At the most recent Wrestling Together community conversation, we explored ways that each of us has been impacted and distorted by anti-Semitism. Our personal stories, alongside historical context, hold the keys to understanding how we, individually and collectively, carry the damaging effects of this systemic oppression against Jews. If you are Jewish, this can be an insightful lens for looking at what distortions you absorbed about yourself as a Jew, about other Jews/types of Jews, about Judaism, and about your connections with people of other groups. If you’re not Jewish, this can be a useful lens for understanding Jews more deeply and to have greater clarity to partner in the work of ending anti-Semitism. For all of us, it can open space for more compassion, understanding, and conscious choice rather than reactivity, as we build relaxed, undefensive, joyous Jewish community together that is working to end all forms of oppression.
As a child, my sister had an imaginary enemy. Other kids had imaginary friends; hers was an imaginary enemy. She vividly remembers a shadowy figure about her size and age who would chase her through the house. It wasn’t until she was an adult and was telling an African heritage friend of hers about this oddity, when her friend commented, “Well that makes sense. You’re Jewish. Even as a child, you had an understanding that there was something dangerous about being Jewish and you were practicing running away.” It was a stunning insight into a cultural inheritance of fear. My own inherited terror took a more obvious form as a child, with repeated nightmares of Nazis bursting into our house and finding me hiding behind our living room drapes. Neither of us were ever directly threatened or overtly marginalized for being Jews. We grew up in tolerant and culturally-diverse Toronto, immersed in robust Jewish community, and yet messages came though to us from a very young age, explicitly as well as implicitly, from one generation to the next, that life as a Jew is precarious and frightening.
Of course, not all Jews had the same upbringing or the same nightmares. But in a range of ways, the messages of anti-Semitism formed a backdrop against which Jewish identity was shaped for most of us. The core message that drives anti-Semitism asserts that Jews are fundamentally a problem and don’t deserve to exist. Over the course of history there have been various “solutions” to the Jewish problem – ghettoization and other forms of separation, forced conversion, persecution, restrictions on occupations, quotas, confiscation and destruction of property, expulsions, pogroms, and the Final Solution – systematic extermination.
The secondary message of anti-Semitism, which makes it look different from many other forms of targeting and oppression, asserts that so long as Jews do exist, they need to justify their existence by being useful. Rather than being relegated to the lowest socio-economic level, Jews were often forced to take roles as middle agents, such as tax collectors and money lenders, as buffers between those with political power and wealth and society’s poorest. The Jews were often welcomed and used for our skills and expertise, and were given certain protections and benefits for them, but the moment there was unrest, the Jews would be blamed as the problem, scapegoated, attacked or expelled. Because some Jews have been close to power and wealth at various points in our history, the manipulation and threats that anti-Semitism generates are often made invisible.
Despite all of this, Jews have figured out how to survive. It is quite astounding! Over the course of history, Jews have developed a wide range of survival strategies, beliefs and behaviours that react against this history and hatred. But in our efforts to survive, some of these beliefs and behaviours have become rigid and automatic (e.g. strong defensiveness anytime we feel criticized, or distancing ourselves from Jews who stand out as “too” Jewish). Some of the behaviours have become cultural ways of acting that don’t seem to have anything to do directly with anti-Semitism but the behaviour is a holdover from when it helped us survive and has also become rigid and automatic (e.g. needing to be successful, ever-useful, and perfection-driven).
Below are some of the patterns of internalized anti-Semitism (feeling these toward yourself, toward other Jews, or generally). We probably each have our own unique mixture of some of these patterns. It’s worth noting that Jews don’t have a monopoly on these feelings and struggles. And not every struggle is caused by anti-Semitism – we are all part of other groups with their own distortions and wounds.
This list can be insightful and liberating, however, in exploring how these reactions may have come from the trauma of being hurt and scared as Jews and what they have done to the Jewish soul and psyche. When we look through that lens, the ways of thinking and acting that we grew up with and never questioned, that were simply the norm, become visible, conscious and enable us to make deliberate choices – choosing whether we want to be defensive or curious and open; choosing to build trusting and connected relationships; non-reactively choosing the kind of Jews we want to be; openly choosing to accept ourselves and others; joyously choosing to support the particular beauty and gifts of the Jewish people, the particular beauty and gifts of other peoples, as well as celebrating our shared humanity.
You don’t deserve to exist / you are a problem:
- a core fear of annihilation;
- feeling disgusting, ugly, not attractive/desirable; there is something wrong with me;
- feeling bad about yourself/blaming yourself for the ways you struggle;
- feeling that you don’t belong, you are not wanted;
- feeling terrified/scared, nervous, anxious, URGENT, not trusting certain people/types of people, can’t sit still;
- feeling like disaster is pending – if things are good now, the other shoe will drop soon enough;
- don’t be too hopeful or too happy.
You have to justify your existence:
- we try to come up with solutions for being a problem by being useful and needed/indispensable, including only taking up the causes of other groups that are targeted rather than working for our shared liberation;
- needing to be excellent/perfect, yet never feeling good enough or smart enough.
Feeling defensive, protective, insular, isolated:
- believing that no one else will help us/stand by us, we are alone/everyone is against us/ you’re either with us or you’re against us;
- if you attack or threaten me, I will smash you ten times harder; never again – fists up!
- we can’t trust others – they will be our friends one day and turn on us the next;
- believing there is safety in money and being close to power;
- believing there is safety in distancing ourselves from other groups that are targeted, or participating in oppression against others rather than working for our shared liberation;
- feeling like a victim/acting like a victim – helpless, powerless, passive (oh, I’ll just sit in the dark);
- feeling there are right and wrong ways to be Jewish – policing Jewishness, defining who/what is “too Jewish” or “not Jewish enough.”
- hide, blend in, don’t behave differently;
- feeling ashamed, embarrassed of certain kinds of Jews – I’m not THAT kind of Jew;
- it might be culturally acceptable/hip to identify as Jewish, as long as you don’t believe, act, or practice in a way that sets us as distinct, particular, or at odds with the broader culture;
- changing our names, accents, noses, gestures, changing other distinguishing features, not being “pushy” or “loud” or asking for exceptions to be made for us or special treatment, and being embarrassed about any Jew who ‘makes a fuss’ asking for these;
- don’t cause a problem, don’t stand out (is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?), believing we bring anti-Semitism on ourselves.
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Do any of these feelings or thoughts ring true for you? Do any of them make you think of other Jews you know? It was interesting that many of the participants had an initial response of rejecting this framework. Once people began to tell their stories, more and more examples emerged from the group. Don’t take my word for it. Talk with others. Tell your story. Notice what your family said or did related to any of these attitudes. Notice what triggers you. The more we can see of the distortions and reactivity we absorbed, the more we can see the liberating path home.
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Year of Wrestling Together Community Conversation #6
Responses from the Community
At the end of the Wrestling Together session, participants were asked to share something from this conversation they learned or wanted to share with the wider community:
- I began to understand ways in which anti-Semitism has shaped aspects of my life. These are very valuable conversations for myself and for the community. Thank you.
- When we make space to notice how anti-Semitism and internalized anti-Semitism impact us and others, we can begin to separate that from the human in us and others and build a bridge.
- Interesting to reflect on how the anxiety and defensiveness of everyone in my family is likely (at least partly) rooted in fear of annihilation!
- This session made me think about my internalized “stuff” as the daughter of Jewish immigrants where “my success” was their success as Jews who had fled pogrom-infested Europe. But many immigrant families feel that way, don’t they?
- Self-abasing behaviours are resultant from cultural conflicts (as well, or more than) psychological conflicts.
- Ethnocentric. Barriers to acceptance. Gut feelings
- I need to reflect on internalized anti-Semitism and the ways it impacts my life.
- Thought-provoking. So interesting to sit with other Jews and talk about internalized anti-Semitism.
- There is hope. This evening made me hopeful, because it was open and honest.