The changing Jewish story: Israel wasn’t always the litmus test

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The Jewish story is changing.

This is not a newsflash; it’s as old as the Jews themselves.

Today’s Jewish story — more rightly put, stories — is not yesterday’s, and, perhaps more importantly, will not be tomorrow’s.

Let me explain. When looking at long-term trends, all communal narratives are in flux. We all know this intellectually, even if our minds often fall prey to cognitive dissonance.  Whether making recent comparisons, such as the people living on the land mass called the United States of America on Nov. 9, 2016, with those of Nov. 8 or those of 1916 with those of 1516, demographics are always shifting, ideas constantly repeating or forming anew. The only constant is change.

Whether looking globally, nationally or just within American Jewish communities, this trend is likewise omnipresent. For example, for a number of years now, all too many leaders of Jewish institutions have used a single, dominant standard to evaluate entrance into their proverbial building: one’s political orientation to the State of Israel. One needs to clarify whether one is “pro-Israel” or not to gain access to funding or support of virtually any kind. But this ideological gate pass is merely today’s standard. Assuming this is anything other than transient — imagining that today’s reality will be frozen in time — is fantastical.

In fact, as recently as the early 20th century most Jews were not only unsupportive of establishing a Jewish majority country (i.e., non-Zionists), but were actually anti-Zionists.

As current leaders of the renowned San Francisco-based congregations Emanu-El and Sherith Israel no doubt know, the norm among Reform rabbis at that time, and for decades prior, was to reject the establishment of a Jewish state. Indeed, Bay Area clergy argued that “Zion” or the “holy land” (the literal words used by those making this claim) was California, everywhere else “Babylon.” Some of these leaders didn’t change their position on this matter until the 1950s, well after Israel was established. As for Orthodox Jews, there was near uniformity that without a messiah there should not be a Jewish state. Today’s ultra-Orthodox sects of the Neturei Karta and the Satmars, and their rejection of Israel’s mere existence, were unquestionably the norm. A century ago, anti-Zionism was the status quo; today it is grounds for excommunication.

Another example, arguably one much more problematic and pervasive, has to do with racial and ethnic subidentities among Jews. Ashkenazi Jews in the U.S., who comprise about 80 percent of America’s 5 to 6 million Jews, are undoubtedly the dominant Jewish subgroup. This phenomenon has marginalized non-Ashkenazi subgroups of Jews, such as African Americans, Chinese, Ethiopians, Indians, Iraqis, Persians, Syrians — and on and on. Over the last two decades as an educator, all too often students of mine, like an Arab Jewish woman and a black Jewish man I know, have been approached by Jews and non-Jews alike with the question, “What are you?!”

Putting aside the insensitivity and ignorance of such a question, the category of the “Arab Jew” has been around much longer than the “White Jew.” Jews living in Arab-majority countries often identified explicitly as Arab Jews, just as their neighbors called themselves Arab Muslims or Arab Christians. The fact that most Jews aren’t aware of this historical reality doesn’t negate its factuality. The same holds true for a number of other subgroups within Jewish communities.

Whether the litmus test is Israeli nationalism or the color of one’s skin (or gender or sexual orientation, etc.), Jewish communities — especially those with institutional power — must be more open-minded about who is permitted in. Jews have always held multiple different ideas and have always come in countless different shapes and sizes.

Because we know that today’s norm will not be tomorrow’s, we must be more open-minded, more accepting, and more embracing of the seeming “other” in our midst. If there is to be any guideline, it should be focused on supporting human rights, justice  and dignity for all peoples.

Aaron J. Hahn Tapper teaches at the University of San Francisco, where he is the Mae and Benjamin Swig Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, the founding director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, and the chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. He is author of the recently published “Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities.”