What Kind of Jew Am I?

Rosa Luxemburg

I’m not a religious Jew, but I’m a Jew.

I’m not a Zionist, but I’m a Jew.

What kind of Jew am I?

In the 1960s, I read an essay which helped me recognize myself. The essay, “The Non-Jewish Jew”, was written by Isaac Deutscher in 1958. He was describing himself; he was describing me.

Born in Poland in 1907, Deutscher became a Polish Communist in the 1920s, was expelled from the Party in the early ’30s for being critical of Stalin and Stalinism and for “exaggerating the danger of Nazism,” moved to England in the late ’30s, and went on to write terrific biographies of Stalin and Trotsky, and to become, in England and America, a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, before his premature death in 1967.

What did he mean by non-Jewish Jew? He gave examples: Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Freud. They were intellectuals who questioned the assumptions of the Jewish community and of the larger society. By reason of their beliefs, they were alienated from the Jewish community; by reason of their Jewishness, they were not at home in the larger Christian community. Living on the edge, free from local prejudices and loyalties, they were able to see further than their peers, and deeper. They “were Jews free from all Jewish and non-Jewish orthodoxy and nationalism.” They did not believe in a chosen people. They believed in people. “All these men [and women], from Spinoza to Freud, believed in the ultimate solidarity of men [and women]; and this was implicit in their attitudes towards Jewry.”

My parents were part of the same generation as Deutscher. My father was born in 1905, my mother in 1906. Like Deutscher, my parents grew up in orthodox Jewish households; like him, they rejected not only orthodoxy but Judaism. And like him, they gravitated toward Marxism, seeking universal principles of justice and solidarity. There were differences, however. My parents were not born in Poland but in Brooklyn; it was their parents who were born in Poland. More profoundly, my parents became Communists in the 1930s, after Deutscher had already broken with Stalin and with the Party, and they remained Communists for the rest of their lives. That is, unable to live on the edge, they found a new orthodoxy and a new promised land—Stalinism and the Soviet Union—and they gave their hearts and minds to this new orthodoxy and new promised land.

I was born in 1939. My parents did not teach me Jewish lore or Jewish ritual. They taught me revolution and radicalism and universal justice; they taught me to tell rights from wrongs. They taught me that working class people were equal to anyone. And that blacks were equal to whites; if someone, anyone, said “nigger,” it was my duty to correct them. They even taught me, by their words if not their actions, that women were equal to men. As a teenager, I began to see that their loyalty to the Soviet Union contradicted the universal beliefs in which they raised me. During the 1960s, in my twenties, I read Deutscher and other non-Communist radicals and Marxists, and completed my break with my parents’ world view. I could not yet see clearly what I owed my parents. I could not yet see how they had emancipated themselves, and therefore me, from the parochialism of the ghetto, of Judaism, of the tribe, and that I stood on their shoulders. They had done the heavy work, the break with orthodoxy. I had the easier job, to complete the journey.

When I read Deutscher’s “Non-Jewish Jew,” during my twenties, I recognized myself. Deutscher explained to me who I was. For me, as a non-Jewish Jew, no country was entitled to invade or bomb or rule another; no people was more special, more chosen than another. I was not made of the heroic stuff that Marx or Luxembourg or Trotsky were made of—but I was in their tradition. When I resisted the war in Vietnam, I did not do so as a liberal who saw America as an exceptional country and the war as an aberration. I did so as a radical who supported the right of the Vietnamese and of all peoples to determine their own destiny. Unlike most Americans, including many who turned against the war as it dragged on, I did not see my country as the leader of “the Free World.” I viewed American world dominance as a form of empire that, like the Roman or British empires, was inherently wrong and unjust, and that I was bound to oppose.

And so with Israel. I grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust. My parents were anti-Zionist, yet they recognized that, after the Holocaust, European Jews needed a new home. I inherited their view. But increasingly, I saw the Holocaust invoked to justify the persecution of Palestinians. I felt I had to speak out against what my fellow Jews were doing. And found it almost impossible to talk to Jews who supported Israel, who believed “Israel, right or wrong.” They reproached me: Why do you pick on Israel? Why don’t you protest against all the other unjust regimes? It is a good question.

I protest Israeli domination of Palestinians for the same reasons I protested the attempted American domination of the Vietnamese. First, because no people has the right to dominate another, to drive them from their homes, to make laws for them, to kill them when they resist. Second, because I care, especially, about what America does and what Israel does. The war on the Vietnamese and the continuing war on the Palestinians have been made in my name, on my behalf, and with the help of my tax dollars. I pick on Israel because, as a Jew and an American, I am implicated in its crimes.

In the terms I learned from Deutscher, I oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank and I oppose the giant prison that Israel has made of Gaza because I am a non-Jewish Jew: my first loyalty is not to the tribe, not to Israel, but to the universal principles of justice and equality and freedom. I inherited these principles from a tradition of non-Jewish Jews, of radicals who saw through the shibboleths of their times, who rejected dogma and nationalism.

Deutscher himself saw the need for Jews to go somewhere, after the Nazis attempted to exterminate them in Europe. Yet early on he recognized that in the name of Never Again, of Jews never being helpless again, the oppressed were becoming the oppressor. “We should not allow even invocations of Auschwitz to blackmail us into supporting the wrong cause,” he said. He became critical of Israel because he was a non-Jewish Jew. “Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated,” he explained in another essay, “Who Is a Jew?”

Deutscher lived long enough to see the Israelis victorious in the Six Days War. Many Jews were ecstatic. Deutscher was not. He knew that the trauma of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, had made many Jews terrified about ever being helpless again. “All this has driven the Jews to see their own State as the way out.” But as a non-Jewish Jew, he resisted the temptation to embrace any state unconditionally, just as he resisted the temptation to embrace any dogma.

In that year, 1967, the last year of his life, Deutscher –who had grown up steeped in stories from the Torah —wrote a story of his own. “A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune.” The person jumping was a European Jew. The person he landed on was a Palestinian. To Deutscher, neither was to blame. The Jew would only be to blame if he did not recognize the innocence of the Palestinian and his own responsibility for breaking his legs and arms. The Jew would only be to blame if, fleeing oppression, he embraced the new role of oppressor. He would only be to blame if, instead of sharing equally in Palestine, he tried to take more and more of it, as if it were a land without people, and the Jews were simply coming home.

I joined Jewish Voice for Peace, and became active in the Northern New Jersey chapter, because I needed to talk to Jews about what we are doing to Palestinians. Not just what Israeli Jews are doing, but also American Jews who encourage our own government to give a blank check to Israel. I need to speak, as a Jew, in the Jewish tradition of defending the persecuted. I need to be a Jewish voice for peace and freedom. Many Jews won’t talk to me. They see me and others like me as beyond the pale. They prefer to speak in euphemisms about Israel. I take comfort in the great tradition of the radical Jews who were at home neither in their own community nor in the larger society, who spoke truth to power, who were on the side of all the oppressed. That’s the kind of Jew I want to be.

What kind are you?

Steve Golin taught history at Bloomfield College (NJ) for 32 years. Now he teaches at the Montclair Adult School. He is the author of The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913 and of Newark Teacher Strikes: Hopes on the Line. An activist for more than 60 years, he lives with his wife in Glen Ridge, NJ.