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Bones of Joseph
Letter From Tel Aviv
My old friend Joe Schwartz was an avowed secularist and New York City lawyer before deciding rather abruptly that he had a calling to become a rabbi, which he went on to do. Later during covid and under the pressure that the Black Lives Matter movement was exerting on American Jewry to abjure white supremacy by joining the struggle against Israel, he made a similarly abrupt decision to persist as a Zionist in the land of Israel. What follows is a memoiristic justification of this fateful choice. First published on my much smaller Patreon account in October 2020, it is an engaging contribution to the personal accounts of ideological succession in its various guises as it wends its way through the vocational and confessional strata of American society that I have been publishing on this venue.
By Joseph Schwartz
וַיַּשְׁבַּע יוֹסֵף אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה׃
And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying,
“God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.”
Hakol ma’alin l’eretz yisrael v’ein hakol motzi’in — “Either spouse has the legal power to compel the other to ascend to the Land of Israel; and neither has the power to compel the other to leave the Land of Israel.” Thus ends the tractate on marriage in the Mishna, the 3rd century corpus of rabbinic law. Enshrined in law here is the principle that there is relocating, and then there’s aliya — ascent — the Hebrew term reserved for moving to the Land of Israel (the final words of the Hebrew Bible belong to King Cyrus, inviting faithful Jews in exile to return home: “Let everyone whose God is with him ascend!”). One can ascend on one’s own initiative, or one can be compelled by one’s spouse to ascend.
I was not opposed; we have entertained aliya for years. But I was a passive participant in this process.
Still in the first few months of the pandemic — both of us half out of our minds from entertaining and educating our two young children as they slowly came undone — my wife anticipated that come fall there would be no in-person school in Brooklyn. The mismanagement, the mixed messages, and the general indifference to the day-to-day needs of working parents, to say nothing of their children, that from the beginning has marked the U.S.’s response to the pandemic would not improve. In March, a video went viral (even winning coverage in the New York Times), of a young Israeli mother of four on the second day of “distance learning” complaining about its absurdity (“All day long his teachers are asking, ‘How’s the boy feeling?’ Ask how I’m feeling! I’m falling apart!”). Pressure like this might have contributed to Israel’s premature reopening in May, which began with schools. As it turned out, this would be the first in a series of hasty, even reckless decisions on the part of the Israeli government, leading to a massive spike in infections that, by September, would necessitate a second shutdown. But of course, we couldn’t know that then.
The process of availing ourselves of the Law of Return, which extends Israeli citizenship as of right to any Jew that requests it, was onerous, made worse by Covid: The offices which issue official documents were running on reduced hours, and birth certificates and marriage licenses and FBI criminal background checks had not only to be submitted but apostilled; the Jewish Agency, which manages aliya applications, was overrun with applicants. And of course, our children were never out of her sight. And yet, single-handedly, my wife — while working as an attorney — managed to complete our application swiftly — while also finding us an apartment in Tel Aviv, zoned for one of the best-ranked schools in the city. Our application was approved in late July; on August 12 we flew and immediately entered a mandatory two-week, strict period of isolation (in a spacious AirBnB my wife also arranged from home). We moved then into our apartment in the New North neighborhood of Tel Aviv and, on the first day of September, our children (aged nearly 4 and 7) left for their first day of school.
So I did not ascend to the Land of Israel on my own initiative; rather, in the language of the Mishna, my wife compelled me hither, or (as Exodus would have it) bore me on eagles’ wings, and our children along with us. Thus the title of these dispatches: Like my namesake, my old bones were carried up from exile. It is a melancholy thing to make aliya as a middle-aged man, to heed a call belatedly. But I am happy finally to have come.
On the first day of school, my wife and I looked at one another across the kitchen counter in the silent house — alone together for the first time since March — and laughed aloud. We had done it. She had done it.
It didn’t last long. We enjoyed three weeks of school and time alone to ourselves in a kind of golden haze, ignoring the news that Covid cases were spiking. Already in September, Israel emerged as the world leader in per-capita infections. The Corona Czar, a gynecologist by the name of Gamzu, called for government action, but the government dithered. Gamzu proposed a so-called “stop light” approach, ranking each municipality by the rate of infection (red, yellow or green) and calibrating restrictions on that basis. But the red zones were all ultra-orthodox and Arab enclaves, and the ultra-orthodox ministers in Bibi’s government balked. Meanwhile, protests outside of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem swelled to the thousands and the diverse grievances settled on a single message: Bibi, resign! Eventually, and hastily, Netanyahu adopted the worst of all possible options: A complete shutdown, the second since Covid struck, to begin on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishrei packed with the holidays. A lockdown of all customer-facing businesses and severe limitations on movement, but with so many loopholes and so vaguely defined that no one expected it to achieve much but further economic devastation.
The press reported that Bibi’s true motive in belatedly imposing the measure was to put an end to the nightly din outside his residence. If that was indeed his purpose, he badly miscalculated: No longer able to congregate in Jerusalem, protesters have now multiplied across the country, gathering by the highways and in heavily trafficked intersections bearing signs reading “GO!” The lockdown is universally despised; signs hang in the windows saying “Political Lockdown” and “No Forgiveness.” The police — far rougher here, in general, than they are in the U.S. — were deployed, and social media was full of videos of protesters trampled by mounted officers, violent headlocks and other abuses — more fuel for outrage. The police, we are told, are Bibi’s enforcers. The other night, as I sat on my balcony, sirens rang out in the otherwise hushed city, as police made their way to the squares and from there to the holding cells.
And yet now, as the month of Tishrei comes to a close, in all areas besides ultra-orthodox enclaves, the daily infection rate has fallen to the benchmarks established at the outset. And so, as of Sunday, the lockdown is being cautiously lifted: Our daughter will return to preschool, and our son will return to second grade either next week or the week following. Throughout Tishrei, whether this was prudent or not, the playgrounds here have remained open, and the beach, while officially closed, has been full of children and families. (There are, however, without any apparent internal logic or consistency, occasional fines issued and arrests made on the beaches, and over the loudspeakers issue stern warnings that swimming is strictly forbidden. We splash around and ignore them. Understanding which rules and laws to observe and which to defy is, I suppose, an essential part of acclimating to any new society). My son has playdates with his new classmates, and in our quiet corner of the city, when the late afternoon breeze blows and parents (masked, of course) sit on benches on the sidewalk gossiping and laughing, it’s hard to remember that Israel is in the throes of a terrible political crisis.
I confess, as well, some grim satisfaction on my part as I read of a second wave of Covid now slowly making its way through Europe and the U.S. and they, too, face the prospect of another shutdown. The temptation to view infection rates as a measure of the moral health of a society has afflicted pundits from the beginning. In July, Thomas Chatterton Williams contrasted France’s ability to contain the virus with the mayhem in the U.S., and attributed the U.S.’s comparative failure to its failed “political system and way of life”. Yet now that France is clocking 20,000 and Paris is under curfew, with President Macron weighing a total lockdown, we are told that blame rests with the French “attachment to summer holidays, young people’s exuberance in going out and partying” and “a lack of vigilance in wearing masks and social distancing.” The same has been true of Israel: When Israel seemed at first to have conquered the disease, Israelis congratulated themselves on their grit, resilience and sense of social responsibility; since the second wave hit, the press is full of stories of a dysfunctional civil society. The atavistic inclination to view illness as a consequence of immorality does not bear reasoned scrutiny. It turns out that this disease tests all free societies, demanding that we balance many legitimate competing interests; and I’m not willing to condemn entire societies (or communities) on the basis of relative R numbers.
So while it has been disappointing to begin our time as new immigrants here largely confined to quarters, I am not willing to say it was a mistake. Covid and schools were perhaps uppermost in our minds when we decided to make aliya, but there are deeper reasons we felt we had to leave, and deeper reasons for coming here.
As to the leaving: It was not, in the end, Trump’s mismanagement of the Covid crisis, nor the prospect of his reelection in November, nor even what I consider to be the very real possibility of political violence this winter, that confirmed me in our decision to leave. It was, rather, the protests that erupted in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and the great lurch leftward that followed. Until then, it had been possible for a Jew like myself — liberal in temperament and politics, committed to Jewish life, to the Jewish people and the flourishing of both — to more or less ignore the discourse to my left, and the way an American obsession with race had begun to derange the Jewish community.
For a number of years, op-eds had been appearing in liberal Jewish publications superimposing the American racial discourse onto American Jews: Jews, we were made to understand, may not always have counted as “white,” but by the post-War period had successfully assimilated into American white society. And thus today, the argument runs, Jews benefit from the privilege that attends whiteness. This was the argument, but it was rare, however, that anyone demanded to know what I thought about it, or about the political implications flowing from it. I held my peace and my fairly anodyne liberal Zionist views without encountering much strife.
All of this changed in June. It began to become clear that discreet silence would no longer be tolerated, and we must each of us at long last accept our whiteness, and make a declaration of it in public. (Indeed, only last week, the “Ethicist” at the Paper of Record confirmed that Jews have a moral duty to swallow the bitter pill of our whiteness).
Demanding that Jews declare our whiteness may on its face appear to be no more than bowing to the reality that the barriers to Jewish assimilation into the white elite have fallen away. And, of course, it is largely true that, within the impoverished racial economy of the United States, most (though far from all) Jews have been read as white since the 50s or early 60s. But the “price” of Jewish whiteness (as Eric Goldstein puts it in the title of his well-known 2008 book) is far steeper than may appear at first. Goldstein, writing before the Great Awokening, argues that, while it was largely Jews (though hardly all Jews) who pursued acceptance within the white elite, that pursuit “did not confer only privilege.” Jews erased their own distinctness “in order to ensure the larger society’s sense of stability” in carving up the world into black and white and in so doing experienced “alienation, communal breakdown, and psychic pain.”
One might have hoped that growing acceptance of complex identities and the browning of America would bring with them greater freedom for Jews to embrace their own ethnic distinctiveness. But just the opposite happened: Jews’ whiteness is now being policed and enforced from the other side. Today, to accept one’s whiteness serves as a kind of public confession of inherited guilt: It means, we Jews have benefited from, and therefore are implicated in, “white supremacy” — and therefore must devote our political lives to fighting its structures.
It turns out, however, that the most malign — indeed “genocidal” — outpost of white supremacy in the world is Israel. So declared the political platform published by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016. Back then, most prominent Jewish organizations issued public condemnations of the platform and balked at associating themselves with the movement for which it spoke. This time around, however, the anti-Zionism of the movement went unmentioned, as all but the minority of avowed politically conservative Jews marched or posted messages of support on their social media profiles. It was hard to make sense of the about face, except perhaps that in the intervening four years, Trump and the “resistance” to Trump, along with other internal social trends within the Jewish community, had succeeded in wearing down the still small voice inside American Jews that felt it could raise specifically Jewish objections. In the mid-1970s, a prominent sociologist of American Jewry sharply observed: “There are . . . substantial elements within the Jewish community who would like nothing better than the opportunity to embrace the New Left, to declare the harmony of its values with ‘prophetic justice.’” But they found they couldn’t, because of what the author could still call “the position of the New Left on the Israel-Arab encounter.”
No longer. Along with the public confession of whiteness comes an obligation to dismantle the white-supremacist state occupying Palestine. It is true that many if not most liberal Jews who embrace BLM this time around do not yet accept that corollary; but by showing themselves willing to swallow their scruples, confess their white privilege, and raise the BLM banner, the liberal Jewish community has abandoned its resistance to the (no-longer) New Left, and in short order it will abandon its embattled Zionism, as well.
It has become commonplace to see American liberal Jews’ support for Zionism and Israel as necessarily in tension with our general support for civil rights for black Americans and other liberal causes, and to understand declining identification with and support for Israel among younger Jews as a kind of belated ironing-out of an untenable contradiction. This is a mistake. In fact, American Jews finally came to embrace Zionism only in the late 60s and early 70s, in part because countercultural American “roots” movements like Black Power licensed an unapologetic embrace of one’s ethnic distinctiveness. Nathan Glazer reports that Jews only felt comfortable wearing kippot (religious head coverings) in public once Black Americans defiantly wore afros and african-style caftans — and it was then the knit kippa came into vogue. And, indeed, historically, American blacks often saw their own struggle for dignity and self-respect reflected in the Jewish struggle for the same: W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1919 that "the African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews."
There is no conceptual tension between Zionism and support for the black struggle for recognition and rights. The tension emerges only when Jews are identified not, like black Americans, as a distinct people, with a history of oppression and a distinct culture and religion in need of preservation and cultivation, but as an arm of the white power structure. It is only then, for example, that Israel’s failures are not viewed through the lens of the failures of other decolonized states like Pakistan or Algeria, but as instances of apartheid, or on analogy to the Jim Crow legal regime. It is almost preposterously facile when stated plainly, but there it is: If the Jews are the Jews, then their struggle is part of the larger struggle for freedom and self-respect shared by small, stubborn groups; if the Jews are white, then they are an obstacle to that struggle that must be defeated (or must, as Anthony Appiah puts it in the piece linked above, “use our whiteness as an anti-racist instrument”). In practical terms, this means that I must not only march with BLM, but join its struggle against Zionism, as well.
And of course, many Jews, particularly younger Jews on campus, have already joined the struggle. Something the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse wrote recently haunts me. Last winter, Wisse was protested during a panel discussion at Bard College by Students for Justice in Palestine — a protest which seemed to her anti-Jewish in nature. And yet, it turned out a good number, perhaps most, of the members of SJP were themselves Jewish. Writes Wisse:
“[T]here has always been a correlation between the level of anti-Jewish hostility and the number of Jews who defect or join their antagonists. . . . The growth of anti-Zionist Jews in America and of Jews who ascribe to anti-Jewish causes is the most reliable measure of how successfully the war against the Jews is currently being waged.”
We have to make allowances for hyperbole here — there is no “war against the Jews” being waged in America any more than there is a War on Christmas. But there is a reigning set of attitudes and opinions, and a social climate quite like the one described in fin-de-siecle Germany and France, in which tremendous pressure is brought to bear on Jews to denounce — if not on the streets, at least in casual remarks — the racism inherent in the Jewish “ethnostate” and the ideology that birthed it. It was intolerable now to see my fellow liberal Jews buckling under that pressure, at least in their unwillingness to raise qualms about the popular embrace of a movement committed to the view that Jews are white, and the state of the Jews an expression of “white supremacy.”
There is a deeper, and far more substantial violence done to the Jew who assents to his whiteness. We have our own categories of thought, our own languages, our own ways of understanding time, our own meaning-giving structures. To be a Jew has, throughout the period of our dispersion, required us to maintain these in the teeth of a larger society that did not accept them. We have for nearly two millennia understood that it is not the Year of Our Lord 2020 but 5781; not Easter but Pesach; that we are in exile from our home; that we await the coming of a Messiah. Even when a distinct Jewish consciousness faded and traditions were lost, we still were accustomed to dividing the world not into black and white but, as in Lenny Bruce’s famous bit, “Jewish and Goyish” (or, perhaps, as Jeff Israel muses, “Jewish/black/goyish”). To submit to one’s baptism in whiteness is finally to rid oneself of all that remains of one’s Jewishness. In its place we will have only New Left politics dressed in Jewish garb: The hands of Jacob, but the voice of Esau.
The question remaining, then, is do I wish to spend my time fighting a rearguard battle, watching ever more of my peers and the generations below me fall in line? Or do I want instead simply to live my life and raise my children as Jews, speaking Hebrew, contributing to the flourishing of our culture, worshipping according to our custom, and devoting their energies to the establishment of a just and thriving society in the Land of Israel? For me and my family, attached as we are to the Jews as a people and not merely to a set of abstract political “values” questionably rooted in Jewish tradition, the answer has become clear.
And thus I made peace with our decision to decamp for our little ethnostate, to try our fortunes in this foreign land, among fellow Jews.
Joe Schwartz is a rabbi and attorney born and raised in New York City. He moved to Israel in August.