The Conspiracy

Let’s All Be Traitors

Absolute loyalty is dangerous. (Graffiti from Jerusalem reading “dominion or exile!” |Photo credit: Jonathan P. Katz

Treason has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks.

In the Jewish world, the website Canary Mission – which seeks to create a “blacklist” of pro-Palestinian activists – has caused a controversy. Many of those profiled on the site are Jewish – including New Voices contributor Tom Pessah; those of our brethren profiled on the site were castigated as somehow false in their Judaism, or traitorous to “true” Jewish values. In this narrative, Israel – a certain Israel – requires loyalty. Tellingly, many Jewish organizations have thus-far refused to condemn the site.

Then, in my life as an Afrikaans-speaker, I was closely following a developing social media storm last month on verraaiers – “traitors.” An Afrikaans-language musician known for his right-wing views, Steve Hofmeyr, called for a “referendum” against those who had been found to be “traitors” to the Afrikaner people (here in Afrikaans). To give you an idea of Hofmeyr’s other opinions, this singer has been noted to also do things like blame black South Africans for apartheid or sing the apartheidera national anthem at cultural festivals. Anyway, the right wing of Afrikaans Twitter began to draw up a “list of traitors” – basically, most white public figures who had noted the continued need for transformation in South Africa or even publicly condemn the role Afrikaner nationalism played in apartheid. (Jews are not exempt!) I realized, as I read this, that I too would be termed a verraaier – though I am not an Afrikaner.

Finally, this is my last article for New Voices. I have loved writing for this beautiful little magazine, and I have grown so much over the past two years. I have also irritated a lot, a lot, a lot of people with what I have written – and gotten the online flak to boot. And of all the things I have been called – naïve, stupid, evil, sexually depraved, a “little ketsele” – one claim has stood out among others: traitor. Traitor to my heritage, traitor to my people, traitor to normalcy, traitor to…you name it. If you were to only know me from the internet comments of my critics, you’d think I was a modern-day Benedict Arnold to the Jewish people.

Treason is everywhere today. Thrown across the pits of the Jewish community, from sneering leftists to Sheldon Adelson, anyone who fails at a dogmatic pillar of life in the various sectors of American Jewry today is branded a traitor. Support Palestinian self-determination? “Treason.” Marry the love of your life, who is not Jewish? “Treason.” Decide that the condescension of parts of the Jewish community is too much for you to handle? “Treason.” Of course we move in wider communities that are black-and-white where equally ardent accusations of treason abound: Democrats and Republicans; being a “true American”; being a real “Zionist.” In the midst of all this treachery, I have a question to ask:

What does it mean to be a traitor? The classical definition is “a person who betrays someone or something, such as a friend, cause, or principle.” Of course, this word is strongly inflected with a moral judgment: we term the betrayer whose cause was not our own a traitor, but those that we appreciate are termed mavericks, brave, disruptors, revolutionaries.

Of course loyalty is a virtue: without it, society would not exist as we know it. But blind loyalty can be toxic and unvirtuous: witness the McCarthyist witch-hunt of left-wing activists in Israel by those who claim loyalty to the state. Loyalty can prevent us from thinking critically about our own causes: it is all well and good to be dedicated to mitigating Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, but what about Latvia’s ethnocratic citizenship laws, which largely impact “Russians”? Loyalty may also attach us to falsehoods: how many times have I grimaced as Yiddishists proclaimed “the death of Yiddish”? I’m all for supporting Yiddish, but let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands of Haredim function in Yiddish each day – hardly language death. But acknowledging this would require disloyalty to “secular Yiddish culture.” In short – and I am hardly the first person to say this – loyalty is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Treason can also be a virtue. Sometimes – and yes, I sound hopelessly cliché for saying so – the best thing one can do for a better world, change, or even to protect one’s well-being is to betray. In some cases, it is an important check on blind loyalty and the dangers it brings: “traitors” can bring important points such as the oppression of minorities to the table. In some cases, it allows us to think critically about our own causes: is it really necessary to be doing things in a certain ways? In some cases, it just allows us to divorce ourselves from ridiculous histories and stories.

Treason can be a declaration of strength, of hope, or of better loyalties. In some ways, it is a statement of loyalty to something beyond the thing betrayed: be it justice, full inclusion, or simply something more suitable for the “traitor.” Take Yeshayahu Leibowitz for example. He has often been termed a traitor or even a heretic by nationalists, who were upset at his critiques of Zionist theologies and ardent opposition to the Occupation after 1967. Yet his loyalty was not to nationalist ideologies, but rather to an understanding of Judaism that prioritized worship of God above everything. Treason is also sometimes strength: for those who continue to resist the mandatory draft in Israel, including left-wing students and Haredi activists, being a “traitor” to societal militarism is about more than “cushy” benefits or accusations of weakness. (The former claim forgets the structural inequalities Haredim and others face in Israel.) Yet to openly question the structure that has determined Israeli society for sixty years requires immense strength. I think this strength is admirable.

I want to suggest that we should, in our Jewish communities, be prepared to commit virtuous treason. To build a better world – and follow the Biblical command to pursue justice (tzedeq tzedeq tirdof) – we need to be able to say when a dogma is wrong, when a principle is terrible, or when our community is literally bankrolling dispossession. We need to be able to learn when our actions exclude others from the community through Ashkenormativity, racism, or exclusion of converts, or when our cherished assumptions are – at their base – building a Jewish framework that kicks some Jews out. Sometimes we will feel like we are betraying another cause – support for Israel, “Jewish culture,” or our peers and families. Sometimes we will be called traitors. But persevere: it is ultimately for a good cause that you are breaking rank. Because it is better to strive for a Jewish world in which all our heritages are celebrated rather than an attenuated Ashkenazi one; it is better to strive for a Jewish world in which we do not demand blood purity of our peers; it is better to stand as a Jew in solidarity with Palestinians rather than blindly follow nationalist screeds. We may be “traitors,” but we seek virtue.

In fact, one learns to take a bit of perverse pride in the label “traitor.”

As I said earlier, I have been called many types of traitor: dishonoring the Jewish people, dishonoring my family, treasonous to and forgetful of my Ashkenazi heritage, ‘n verraaier, a heretic, an “evil liberal.” These accusations can hurt, they can be maddening, they can make me – to use a most vernacular word – “punchy.” But then I also remember that these accusations mean that I’ve clearly hit a nerve – and then I am proud.

So I’ve decided to take these accusations in stride: my Twitter profile now lists me as ‘n Trotse verraaier – a proud traitor. Because virtuous treason is better than immoral “loyalty.” And though I may not always be the most virtuous of traitors, it is something that I strive to be.

And I invite you: join me. Be a proud traitor too.


Jonathan P. Katz is an American student finishing up a year of study at Oxford University in England.


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