[Image description: A still from Nadav Lapid’s film Synonyms (2019). Yoav, the protagonist, leans back in a mustard, wool coat. His left arm is outstretched and his right arm pulled inward, as if he were preparing to release an arrow from a bow.]
i. THE FAULT LINES OF JEWISH ETHNICITY
Lauded by critics for its howling exploration of Jewish identity, Nadav Lapid’s 2019 semi-autobiographical film Synonyms opens with a sequence in which, after his clothes are stolen, the film’s protagonist Yoav races naked through an unfurnished Airbnb. This moment of involuntary disrobing portrays Lapid’s (and Yoav’s) attempt to erase his Uzi-wielding past and become a secular French citizen — what he claims was an effort to redress his concerns that “he’d been born in the Middle East by mistake.” Despite the film’s focus on a Jewish Israeli’s struggle to integrate into Frenchness, what Lapid mobilizes is a sentiment voiced by many liberal and leftist Jews in the West: a desire to disentangle their Jewish identities from geopolitical debates surrounding Israel-Palestine. But this sentiment does not necessarily address the Zionist project’s historic and ongoing oppression of Palestinians. Rather, it centers upon the prospect of distinguishing between Zionism and Judaism, aiming to ensure Jewish inclusion in popular progressive political discourse and movements in the West.
Consider how, in response to Donald Trump’s conflation of American Jews with Israelis, many American Jews sought to articulate the differences between Zionism and Judaism, and described Trump’s conflation as antisemitic for the way it might imply “dual-loyalty.” Or, think back to the intricate balancing acts performed by liberal Zionists earlier this summer, who, in response to Black Lives Matter groups’ embrace of the BDS movement, separated a critique of Zionism from their anti-racist commitments. These instances reveal that disentangling Jewishness and Zionism does not necessarily amount to denouncing or divesting from the racial warcraft of the Israeli nation-state. On the contrary, these efforts may obfuscate ongoing investment in the destruction of Palestinian livelihood while distancing Jews from the racialist buffoonery of the Trump administration in the effort to achieve Jewish inclusion in progressive politics.
In a similar vein, Yoav’s symbolic strip-down at the start of Synonyms implies that, in order to integrate into white secular Frenchness, he must unravel and perhaps even negate his connections to the Israeli state. He expresses not only a demand to wedge a distinction between Jewishness and Zionism, but also a more fraught desire to avoid provincialization by this Middle Eastern political controversy. Lapid’s film signals the ways that growing disavowals of Zionist ideology may be less interested in transnational justice or Palestinian life than in ensuring Jews are not condemned to the provenance of minority discourse. Whether that is because support for Zionism complicates popular Jewish anti-racist solidarity efforts or because the assumption that all Jews are Zionists enables accusations of Jewish dual-loyalty, attempts to dis-implicate oneself from Zionism — or, more resolutely, from the Palestine question — reveal the following imbroglio: in their efforts to affirm allegiance to contemporary anti-racist movements, progressive Jews feel inconveniently ethnicized, in some cases even racialized, by the state of Israel.
This tension is acutely captured in the way Lapid figures the ethnic alterity of Yoav in his film. In order to evoke Yoav’s struggle to don Frenchness, Lapid depicts Yoav as a foreign, barbaric expat from the Middle East. His denuded body essentially condemns him to this trope, as it echoes Orientalist depictions of unbounded masculinity. Yoav’s body is explicitly contrasted to heroic nudes of Ancient or Hellenic Greece, a history to which he makes aspirational references throughout the film. As such, Lapid’s narrative undoes one of Zionist ideology’s telos: the reinvention of the Jew within the ranks of Western man. As Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin explains in “Exile within Sovereignty” (1993), by “negating the diaspora” — shlilat ha’galut — the Zionist state produced the conditions for the emergence of “the new Jew,” one who, in contrast to the pre-Zionist “exilic Jew,” would be commensurable with the emancipated and Enlightened peoples of Europe.
But Lapid’s film counterintuitively reverses this logic, suggesting that rather than redressing the condition of the exilic Jew within Western modernity, the state of Israel indelibly marks this Jew as even more estranged from the Enlightened European than were his pre-Zionist ancestors. Essentially, in Orientalizing the Israeli Jew, Lapid traces a new fault line between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews: one that does not mark the latter as ethnically inferior to Western man, but rather marks the Israeli Jew as ethnically inferior to the assimilable white Jew of the West. In turn, Lapid inadvertently reveals a paradox:, by seeking inclusion into racial whiteness, as Yoav does, Western Jews increasingly ethnicize the Holy Land and its initiates.
Recent appeals to include Jews in Title IV protections on college campuses, as well as grievances expressed by Jewish leaders and institutions against the state of California’s newly drafted guidelines for its K-12 Ethnic Studies curriculum, reflect the newest phases of a long-standing debate about the categorical status of American Jews and whether or not they merit various state or federal minority protections. Of course, calls to recognize Jews as an ethnic minority group often function to conceal how white Jews benefit from the privileges of racial whiteness. Moreover, embedded within these calls for Jewish minority protections are tacit or explicit appeals to restrict criticism of Zionism. This concealing act works less to defend Jews against impending threats of antisemitic violence and more to guard American Zionism from dissent and protest and continue to reduce Jewishness to an identity derivative of the state of Israel. When the collective Jewish nation is imagined as isomorphic with the Jewish state, debates about the history of Jewish racialization or Jewish ethnic status are truncated and inscribed upon the Israeli body or rehearsed in service of its redemption.
However, I neither intend to merely resuscitate the terms of Jewish ethnicization that may have existed prior to or beyond the locale of Israel-Palestine nor to dislodge Jewish ethnicity from the homeland-diaspora dyad that undergirds this debate. Rather, I am highlighting how the dynamic fault-lines drawn between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews reflect the ways Jewish whiteness has been and continues to be negotiated through the fulcrum of Zionist political ideology, literatures, and visual cultures. That is, I am interested in exploring how we might see the Israeli state as effectively re-ghettoizing and re-ethnicizing the Jew under the Western gaze, rather than having successfully reinvented the pre-Zionist Eastern (Ostjude or Arab) Jew as an Enlightened, sovereign subject. In this vein, Lapid’s film is part of a larger discursive project that inadvertently fortifies a boundary between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews. Israeli Jews are cast as foreign and tribalist Middle Easterners, while non-Israeli Jews as implicitly white imperial subjects — both figural projections that do not capture the actual diversity of Israeli and non-Israeli Jews.
I am interested in exploring how we might see the Israeli state as effectively re-ghettoizing and re-ethnicizing the Jew under the Western gaze
ii. FORESKIN, BLACK MASKS
Synonyms tells the story of an Israeli-soldier who, upon completing his service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), flees from Israel and moves to Paris in an effort to become French. Struggling to learn the French language and endear his new French friends and lovers, Yoav’s dream to abscond from his military past is obstructed by his seemingly intractable propensity for violence and incorrigible sense of alienation.
Many American critics, in their own conflation of Israeli Jewish identity with Jewishness writ large, were moved by Lapid’s cinematic depiction of his struggles “inheriting an identity that fit him like a straitjacket.” Manohla Dargis of the New York Times celebrated how Lapid tactfully “turns Yoav’s naked, Jewish body into an abject display, forcing you to look and daring you to look away.” In his own words, Lapid explains, “the movie worships that body, but it’s also a cursed and stranded thing.” In effect, the film and its reception mark a particular cathexis around the Israeli Jewish body and its suffocating, spectral potential as both the source of alienation and the mark of Jewish abjection, in Western eyes.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Black Martinican psychiatrist and anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon famously charts his own endeavors to don Frenchness, impeded by “the fact of [his] blackness.” Interspliced between his intrepid examinations of Black subjectivity, the white gaze, and racial fissures within the psychoanalytic tradition are Fanon’s reflections on his own unheroic welcome to the metropole — an Antillean scholar who arrives assured that his “destiny …is white” only to find out how very mistaken he is. Much like Lapid’s film, Fanon’s plot takes shape around the interpersonal and psychological hurdles he faces in his fantasies to become white — or, as he names it, “hallucinatory lactification.”
However, to demonstrate the singularity of the form of racial abjection he encounters, Fanon conducts a comparative study of “negrophobia” and antisemitism. Fanon explains that the racialization of the European Jew is determined primarily by stereotypes, ideas, and histories that his actions may or may not confirm — not by the immediate appearance of his body. Distinct from Blackness, a racial inscription that is both “historically” and “epidermally” determined, “the Jewishness of the Jew… can go unnoticed.” In other words, “he is a white man, and apart from some debatable features, he can pass undetected.” The European Jew’s ability to fade into whiteness reveals to Fanon a key distinction: unlike antisemitism, which the Jew may evade, negrophobia “overdetermine[s] from the outside,” and turns Fanon into “a slave not of the ‘idea’ others have of me, but to my appearance.” Blackness, for Fanon, thus describes an internalized form of abjection, produced through both racializing ideas and depictions of Black people — and especially their bodies — as well as the phobic response the appearance of Black people elicits from white people gazing at them.
Fanon’s critique, however, starkly contradicts the gestural and cinematic language of Lapid’s film. Lapid rather explicitly represents the Jew’s alienation underneath the white French gaze as an embodied sensation. Within the film, Yoav’s abjectness is figured through his physical being, his alterity an internalized and visible “straitjacket” he cannot relinquish. In figuring the Israeli Jew as an abject body, does Lapid suggest similarities between anti-Black and antisemitic forms of racialization that Fanon missed? Or rather, does Lapid imply that the existential identity crisis he experienced as an Israeli in the diaspora was a racial one, one in which he’s meant to come to terms with the “fact of his Israeliness,” so to speak?
If we take this suggestion of a racial inscription of Israeli Jewishness seriously — and thus assent to some kind of racial divide between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews in terms of race — what implications might this have for global Jewish collectivity? Especially when categories like race and ethnicity continue to function as binding ties that unify Jews across geographies, histories, and cultural traditions? Moreover, as a shared sense of racial victimhood animates calls for anti-racist solidarity, how might Lapid’s figurative racialization of the Israeli Jew inflect or disrupt the terms of joint struggle between Jews and across other groups?
In the eyes of his on-screen interlocutors, Yoav’s “Jewish essence” never becomes a subject of particular scrutiny (which seems to confirm Fanon’s claim that Jewishness is undetectable at the epidermal level). Rather, his perceived otherness in the eyes of his French friends is attributed to a foreign and virile masculinity, a homoerotic and sensuous allure, and a “large and circumcised” penis. Yoav expresses fanciful dreams of integration, projecting himself as Hector of Troy or as a nihilistic poet in bids to impress his friends. However, as he continues to embed himself in the company of these French bobos, Yoav is treated more as a lascivious foreigner who titillates both men and women with his sexual nonchalance. As he becomes more and more entwined in a polyamorous love triangle, Yoav’s struggle for integration transitions from learning and looking French to avoiding the exoticizing and eroticizing gaze of his French counterparts.
More than that, Lapid’s shooting techniques evoke the sense that Yoav is indeed some foreign indigène, unassimilable to the French way of life. Lapid’s intermittent use of a quasi-guerilla documentary style, which follows Yoav as he feverishly coils through the streets of Paris, not only confounds Yoav’s otherness but also implicates viewers in an imperialist and even militaristic gaze. In effect, Lapid makes Yoav a racialized or colonial subject whom we surveil, yet with whom, at the same time, we are meant to identify. In “Defense of the Poor Image,” filmmaker Hito Steyerl explains how the circulation of such unrefined footage “constructs anonymous global networks just as it creates a shared history. It builds alliances as it travels, provokes translation or mistranslation, and creates new publics and debates.” However, Lapid’s “poor images” fail to reflect the (mis)translations between Jewishness, indigeneity, or Blackness. As technical variations, they demonstrate Lapid’s particular deftness for referentiality, making use of a cinematic grammar associated with third-world insurgency to evoke Yoav’s sense of abjection. So too, read against Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, one can argue that Synonyms does not so much accentuate the racial alienation experienced by the Israeli Jew, as make oblique reference to Fanon’s conception of Blackness in order to enhance Lapid’s “post-Zionist” psychodrama.
The technical variations demonstrate Lapid’s particular deftness for referentiality, making use of a cinematic grammar associated with third-world insurgency to evoke Yoav’s sense of abjection.
Numerous aesthetic and narrative parallels between Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Lapid’s Synonyms suggest that Lapid replicates the Fanonian dramaturgy to render his post-Zionist identity crisis as a confrontation with his “race.” For example, after losing his job as a security guard at the Israeli embassy in Paris, Yoav takes to modelling and finds himself nude before the lens of a stereotypical French pervert’s iPad camera. Forced to project an image of exotic virility, with a finger up his rectum, Yoav painfully utters his first words in his native tongue: a paranoiac chant of the word zayin (Hebrew for “cock”). Shattering the covenant he made with himself never to utter a word in Hebrew for the rest of his life, this paroxysm not only strips him of his provisional Frenchness but also exposes him to the staggering truth of his abjection — an intransigent otherness ostensibly rooted in racialized flesh. This moment is the most explicit example of the film’s inversion of Fanon’s comparative critique of anti-Blackness and antisemitism. As the man’s iPad camera reduces and distills Yoav’s body, he is fixed, as Fanon describes it, at “the genital level.”
As viewers, we share the photographer’s secondary-witness perspective, which mediates Yoav’s existential confrontation with this figuratively racial alienation. A picture-in-picture close-up of Yoav’s penis, presented on-screen via the iPad, disrupts the film’s primary perspective (Yoav’s). In doing so, it forces a secondary identification with the gaze of white French fantasy that, in Fanonian terms, cuts through and produces the racialized body.
However, Lapid’s subjection of his cinematic self to the white French gaze does not, as Fanon described, “cut sections of [Yoav’s] reality,” nor does it reveal to Yoav the futility of his bids for integration. Rather, it merely functions as a peripeteia in Lapid’s structurally-sound psychodrama, which, unlike Fanon’s, remains faithful to the conventional psychoanalytic notions of alienation and integration. In other words, despite the film’s suggestive allusions to Fanon’s conception of Black racialization, Yoav can interpolate into the nation-state framework in ways Fanon cannot. Even when Yoav is perhaps perceived in a Fanonian sense as a biological other, his embodied abjection does not condemn him to the ontological status of Blackness. When read through a Fanonian lens, Synonyms seems to make use of Blackness as a mere metaphor, a rhetorical device that renders Yoav’s exilic pain legible on the body. Therein, Lapid reveals that his transcendental, imperial subjectivity masquerades beneath a Black mask.
iii. SCENES OF SELF REDEMPTION
But the question still remains: why and to what end does Lapid project himself (via Yoav) in the contours of a biological-racial other? What about his geographical origins or struggles with his military past lead to this suggestive conflation of Israeliness and Blackness? I ask these questions not to emphasize the incommensurability of comparative accounts of Black and Jewish racialization, but to consider how Lapid’s own critique of Israeli state violence makes use of this Black mask. Indeed, the verbal critique expressed by Yoav at the beginning of the film is a rather unexacting one, as he describes Israel through a series of French synonyms: “a state that is nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, fetid, crude, abominable, odious, lamentable, repugnant, detestable, meanspirited, mean-hearted.” Instead of definitively characterizing his feelings toward the state, this sprawling run of synonyms, clarifies that words alone fail to express the precise terms of Yoav’s lament.
A lamenting approach to the Israeli state is a familiar motif within Israeli cinema, often referred to by the expression “Shooting and Crying.” The incorporation of Israeli tears into visual and literary productions works to “[maintain] the nation’s self-image as youthful and innocent, along with its sense of vocation against the reality of war, [and] growing military violence,” according to Gil Hochberg. But beyond seeking to cleanse the individual Israeli Jew of accountability for Israeli militarism, a tearful aside also seeks to position the Israeli Jew as ethically and morally up to par with Western liberal sensibilities. And while most scholars agree that the age of “Shooting and Crying” has come to an end, one may read Synonyms as an attempt to salvage the “Shooting and Crying” script in service of Yoav’s personal redemption. Unlike its standard deployment as a subsidiary episode within a war drama, the lament Yoav expresses becomes the drama of the film itself. It is thus protracted and conjured most imminently in moments like the scene with the pervert wherein Yoav confronts the seemingly irremovable marks left on his body by the state of Israel. In effect, Lapid’s version of “Shooting and Crying” inscribes the cries of lament upon the Israeli body, suggesting that, more than internal torment, the Israeli Jew is quasi-racialized on account of Israel’s colonial violences and culture of militarism.
In figuring Israeliness as an embodied formation, Lapid simply substitutes one expression of contemporary liberal morality for another: anti-militarism for anti-racism. In other words, Lapid doesn’t reveal the idiosyncrasies of Israeli identity, but instead seems to offer Yoav’s abject body as a suggestive critique of Israel’s systemic course of racial oppression. What this implies is that a viable way to practice or express anti-racism is to claim some kind of racial equivalence with other vulnerable groups.
What this implies is that a viable way to practice or express anti-racism is to claim some kind of racial equivalence with other vulnerable groups.
In Scenes of Subjection (1997), Saidiya Hartman argues that abolitionist-produced blackface performances meant to cultivate white empathy ultimately “reiterated racial subjection, however much this subjection might provide a liberatory vehicle for white working class consciousness or a sense of white integrity and wholeness affected by the policing of racial boundaries.” Less than cleansing one of complicity in racial subjection, subsuming one’s consciousness into the body of the racially abject reinforces logics of racial superiority and designates the Black body as an insensate, “fungible” commodity for “white self-exploration, renunciation and enjoyment.” A similar logic underlies Lapid’s film, whereby the figurative Blackness attempts somehow to cleanse the Jew of his complicity in state violence in Israel-Palestine. But in collapsing Fanon’s distinctions between Blackness and Jewishness, the film relies on a thinly symbolic solidarity between Jews and other racialized groups on the basis of a shared sense of embodied abjection.
In the past several months, many American Jews have sought to enact solidarity with Black and brown people facing police violence by drawing parallels between histories of antisemitism and police brutality in the present. Others, in a more self-flagellating manner, sought to uplift voices of Mizrahi, Sephardi, and other Jews of color marginalized in so-called “Ashkenormative” spaces — failing to address how societal racial dynamics cannot be isolated and worked out within the confines of Jewish communities. These efforts reflect a flawed notion that the racial or ethnic identity of Jews confirms (or denies) their viability for solidarity. Not only does the conflation of Jewishness and Blackness in the film and at the base of these solidarity efforts disregard the incommensurable differences between antisemitic and anti-Black violence. It also relieves Jews from any ongoing complicity in white supremacist governance within and beyond the context of Israel-Palestine. These gestures make use of Black bodies and suffering as vessels for white introspection and accentuate an aporia: the strategic representation of Jews as racialized victims verifies progressive Jewish postures against contemporary structures of white supremacy; at the same time, these Jews remain invested in these structures of oppression.
iv. ETHNIC PHANTASMAGORIA
Synonyms is not an isolated example of this strategic, self-racializing act. It fits within a greater project that endeavors to ventriloquize the debate around Jewish race and ethnicity by and through the Israeli body. The most recent incarnation includes the self-Orientalizing aesthetics practiced via Israeli propaganda. These modes of “ethnic-washing” are tactically designed to conceal the race war within the Israeli state and foster imperialist coalitions between the Jewish state and other West-aligned governments in the Arab world. Read together, both Lapid’s film and Israel’s ethnicity-embracing propaganda demonstrate how the representational uses of Blackness and the appropriation of Indigenous identification work to subtend contemporary white Jewish identity within and beyond the borders of the state of Israel.
“Brown-washing” or “Mizrahi-washing” reflect a deliberate political endeavor to use ethno-nationalist myths of Jewish belonging within the Israeli-Palestinian landscape to conceal the course of Israeli settler-colonialism. Thinking along the dividing lines of Israeli and diasporic Jewish identity, Hochberg points out that Israeli brown-washing “abuses the historically ambivalent position of the Jew in the West as the not-white-not-quite and the Orientalized modern biblical iconography of the Israelites as prototype Orientals and Semites to create a narrative of present day political hallucination, according to which, Jews are the colonized natives fighting for their land.” However, one must also consider how these “hallucinatory” logics play out beyond their tactical political mobilizations. That is, one must consider what Fanon might have conceived of as the individual’s pathological desire to un-whiten, or perhaps in his terms, to hallucinatorily ethnicize.
Consider the popularized Bedouin experience tours in the Naqab region of Israel-Palestine, which purport to foster intercultural dialogue between Jews and native populations by having visitors role-play as indigenous peoples. Or the archaeological digging adventures which deputize tourists into the subject-position of the Orientalist in search of artifactual or totemic connections to ancient worlds and primordial cultures. These rehearsals of phantasmic colonialist encounters, whereby the roles of the natives and the colonizers too often coagulate, work less to flavor Israeli culture than to edify the non-Israeli Jew’s conscription into a Western imperialist imaginary. Indeed, Black feminist scholars like bell hooks remind us that such fantasies of encounters with the “Other” are constituent of “the deep structure of white supremacy.” In her essay “Eating the Other” (1992), hooks explains that “when race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of the dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other.”
In this light, homeland or heritage tourism reveals the performative dimensions of the ethno-nationalist character of the state of Israel, as the state transforms itself into an amusement park where Jews can retrogress and “go native” for a week or two before returning back to safety in the West. Beyond reproducing the colonialist trope of the noble savage under the ruse of cross-cultural dialogue, the participatory performances beckoned by Israeli tourism designate the Palestinian landscape and native body as penetrable sites for pleasure and self-exploration. Read in dialogue with such performances of self-ethnicization, Israeli “brown-washing” or “Mizrahi-washing” mark not only state marketing tactics, but the satiation of the non-Israeli white Zionist’s appetite for racial consumption. More than functionally occluding the state’s legally codified racial hierarchies, Israeli “ethnic-washing” also works to further cleave and color the dividing line between Israeli andnon-Israeli Jews: the non-Israeli Jew is whitened by their interpolation into the imperialist imaginary, while the Israeli Jew is deliberately ethnicized as they remain confined to the atavistic ethno-nation.
But as Lapid’s film has shown, the ethnicization of the Israeli Jewish body and landscape does not only satiate white Jewish desires for racial consumption. Rather, his broadsides about the “fetid state” reveal how the appropriation of the racially oppressed’s grammars of suffering works to service self-fulfilling fantasies of anti-racist or anti-colonial redemption. Both Israeli “ethnic-washing” and Lapid’s figurative use of Blackness thereby reflect two different expressions of a similar will to hallucinatorily ethnicize.
v. BEYOND RACE AND ETHNICITY
If Israel’s projected ethnic or racial national character mediates the terms of Jewish collective identity, then what do we make of contemporary instances of antisemitic violence that seem to mobilize antisemitic logics that predate Israel’s establishment and Western Jews’ inclusion into racial whiteness? What is misrepresented when antisemitic violence around the globe is read simply —all too simply — as ethnically or racially motivated? If Jewish self-ethnicization or self-racialization serves as a means to conceal Israeli violence or, inversely, to detach oneself from Zionism in a self-purifying manner, how can we conceptualize an affirmatively anti-racist and anti-imperialist Jewish collectivity disentangled from Israel’s racecraft?
What both Synonyms and Zionist “ethnic-washing” reflect, then, are serious hurdles to the prospects of enacting such a disjunction of Jewish identity and Zionism: both obscure the terms of Jewish identity in order to obfuscate Jewish implication in racial regimes in Israel and the West. Both render what Ella Shohat calls “cross-figures” (e.g. the Arab-Jew, Black-Jew, etc.) absent if not leveraged or propagandized for claims of Western imperial belonging in Palestine. Both demonstrate how recognizing the internal diversity of Jews holds little social or political utility beyond a secularist Zionist or anti-Zionist debate.
The latent embrace of one’s ethnic difference doesn’t necessarily endow one with a decolonized or more ethically-sound understanding of one’s cultural history. Nor does it inherently enable a deeper knowledge of contemporary racial and ethnic dynamics in the West. I can speak from my own attempts to reclaim my Syrian Jewish identity from what I saw as my myopic Orthodox community. Such acts of reclamation, more often than not, reflect one’s efforts to accede to a secularist discourse of racial justice and human rights — one that isn’t as easily corrigible with histories of Jewish oppression as one might think. As thinkers within Black and Native Studies have shown us, such discourses cannot relate to cultural or theological notions of collectivity, unity, and kinship endemic to many ethnic and racial minority groups. So too, the secularist nomenclatures of race and ethnicity cannot possibly coalesce such variegated histories, cultural and religious practices, and geographical origins of global Jewry.
Such acts of reclamation reflect one’s efforts to accede to a secularist discourse of racial justice and human rights — one that isn’t as easily corrigible with histories of Jewish oppression as one might think.
To be clear, this critique doesn’t deny the political and epistemological efficacy of the hybridized identity markers famously explored by scholars like Shohat, whose reclamation of the term Arab-Jew sought to challenge Eurocentric apprehensions of Jewish cultural history and confound the differentiated terms of citizenship and belonging to which Jews and Palestinians are subject within Israel. Rather, I mean to caution against the dangers of instrumentalizing such notions to bolster claims about global Jewry’s ethnic character and to consider the political charge that is missing when such interventions are strategically co-opted by the Israeli nation-state.
As such, it seems that what we are dealing with isn’t an imbroglio of Jewish racial or ethnic identity, but the riddling permutations of Jewish collectivity in the aftermath of centuries of subjection to secularizing, Enlightenment ideologies. The Israeli state and its cultural projects are but self-effacing solutions to this ongoing crisis of Jewish subjection. The re-figuring of the Israeli Jew as ethnic or raced forces Jews globally to concede to what Gil Anidjar calls “the anti-Semitism of Zionism,” which, as he exlains in Semites (2008), “strives to bring to its conclusion the ahistoric (non)existence of the ‘exilic’ Jew, be he the Oriental, Mizrahi, Jew or…Ostjude.” Presently, however, instead of disappearing the exilic ethnic Jew, Zionism incorporates him into the diversity of Israeli society.
In that sense, the attempt to unify Jews through an ethnic inscription reflects not a shared quest to find a pre-Zionist essence, but the self-objectifying, anthropological mining for a Jewish unity that would uncritically conform to Eurocentric constructions of peoplehood and nation. And though the celebration of ethnic and racial diversity within Jewish communities might seem redemptive, especially for Jews of non-European descent who feel stymied by what is popularly known as “Ashkenormativity,” the perils of this spurious project outweigh its reward. So long as Jewish collectivity is obscured under the terms of secularist, Eurocentric thought, Jews in the West will continue to toggle the terms of their Jewish identity to the now ostensibly ethnic and racially-diverse Zionist state. As a result, in efforts to establish strong anti-racist coalitions, those who claim global Jewry’s racialized diversity fail to make proper distinction between a quasi-racialized form of antisemitism and the forms of oppression faced by other racial and ethnic groups. Instead, inscriptions of Jewish ethnic or racial difference trace upon the metonymic Israeli body to characterize Israel’s exceptionally diverse and democratic state.
In doing so, the Zionist project creates a convenient route for white Jews supportive of Israel to claim susceptibility to racially or ethnically-motivated (qua antisemitic) violence, while simultaneously leaving their implication in racial whiteness unquestioned. This route complicates the prospect of an international anti-racist coalition between white Jews and non-white people, and confounds the solidarity brokered between Black, Brown, and Indigenous Jews and their anti-racist comrades. Those who explicitly identify as Arab-Jews or Jews of Color, etc., increasingly risk counterintuitively feeding the self-ethnicizing agenda of the state. As Israel’s self-ethnicizing project progressively requires one to use identity as either an affirmation or disavowal of Zionism, one can only end up muddling one’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist solidarity efforts. The Jew as an ethnic or racial category inherently produces a double-bind.
A stable yet polymorphic concept of Jewish collectivity must not predicate itself on Jewish suffering’s exceptionality nor irresponsibly homologize Jewishness with Blackness or indigeneity. Instead, it requires us to go beyond projecting ethnic or racial difference toward examining Jewish alterity historically and in relation to other racialized and indigenous subjectivities and groups. Perhaps, in retreating from our modern approaches to the study of Jewish history, liturgy, and identity, which squeeze the Jewish collectivity into secular anthropological categories it inevitably exceeds, we can glean a Jewishness that is always-already bound in inter-communal struggle against racist, imperialist, and secularist forces. Only then can one’s Jewishness serve as actionable premises for deeper, more effective forms of solidarity against the tireless structures of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and settler-colonialism. If not, we not only compromise the future for which we strive, we risk losing ourselves in the throes of our own disguise.