We, the Chosen People

5 Feb

I was once asked whether I was Jew first or an American first. It wasn’t meant as an accusation. This was not some House subcommittee on loyalty and patriotism. This was just someone asking out of curiosity. In fact, I’ve been asked this same question a few times in my life, though not nearly as directly as, “Are you a Jew first or an American first?” It’s a unique query. One will rarely ask someone if they place their Methodism or Americanism at the forefront of their identity. However, I could also imagine that a question like, “Are you a Quebecois first or a Canadian first?” might elicit a debate on par with those between the Talmudic Rabbis Hillel and Shammai.

The issue I was given – the issue that many are presented with – was choosing between two different identities. But there are several mistakes in the question of “Jew or American?” First, is the idea that somehow these two positions are in opposition to one another. Most who ask this question do not believe that Jewishness and Americanness are enemies. Rather, these people are students of history and remember that we’ve been kicked out of plenty of places where we once felt safe. In pre-WWII Germany, Jews were assimilated similarly to how we are in contemporary America – prosperous, mostly secular, and seemingly at ease with their non-Jewish neighbors. Hence, the question is not “Are you a Jew first or an American first?” but “Do you trust the history of your people or do you trust the umpteenth country in which your people have felt safe and secure?” The question is not who I identify with more now, but rather who I will identify with once the inevitable finally arrives.

This, however, presupposes an inevitable. More about that below.

The second mistake contained within the “Jew or American,” question is that these are merely two aspects of any person’s identity. One’s race, sex, sexual orientation, occupation, marital situation, hobbies all serve to craft a unique individual. Some are matters of choice; others are consigned by one’s birth. One can easily ask someone if they are gay first or a Mormon first. A woman or a Muslim? A black man or a Republican? These can seem comically extreme, but they all serve as examples of divergent identities which may seem more at odds than Jewish or American. In fact, any feminist who is also an adherent to the orthodoxy of any of the three major Western religions has to rationalize the fact that women cannot be priests, rabbis, or imams.

Let’s take another extreme example. How do Jews discuss Israel? (Oh boy, here we go…, but don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.)

If an American Jew believes that the State of Israel has the right to exist, does he believe this way because of his Jewishness? Or would he believe differently if he were a New England Presbyterian or a Southern Baptist? Is a Jew who criticizes the state of Israel a self-hater, a traitor to his people? Or does it make this person brave for standing up for what he believes in regardless of his heritage?

One thing I hear constantly from Israelis is that as an American Jew who has not lived in Israel, has not been in the army, has not gone through what they have gone through, that I don’t have a say in the affairs of that nation. This is partly true: I’m an American, not an Israeli. I can complain about Israeli policies, just like I can complain about Russian policies or Ugandan policies. But I don’t get a vote over there. Yet, when I am told that I cannot complain, I am also admonished that as a Jew I should defend Israel. So I am only allowed to have a voice regarding Israel if it is a positive one?

But I don’t want to make this about Israel. I’ve discussed that nation previously here and there. I’m sure I will again sometime soon. I am not an Israeli. I’m a Jew. And an American. And a bunch of other things, but like a Gordian Knot, my cultural DNA is so complexly intertwined that I cannot tell where one part of my identity begins and another ends.


When Bernie Madoff was arrested, the very first thought that went through my mind was, “Oh, please don’t let him be Jewish.” Not that he was the lone criminal that fucked over the economy during the last 10+ years. But he was going to be the one who got all the attention. He would be portrayed as a monster on the pages of respected publications, and with my people’s luck, it’d be something like this:

Madoff - NY Mag

Even the Joker thinks Madoff went too far.


Madoff - Devil

Or less respected publications

And damn if he doesn’t look just like every Jew’s worst nightmare. It didn’t matter that very few people made him out to be “Bernie Madoff, Jew.” We Jews did. He didn’t represent all the stereotypes that our people have been stigmatized with. He lived and breathed them. Money grubbing, greedy, manipulative, his fingers in all the pies. Jew Banker! Jew Banker! Jew Banker! So what if he stole money from Jews and Jewish charities?

Madoff elicited in many Jews a Pavlovian reaction that has been bred within us for centuries. On a conscious, day-to-day level we can go about our business, live our lives, be happy with our families. We can be prominent in our respective professions, well-liked, well-thought-of. And then Bernie Fucking Madoff comes along to remind us of all the stereotypes that have been heaped upon us. And even if there is no anti-Semitism, even where no Gentile mentions “that damned Jew, Bernie Madoff,” we see it. We assume it to be there, because isn’t it always there? Aren’t the Jews the greatest scapegoats in the world? Is that what God chose for us? “You will be a chosen people (for grief and suffering, but also really moist brisket) amongst the children of man. Sorry ‘bout that, boychick.”

Freud could’ve had a field day with us. We, who keep suffering trauma after trauma throughout our history, exile following exile, pogroms, blood libels, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, Mel Gibson, the whole deicide thing, the Holocaust, and now we’re hated because of Israel, even if we don’t all uniformly defend Israel. Hell, even our holidays commemorate our persecution/end of persecution. Passover is the freedom from slavery. Hanukkah, the defeat of our oppressors. Purim, the defeat of our almost-oppressors. We are like a person being bullied, picked upon, beat up, humiliated from childhood through adulthood. We’ve been through this so many times, we just expect another punch thrown our way.


My response to the question, “Are you a Jew first or an American first” for a long time was a cheeky “Neither.” (Though by describing it as cheeky, I’m probably a Brit first.) I would continue: “I am a human being and I’m me. I am a unique individual who lives within the totality of the human race.” Or something like that. It’s very clever. And it sounds awfully noble, and totally pretentious. Yet, I firmly believe that if we could look at each other as human beings first rather than any manner of sliced and diced ethnicities, religions, sexes, etc., we’d probably be in far better shape. Is this a naïve “give peace a chance, can’t we all get along, stop hatin’, start lovin’” philosophy. Yes, and that’s why it’s an ideal and not an actuality. People love to slice and dice. We love to find the differences in others because part of each of us is a bully and a snob, someone who needs to stigmatize just to feel better about oneself.


To answer the question of “Can it happen in America?” It, of course, being Holocaust, Part II or something akin to it. My answer is: sure, of course it could. Anything could basically happen anywhere. Do I think it will? Not really. There will always be hate crimes: swastikas on synagogues and the like. Just like there will always be racism and bigotry in general. We can never get over that, as Americans or as humans. There will always be assholes, just like there will always be menches who will try to undo what the assholes started.

Some would say that I’m naïve to believe that America is a safe haven for Jews. I mean, haven’t I learned anything from history? My response is that at some point we have to stop always thinking the worst is going to happen to us. It’s difficult, though. Pessimism is an inherently Jewish trait. Oy, here we go again. A roll of the eyes and pack the bags and let’s get to Greenland where they’ll never look for us. But it’s not just pessimism that we feel. It’s a resigned sense of potential victimhood. There are plenty of Jews I know who don’t just think it may happen here but that in fact it will. “Jacob,” they say to me, “when America turns against the Jews…” and off to the races they go. They sound no saner than Tea Party survivalists who’ve spent their life savings on a bunker, cans of corn, and guns ‘n ammo for when Commandant Obama decides to death panel them.

And to those who tell me that support for Israel is paramount because “if something happens in America, we will always have a place to go to in Israel,” I say: oh, really? Without the threat of American retaliation, what prevents Israel’s more hostile neighbors from ganging up and going all in?

In fact, I propose that instead of Israel, America is more of a promised land for Jews. The issue we as a people – be it as a religion, a “race,” a culture, or an ethnicity – has struggled with for centuries is being viewed as outsiders, manipulators in worldly affairs, a group whose influence is vastly disproportionate to our numbers. What many of us have always dreamed of is not to be separate from others, but to live together with non-Jews. No one wants to be singled out as different, to be stigmatized and ostracized by one’s neighbors. Assimilation – that greatly misunderstood word – is the dream of the less religious amongst us. We will always be Jews – not Jews first, not Jews last, just Jews. And if some want to think the worst of their neighbors, let them, but they will get little sympathy from me. For me, it’s never been Jew or American, it’s been Jew and American. 

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