exile on jew street

by tobybee

My friend, Kate O’Halloran, has just had an article published in Cherrie about the murders of two young people in the LGBT centre in Tel Aviv. She has produced a really interesting, relevant and – hopefully – challenging take on what happened. Kate writes that

Hate crimes in Tel Aviv are not all homophobically motivated, and not always just between Jew and Jew. The city has seen the assassination of an Israeli Prime Minister and several suicide attacks from mostly militant Palestinian groups. With the deaths of Nir Katz and Liz Trobishi (a 16-year-old girl who was the second victim of the attack), tens of thousands of protestors descended upon the city and listened as Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the crowd. “All people were created in God’s image,” Peres said, “and all citizens have equal rights. All men are born equal, and every citizen has the right to be who he is – to be free and proud.” To leave aside for a moment the way ‘people’ quickly become ‘men’, his words seem sincere and suggest God’s acceptance of homosexuality.

As prominent (secular) Jewish queer scholar and activist Joan Nestle writes, however, “the hate speech directed against Palestinian civilians on a daily basis by the settlers and others – which engenders no outrage on the part of the Prime Minister of Israel – makes his words hollow. If prominent figures like the Israeli President and Prime Minister can condemn homophobic violence, why not the oppression of the Palestinian people? If Charedi newspapers can publish stories on the murders caused by suicide bombings, why not the Tel Aviv shootings, which no more or less constitute the murder of fellow Jews?”

Fairly or unfairly, it seems to an outsider that to be Jewish is to be familiar with the feeling of being exiled and unwelcome from prominent sections of the community; to understand what it means to be marginalised. Perhaps as a result of this, Jewish people are to be expected to be particularly empathetic when it comes to the plight of other minorities, especially within the Jewish community itself. It is interesting in this respect how Tel Aviv has become a literal space in which minorities fight (each other) for acceptance and recognition. This occurs on several layers. Aside from obvious conflicts at a broader level (Palestinian-Israeli, Queer-Ultra-Orthodox) this competitive space has significant implications at an individual and personal level. As Nestle writes, “to be a Jew is to be different [and] to be a different kind of Jew, to be an anti-Zionist kind of Jew is to be marked by loss.”

For Nestle, her experience of being exiled derives not only from her Jewish identity, but her identification as a lesbian, a non-secular Jew, and an anti-Zionist Jew. As an anti-Zionist she exacts the kind of empathy for another minority one might expect from a member of a traditionally marginalised group, but this kind of empathetic transference is unfortunately not necessarily the norm, as illustrated in the example of the Israeli Prime-Minister, or Charedi news.

As Joan’s case iterates, minorities are not mutually exclusive. There are many ways in which Jewish people become ‘different’ Jews. To identify as anything other than heterosexual is certainly one, and one that sadly sets you apart, whether you are Jewish or not. What does it mean to be a ‘different’ Jew – to be an exile – both as a minority and within one?

It’s such an important point that both Joan and Kate are making – that there are minorities within minorities; that hegemonies are formulated against so many of us in so many ways; and that being marginal and exiled comes in many, many forms. But, in the end, I’d rather be marginal to so much of what goes on. I realised this afternoon that, for me, anxiety about my place in the world arises not from the fear of being marginal, but from the fear of being dominant. So check out the rest of Kate’s piece (and not just because she also quotes me in it… I’m pretty excited to be in the same article as Joan Nestle!!)