News is coming fast and furious these days. Three stories in particular this past week hit close to where my soul lives. The UN vote on Israel and Obama’s response. A planned January 15th neo-Nazi march targeting Jews in Whitefish, Montana. The suicide of a Jewish transgender girl named Jai Bornstein in Bakersfield and her family’s message. Apparently my soul is Jewish.
The Bornstein family’s letter to the community
“… Please think of Jai every time a family member or friend comes out as LGBTQ and/or gender non-conforming, when you hear the topic on the news, or when there is a ballot initiative about bathrooms. During conversations at the office or at the dinner table, remember that activism starts with dialogue. Remember how loving and passionate an activist Jai was. Remember how hard she worked to encourage people to hear the stories and needs of trans people. We can honor Jai by creating space for the LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth in our lives, in our schools, in our homes and in our hearts.
Additionally, we want to recognize the complexity of Jai’s person and her struggle as a Jew living in a place where where the majority of people belong to a different faith. To be different in a world where difference is often not embraced is a challenge that many of us may never truly understand, and all we can do is work to ease that struggle for others. Together we can make this world safer and softer for youth like Jai by treating everyone we meet with dignity and respect no matter how different they may appear.
With love and solidarity,
The Bornstein family”
Where my soul lives? I start here. In the not-knowing. Maybe that’s why I ended up in Buddhism. Where not-knowing is valued. Lots of Jews end up Buddhist. Think Ram Dass (I know, Hindi, but also a little buddhist). Think Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, others. Maybe some Jews no longer want to be “chosen” and no longer agree to perpetuate the “othering” of peoples, whether for their religion, gender, sexuality, race, nationality, anything. I’m interested in inclusion, not exclusion.
I have issues with patriarchy, which is an issue in Buddhism as well, but at least it’s not divinely ordained and anyhow I don’t subscribe to the Buddhist institutions that perpetuate that discrimination either.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona I was the only Jewish girl in an all-white, quiet, John-Birch-Society’d anti-semitic middle class neighborhood and grade school for the first 13 years of my life. (I suppose they didn’t actually consider us “white”. There was a sense of passing, but you knew they knew.) In high school it was the same situation except maybe there were one or two other Jewish girls. From my earliest childhood I was drawn to defending any one I saw being excluded or bullied for any reason. My activism must have started there.
My parents were busy assimilating but sent my brother and me to a reform Jewish Sunday school. Feeling like an outsider, I dropped out in the middle of first grade. I was not exposed to and didn’t feel the need for an observant Jewish life. Mom explained that God wants us to do good on Earth and that for Jews that was more important than worrying about heaven or hell. This made sense to me. I felt myself to be a good Jewish girl and felt pretty confident God liked me, though I could not fathom his ways.
All the Jews I knew (my extended family) and had heard of (including Anne Frank) were good people and I couldn’t imagine why people hated us, though I knew early on they did. My mother told me that being Jewish was a religion, not a racial identity. She said Jews were just like all people — there were good and bad ones, just like in any group. On Sunday morning we ate bagels and lox, but otherwise we ate the same foods as my friends’ families (not pork mind you, but bacon, yes. Though butter disappeared from the meat-laden table when my Brooklyn-based kosher-keeping grandparents visited.) But otherwise, we lived in the same houses, and went to the same schools as the white Christian families.
Because of the eons-long struggle of Jews to live free from oppression, I have a particular affection for this group called “the Jewish people”. I do. Jews are the genetic material and story out of which I was born. I’m happy and proud when they/we do good in the world. Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Barbara Streisand, but not just famous Jews, regular ones too. (I’m also happy and proud when women and kids — groups I also identify with — do good. So it’s not exactly a religious identification, just an identification). Maybe on some level I think the good-doing will keep us safe, though I know it won’t.
As time went on I found out my mother was right. There are all kind of Jews, just like all kinds of everybody. I’m still gob-smacked when I hear about particularly bad ones like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (an insanely wealthy man who’s a big Republican donor and was Trump’s biggest donor this election), or the mobster Meyer Lansky, or Roy Cohn (Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel for HUAC and an early mentor to Donald Trump).
Still, anti-semitism has been an on-going issue despite the fact that it hasn’t been in the headlines like other acts of bigotry. According to the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) there are more than 892 hate groups in America. These are not only racist, homophobic, and xenophobic. They are also highly anti-semitic. This is often not mentioned by my fellow progressives, I believe because Israel’s existence and/or behavior has colored the waters of peoples’ thinking on the question of Jews and anti-semitism. Many people, including Israel and the Right, conflate Israel and Judaism as an entity. Many people don’t make a distinction, though for me there is one.
One of the ideas basic to our democracy is found in the first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I was raised to find great value in this concept, an idea integral to democracy as I understand it. Israel does not fit this bill. Neither do other theocratic nation states.
I believe Israel’s very existence is based in PTSD following centuries of severe oppression and persecution wherever Jews were, culminating in Germany’s genocidal efforts. If you know your Jewish history you will know of this. If you don’t, you might think it’s over-stated. It’s not. On some level, I get why some Jews (Zionists) were moved to form their own militarized nation-state, the state we now know as Israel. I guess with hindsight one can see how one thing would obviously lead to another. The need to establish firm borders. The need to defend them, and extend them. And then pre-emptively defend them. Back in the 1940s, given what happened, I can imagine how the idea of a Jewish nation state might have seemed a good solution to end the plight of the Jewish people. Then, in brief, things got complicated. Thousands of years of oppression and persecution, horrible as it was, and PTSD-producing as it was, does not, in my book, give Israel license to oppress another group — the Palestinian people. I don’t agree with or support Israeli policies that do this, including, but not limited to the ongoing building of settlements in occupied territories and the barely-tolerable second class citizenship existence of Palestinians in Israel. But, that’s a theocracy for you, and a beleaguered one at that. I applaud the US (and President Obama) deciding Not to veto the UN resolution on this several days ago. I believe that most Israelis and most Palestinians, like most people everywhere, want to live in peace, and that Israel’s fundamentalist right-wing and Netanyahu’s approach undermines that possibility.
I dislike labels that separate, but if I must wear them, for starters I identify myself as American, Jewish, buddhist, and feminist.
In terms of Trump and the Republicans’ agenda, I’m also Muslim, Syrian, Black, gay, trans, refugee, immigrant.
In terms of Bibi Netanyahu’s agenda, I’m also Palestinian.
I pray to Kwan Yin, the goddess of Compassion, who hears the suffering of the world that we might all hear each other’s suffering as she does — with great empathy and compassion — and walk a Resistance path together in order to find and nurture our common goodness and common ground. This is my wish for 2017.