainstream America. I long to see Jewish energy, resources, passion, our capictiy to celebrate life, pouring into a gathering of thousands of American Jews toward "turning the century." I believe the potentiality is there; I long to see it stirred into flowing life. I believe this convention can be the watershed for such a movement. And I would like to end by reading Hillel's three questions, which can never really be separated, and adding a fourth that is implicit in what we're doing here:

    If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    If I am only for myself, what am I?
    If not now, when?
    If not with others, how?

1. Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel. Vintage Books,1983 p.144
2. Barry W. Hoitz. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, summit books, 1984, pp.271-272
3. "Notes Toward Finding the Right Question" in Susannah Heschel, ed On Being a Jewish Feminist, Schocken Books, 1983, p. 126.
4. "There is Nothing Easy Here," review of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, in Sinister Wisdom 24, Fall 1983,p.185.
5 . "Toward a New Yiddish," Art and Ardor, Dutton, 1984, p.152
6. Bulkin. Pratt. Smith. Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, Long Haul Press, 1984.

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