The Battle for Jewish Identity

Shortly after the 2020 election, the NYC branch of the United Against Racism and Fascism campaign (UARF) wallpapered the borough Gavin Mario Wax had just moved to. The New York-based right-wing activist shot to fame defending Trump’s brand of nationalist populism in the state’s GOP circles, and the UARF paper signs set Wax’s politics athwart his Jewishness by labeling him a “white supremacist.” When a left-leaning Jewish activist affixed him the same label on Twitter, Wax offered a familiar reply, posting a picture of him donning tefillin and labeling his accuser a “Jew in name only” (JINO), a term Ben Shapiro popularized in 2015.

These fault lines within American Judaism—and many more—are the subject of Emily Tamkin’s new book, Bad Jews (2022). Over the course of the tome, they reveal the uniquely contested nature of Jewishness, unearthing the myriad interpretations and renderings by Jews who not only may fail to see eye to eye on their identity’s content, but may even resent one another’s lifestyle and religious choices. The book begins with an admission of bias. A senior US editor at the British magazine The New Statesman, Tamkin didn’t go to Hebrew school, does not speak the language, is raising her kids Jewish but is married to a non-Jew, and had never been to Israel before her trip to report parts of the book. Her 307-page contribution to this ongoing debate amounts to a complex history of American Judaism weaved through different events of the past 100 years to arrive at the deadpan conclusion that the “one truth of American Jewish identity is that it can never be pinned down.” Other identities are often open to personalistic appropriation and partisan weaponization. The problem is compounded in Judaism’s case, however, by two layers Tamkin parses out: identity (whether I consider myself Jewish) and belonging (whether other Jews approve), both of which are in crisis.

The book is structured as a survey of nine different facets of America’s Jewish community, construed as nine separate chapter-length periods in its development. It begins with Jews arriving in large numbers over the second half of the nineteenth century, primarily as pogrom refugees from the Russian empire. Tamkin thereby omits the roughly 2,000 Sephardic Jews who had struck root in the early days of the Republic, and who were seen as no more alien than the Anglo-American settler communities in whose midst they lived. Jewish immigrants, however, “conceived of themselves as Americans of a different faith, and that was all,” Tamkin tells us. They did, however, adhere to radical ideologies in greater numbers than natives: “Some in power now saw them not as a set of people who adhered to certain religious beliefs but rather as a group of potential radicals and revolutionaries, which in turn attracted negative government attention.”

This comes to a head in the next chapter on “White and Red Jews” where, amidst the postwar bonanza and the progressive suburbanization of vast swathes of the Jewish community, some Jews, like Ethnel and Julius Rosenberg, got caught up in the dragnet of Cold War politics, whilst most of the rest welcomed the state of Israel as a new feature of their identity: “[A]s American Jews moved out to the suburbs,” writes Tamkin, “Zionism moved to the core of their politics.” This evinces a paradox in the next chapter about “Zionist Jews,” too: “American Jews wanted a Jewish homeland, but most did not want to make that land their home.” That paradox lives on to this day, with American Jews largely supportive of Israel’s existence but not of the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, a chasm that is deepening further with the latest round of protests against the Israeli PM’s proposed reform of the judiciary.

France’s last election showed that the tectonics underneath Jewish politics had begun to shift, not unlike in America.

The following chapter, “Civil Rights Jews,” draws on a paradox of its own. Whilst many liberal Jews were prominent allies of the African-American fight for civic equality in the 1960s, the seeds of much of today’s left-wing antisemitism were planted within that same movement, with Jews portrayed not as an ethnic minority struggling for parity but as a fully white community abetting the oppression of dark-skinned Americans. Tamkin then leaps to “Right-Wing Jews,” the cadre of so-called neoconservative thinkers who soured on Great Society liberalism after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967.

The next chapter, “Laboring Jews,” surveys the Jewish presence across the world of finance and philanthropy, portraying such figures as George Soros, on whom Tamkin published an earlier book, and Bernie Madoff. The presence in America of Jews from countries that repressed them, from the Soviet Union to Iran, is the topic of the next chapter, “Refugee Jews.” And lastly, Tamkin reflects, in the two final chapters on “This Land is Your Land Jews” and “Pushing Jews,” on the simmering conflict at the core of Jewish identity between the embrace of universalistic “Jewish” values and the parochial defense of a particular identity, and the clash between the two over recent years in America.

The other factor playing into Jewishness’ shifting contours is a clash between universal values termed “Jewish” (often coterminous with “Islamic” or “Christian” values) and the more parochial attachment to fellow Jews and Israel. The tension is not exclusive to America. In fact, it has erupted in Israel perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, with opponents to Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed reforms to the Israeli judiciary siding with Israel’s self-description as a “democratic” state rather than a “Jewish” one. The tension is playing out in France, too, which made Jews full-fledged citizens in the same year America did—1789—makes for a revealing example. Ever since, French Jewish groups have mostly devoted themselves to progressive causes.

Founded to tackle antisemitism and racism in the same breath, the Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme (LICRA) rose in 1927 to defend a gun-toting anarchist who had taken revenge, in the streets of Paris, on a Ukrainian nationalist he blamed for inciting a pogrom back home. Having suffered the brunt of the nationalist right’s obsession with racial purity, Jewish luminaries thought their active involvement against all forms of hatred would shine a light on other minorities. These days, when it isn’t defending Israel from anti-Zionist slanders or advocating for Holocaust remembrance, the powerful Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF)—the community’s main fora—supports whichever candidate is flanked by the extremes.

France’s last election, however, showed that the tectonics underneath Jewish politics had begun to shift, not unlike in America. Long neglected by officials who had allowed antisemitism to fester in the banlieues by allowing large-scale Muslim immigration into them, many of the low-income Jews those immigrants displaced cast their ballots for Éric Zemmour in 2022, if exit polls from voters in Israel are any indication (France forbids data by ethnic or racial origin). Largely immigrants themselves who had come from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco upon those countries’ independence in the 1960s, these French-speaking Sephardic Jews viewed Zemmour as the last bulwark against Islamisation, even as they lamented his refusal to display his Jewishness more outwardly.

Though halachically Jewish, Zemmour is of the assimilationist variant. Born to a family of Algerian pied-noirs, he incarnates a long-gone ethos of assimilation into France’s mainstream by suppressing one’s subnational identity. This trend finds parallels in America, where Kelly Torrance chronicled for RealClearBooks a “Jewish political realignment” back in January. Trump’s share of the Jewish vote reached 30% in 2020, with several House wins assumed to have hinged on lifelong Jewish Democrats switching to Republican.

Ultimately, the growing fractures and deepening fissures among American Jews revolve around two issues that seem distinct but are in fact deeply intertwined: Israel’s future and antisemitism’s rise. A liberal Jew who welcomed Israel’s birth in 1948 without so much as pledging to relocate would have been hard-pressed, at the time, to envision how the state’s future trajectory would come to impact his life in America. Yet today, every new settlement in the West Bank, every kerfuffle between the Israeli army and Palestinians, and every statement by the religious Zionist component of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government feeds into America’s perception of the Jewish phenomenon and correspondingly alters the politics surrounding the question in a way left uncovered by Tamkin in Bad Jews.

Is Judaism diasporic by necessity? Or does Zionism compel Jews to make aliyah if they wish to continue living as such? How should the diaspora relate to Israel’s theocratic and nationalist drift? However much criticism of Israel one tolerates before considering it a sign of Jew-hatred—a determination Tamkin eludes in Bad Jews—the fate of Israel is more than ever intertwined with that of American Jews. Those construing Jewishness as simply the adherence to universal values have yet to reckon with that fact.