The Conspiracy

An exercise in letting things go [J Street 2012]

Before the conference began, David blogged about “Israel-haters” at J-Street. He wrote that they’re here, and that’s okay. We have room to discuss their one-state solutions in the in-betweens, walking out from the plenaries and schmoozing. This place is the only place where “Israel-haters” can still feel like Jews.

So I asked a couple people what they thought about the open dialogue at this conference, what made them uncomfortable, and what they were letting go of. I got – not surprisingly — polar opposite reactions. One woman described a situation that made her uncomfortable earlier this morning: During one of the opening sessions, a person who was clearly new to J Street asked a “right-wingish” question was met with heckling and booing. She said that although her own politics align with that of J Street’s, our goal should be to open our arms to all perspectives, even those perspectives with which J Street openly disagrees.

On the other hand, during the J Street U student session this afternoon, I spoke with a young man who felt that most of the speakers were overly optimistic. He, unlike the woman I spoke with, was not convinced of the viability of a two-state solution.
But both of the people I spoke with realized that the only way to achieve a solution is to let go of their discomfort.

And there are all sorts of things that are making me uncomfortable. The “Israel-haters” are not the source of my discomfort. What makes my arm hairs stand on end are the religious folks. Back when I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah, I rejected religion outright. In fact, I was so disgusted with the whole idea of religion that I rejected Judaism outright.


Amos Oz at the conference | photo by flickr user jstreetdotorg (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

So when Amos Oz spoke, I was totally captivated. But even his speech made me squirm with anxiety. His metaphors had us all in the palm of his hand. When he made the comparison between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and marriage, we ate his words up like safta’s kugel. And he sealed the deal when he spoke of the tragedy of the conflict, arguing that we don’t want a Shakespearean ending in which everyone in the play is dead, but a Chekovian ending in which everyone is dissatisfied, but alive. But at the end of his speech, when he mumbled something about “God bless you, J Street,” I was immediately furious. I couldn’t believe my ears. For me, that comment undermined his earlier point, that “there is more than one way to be a good Jew.”

Why does it always have to be about God? And why is God always so well-received by the audience? It feels to me like even though non-religious Jews are totally welcome and encouraged to participate, we still make up the minority of our representation. If a speaker is religious, then they’re really important and what they have to say really matters.

And this overly-represented religiosity is a narrative we’re all swallowing. Even I myself applauded when Anat Hoffman asked J Street U students to purchase the Women of the Wall tallit. Why should I care whether or not women are allowed to say the sh’ma aloud near the Western Wall? I have absolutely no connection to the site, other than its historic value. But it’s remarkably effective, this integration of feminism and activism and religiosity. It’s a narrative that is extremely attractive, even for those of us who remain firmly on the secular end of the Jewish spectrum. But I’m not buying it.
And that’s okay. I don’t have to buy it. It makes me extremely uncomfortable, but that’s okay. Nobody’s forcing me come to shul. Nobody’s forcing me to cover my shoulders. Nobody’s forcing me to pray to God or follow halacha.

But there are other things besides the religious rhetoric that make me uncomfortable. I’ll admit it: as a die-hard practitioner of a social science (of the anthropological pedigree), I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to comparisons, especially metaphors. So I’ll be perfectly frank: there are a whole bunch of comparisons that are, to be polite, lacking.

For instance, even before Oz made that little remark about God at the end of his speech, I was really perturbed by his comparison between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and divorce. A divorce implies marriage, that at one time the two parties entered the contract willingly. To the best of my knowledge, this is not the case for many Israelis, and certainly not for Palestinians.
And I was hit again with the a similar repulsion for the rampant misuse of metaphors when Ilyse Hogue spoke at yesterday’s plenary. She compared the coming out of a non-heteronormative individual to coming out as a supporter of J Street. While this comparison offers much in the way of addressing the discomfort we will all inevitably feel when gather around the seder table and discuss the things we learned at this conference with our less critically-minded friends and family, it also does something pretty gross.

How can we ever come close to understanding the oppression queer folks endure on a daily basis? How dare we compare our own discomfort to the challenging task transgender individuals must face every moment? And what about the queer Jews in our midst? How did they feel when Hogue made this comparison? I’m not trying to play the oppression Olympics here, but I felt that Hogue would have done well to at least mention the holes in the metaphor.

But as I keep reminding myself, it’s okay. Just like I can let go of my distaste for religious Judaism, I can let go of my distaste for faulty comparisons. At J Street, I’m accepted even if I don’t make the minyan. Whether or not a speaker’s comparisons are totally sound is kind of irrelevant. When a speaker thanks God or blesses us, I don’t have to get mad.

They’re just words. They’re words that, for me, evoke an old feeling of radical resentment. But it’s time to let go of that story. This place is an exercise in letting things go, in acknowledging that maybe what you feel really, really strongly about should be set aside for a moment in order to work towards a larger goal. That’s really freaking hard, but when you’re fighting for a better future… if the work isn’t hard, you’re probably not doing it right.

4 Older Responses to “An exercise in letting things go [J Street 2012]”

  1. Josh Hyman
    March 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    I think this is out special curse – it’s the price of admission for being the most opinionated people in the world. I like this piece – it’s a very visceral dissection of how we all feel, most of the time.

    Great to meet you at the conference, Shani! I hope we cross paths again sometime. 🙂

    – Josh

  2. David Z
    March 29, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Wow – visceral is right, Josh.

    Here are my thoughts, as an Orthodox (not just religious) Jew. First of all, how does it make you feel not accepted because a speaker mentions something they believe in? That must just be your insecurity. When I hear a Christian speak about J, it’s not my cup of tea, but I’m secure enough in my religious beliefs that I don’t feel unaccepted – that’s for them and this is for me. Even more so, normative Orthodox belief (not to mention religious Jews of other bents) is that all Jews who identify as Jews have a share in the World to Come, whether you like it or not. 😉 But my point is that if I can feel comfortable sharing ideas with Christians and finding common ground where they think I’m going to Hell, you can do it with Jews who think you’re still doing pretty good and are proud of you for identifying as one.

    As for the metaphors – since you have this distaste for religion, perhaps you could imagine Oz was referring to an arranged marriage of yore that both parties need to get out of (or among the modern khasidim). And as for Hogue, I don’t imagine that transsexuals walk around feeling discrimination constantly any more than I do. You get it from time to time, and you have places where you feel safer than others, and I imagine that’s what it’s like to have these outre opinions on Israel (I wouldn’t know – my opinions are fairly mainstream). Again, I’m no J-Streeter, but hope I can help you with the speakers.

    Just to play psychologist here, it seems your problem is being overly emotional and angry or something of that nature. I imagine before you publish an article and think about it you probably tone down your rhetoric and proofread for tone and style. The fact that what you produced still contains such visceral negative reactions tells the reader that you really have little control over your distaste and find much distasteful around you (we are surrounded by religion and metaphors after all). The things that bother you are really petty. But you seem to be working through that publicly now and I’m glad you can swallow your distaste for me. Sadly, I never felt distaste for secularists to begin with. Perhaps I should work on my viscera.

  3. Harpo Jaeger
    March 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    Wow, David Z. Next time, why don’t you be a bit more condescending? I’m sure that will help further a respectful discussion.
    I don’t imagine that transsexuals walk around feeling discrimination constantly any more than I do.
    Sorry, what? Are you claiming that Orthodox Jews are discriminated against more than transgender or transsexual folks?


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