Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jewish Identity: The Battle For Self-Definition

I don’t know why I never got around to saying this in so many words before.  For years I’ve believed that the foundational freedom, the one essential right that precedes and supports all the others, is the right to self-definition.  By that I mean the right of any identifiable group to define itself in its own terms, rather than being defined by outsiders--often hostile outsiders--but in any case outsiders who never seem to question their own right to make authoritative pronouncements about the inmost nature of a category of humans to which they do not and cannot belong.   I’m acutely sensitive to this issue of self-definition because I belong to two such identifiable groups:  Specifically, I am Jewish and I am female.

My frustration in both areas is roughly equal.  I’ve asked myself many times which stereotypes are more infuriating, the ones men project onto women or the ones Christians project onto Jews.  It’s always a toss-up.   I guess it just depends on what I’ve been reading in any given week or who I’ve been arguing with.  Last week I found myself unexpectedly challenged on the subject of my Jewish identity.  Oddly enough, my interrogator wasn’t the usual Christian fundamentalist who wanted to debate the old and new covenants, but a self-proclaimed atheist living in the buckle of the Bible Belt who claimed she had never met a Jew.  During the brief flame war—a skirmish, really—and the intense email post-mortem that followed, I have been trying to understand why she was able to push my buttons so easily.

“What does being Jewish mean to you personally?”  A seemingly innocuous question, and yet personal to the point of being invasive—not so much because of the question itself but because no matter what your answer is, it’s almost always going to be judged by somebody.  It could be somebody who knows a lot about Judaism or somebody who knows next to nothing.  But somehow the questioner always feels perfectly entitled to measure you against some arbitrary yardstick.  And so especially if you are a nonobservant or only marginally observant Jew, you can find yourself locked in a battle for self-definition whether you asked for it or not. 
At least that has been my experience.  You could say that I’m sensitized and it’s true.  I could have avoided taking on the stereotypes if I had really wanted to, but instead I went out of my way to confront them.  I don’t know why exactly, but I guess I was on a one-woman crusade to raise consciousness.  In the 1990s especially, after my husband’s death and after I got my first computer with a modem, I spent endless hours on the Prodigy Debates/Religious Issues board debating religion with Christian fundamentalists and others.  These debates could get quite heated, and occasionally I’d be confronted with full-blown anti-Semitism of the most toxic variety.  It’s well known at this point—or it should be-- that the Jews have been the primary focus for Christian shadow projections for close to 2000 years, and that these projections can be and have been secularized without losing any of their toxic and dangerous quality.  As a member of the first post-Holocaust generation, I have always been acutely aware of these negative projections and was to some extent prepared for them.

What I was absolutely not prepared for were all the other kinds of projections about Jews I would encounter on the interfaith boards.  Not all of them were negative, although many were.  Some were quite positive on the surface.  Often they were completely bizarre and very personal, although the personal ones usually turned out to be the fever dreams of some deranged cult leader.  But to me they all seemed equally bizarre.  The main difference between the obviously cultish projections and the more mainstream ones by Christian standards was the number of adherents.  All of them centered around one major piece of cognitive dissonance:  God made an everlasting Covenant with Israel and the Jews are God’s chosen people...BUT at the same time Jesus is the fulfillment not only of biblical prophecy but of the Torah itself, which became obsolete at the Crucifixion.  So there is no longer any need for the Jews to observe the commandments.  No more reason for our continued existence, come to think of it, since we had already served our purpose in God’s plan of redemption.  From the standpoint of orthodox (post-Nicene) Christianity, we were the theological equivalent of the goose that laid the golden egg.  (I just now thought of that.)

This glaring contradiction--together with the fact that the Jews were emphatically unconvinced by any of it and refused to cooperate in their own extinction whether physical or religious—gave rise to a whole new set of bizarre theological fantasies, mostly centered around Christian eschatology, i.e. the End Times or Second Coming.  The fact that the year 2000 was rapidly approaching gave these fantasies an additional boost of hysterical urgency that manifested on all the religion boards.  I called it “Millennial Fever” and the late 1990s were the height of the epidemic.  We could very well be dealing with a newer and even more dangerous outbreak this year, but that’s a subject for another post.
It was on the Prodigy Debates/Religious Issues forum, that I first encountered Christian Zionism, and I haven’t fully recovered from the shock yet.  The nakedly imperialist, power-seeking aspect of it was very much a reality but it was still somewhat camouflaged, not quite as overtly political as it is now.  On the interfaith board the regulars thought of the millennialists primarily as religious nuts.  I don’t think the term “Christian Zionist” even existed at the time.  But whatever they were or weren’t called, I still found them unbelievably offensive the first time I encountered them.  Their belief system, or at least that part of it that concerns the Jews specifically, centers around a crudely literal understanding of certain prophecies in the book of Daniel.  It is a recent interpretation, predicated on certain crucial historical events of the 20th century, especially the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, reinforced by the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.  Without the existence of an actual Jewish state, it would be impossible for even the most delusional Christian millennialists to imagine this particular end-times scenario.  And they not only imagine it but act on it, with the cooperation of certain extreme right-wing elements in Israel.

Roughly summarized, the preconditions for the Second Coming involve the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem on the site of Herod’s Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  Then the re-instatement of the sacrificial cult.  Never mind about what’s supposed to happen to the Dome of the Rock that already exists on the site.  God and Gush Emunim will take care of that.

This unholy alliance between the most extreme and fanatical of the Christian fundamentalists and their equally insane Israeli counterparts terrified me then as it does now.  But my overwhelming emotion when I finally understood what the Christian Zionist end-times scenario was all about was rage—overwhelming rage such as I have rarely felt before or since in my life.  That’s saying a lot because I have a famously short fuse, and when it finally sank in I went totally ballistic.

The reason they so desperately wanted us to rebuild the Temple for them was so that the Antichrist could defile it.

1 comment:

Raksha said...

Another word of explanation: Originally this was the first part (roughly half) of a longer essay which was intended to be read as one long blog entry. I am still having technical issues with my Blogger draft window, so I decided to post it in two installments. This is Part 1. I will post Part 2 as soon as I can get a "clean" preview of it.