Hanukkah, The Closet and the Assimilation Trap

It’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. My candles have burned themselves out and I’ve not yet started another DVD to aid my continued attempts at hiding from the ever-present Christmas that has taken over the supposedly multicultural country and definitely multicultural city in which I live. I worry from time to time that my friends might get the impression that I hate Christmas… I don’t. But the apparent compulsoriness and seeming inescapability of the celebration is hurting extra hard this year and I feel like I am drowning in Other-ness and alienation.

And so I thank God for Hanukkah and its timely message about what to do in the face of overt and covert pressure to conform and to be something I’m not: hold fast to who you are, to what you are and the truths you hold dearest. Yes, you’re different and that’s okay.
I take Hanukkah every year as a challenge to re-dedicate myself to living my truth as a bisexual, transgender, disabled Jewish man and insisting on being all those things at once no matter how many people tell me I can’t be. I accept the challenge to be who I am as openly as possible; refusing closets and refusing the false comfort of assimilation into the surrounding norms.

Hanukkah reminds me of the miracle of the Jewish people still existing after thousands of years and hundreds of attempts to stop us. And I think also of the miracle that is every LGBTQ person and community surviving and thriving despite the oppression we have and do face. The miracle of Autistic communities and people insisting that we do not have to pretend to be non-Autistic to be acceptable, Disabled communities and people insisting the world change to accommodate us rather than expecting us to change to fit into it. And this year especially I think of Muslim people and communities and of Black communities and People of Colour communities continuing to exist in a world that is increasingly hostile.

I light each flame and watch as they light up the darkness and are not consumed by it. I remember the times I have felt pressured to hide my “light”; times I have been pushed to be less visible, to stand out less, to be more like what surrounds me. I try to picture myself as a flame, burning bright amidst dark surroundings.

I have never “fit in”. Sometimes I have wanted to. Sometimes I have suffered for my inability to stop being “different” from others or Other than what I was expected to be.
Sometimes I have tried to blend in. Let people assume that I’m straight or let them assume that I’m gay. Deliberately suppressed my Autistic body language or desperately attempted to hide my difficulties with numbers and writing. Taken off my yarmulke when it would have been safe but uncomfortable to be recognised as Jewish. I spent years trying desperately to be a girl out of fear of the consequences of admitting that I’m a transgender man.

The message of Hanukkah, for me, right now, is this: Be yourself. Assimilation is a tempting option but don’t let it trick you into being someone you aren’t.

As I’ve explored frequently on this blog, not feeling like I could be openly who I am and trying to at least appear to be something else has caused massive mental harm to me and right this second this same harm is happening to thousands of people. Hanukkah reminds me that one way I can help bring about a world in which no one has to hide the truth of themself away for fear of the consequences of living openly is for me to insist, as much as I can, on living openly now in this imperfect world, letting my light shine to banish just a bit of the darkness.

Who are we?

Below I will describe a group of people who are marginalised and live in Europe, America, Canada and Australia. Who are we?

We are part of a tradition stretching back centuries.
We can and do live in every part of the world.
We are sometimes considered to be a race or a nation yet we are of many races and have no particular leader, government or land.

We have no leader yet each of us is held responsible for the actions of others like us.
We are each made to explain over and over that we are peaceful and acts of violence committed in our names were wrong.

We suffer violence daily in the so-called “Western World”.
Our children hear racist taunts.
We are harassed by strangers in the streets.
Our religious clothing is openly mocked and derided.
We are attacked and even killed.
Our places of worship are frequently graffiti-ed and desecrated.
We are stereotyped, mocked or invisible on TV and in films.
Our symbols and art are appropriated.
We are pressured to conform to white christian national norms.
If we manage this, we are mocked. If we fail, we are still mocked.
We form communities of our own and are accused of not trying to integrate.
We try to integrate and find ourselves isolated.
We can feel the target on our backs whenever we are out of home.

People who even “look” like the racist stereotype of how we “look” face the same slurs, the same exclusion, the same violence.
We try not to “look” like ourselves.
We are told we are ugly.
We can never do enough to “fit in”. Our names, our clothes, our food, our bodies will betray us.
The target never quite disappears.

We make ourselves small.
We make ourselves quiet.
We try to be “moderate”.

We are told we “take over” spaces; we take too much space.
We are accused of having too much influence; we “control” too much.
And we are called radical even if all we ask is to live our lives in peace.

Our loyalties are always suspect.
We cannot claim loud enough to love the country we live in,
Sending money abroad is a sin if we do it.
If we cannot love this country, we are told repeatedly to “Go home” –
No matter how many generations it’s been since “home” meant anywhere else.

Who are we?

The answer isn’t: “Jews”
And it’s not “Muslims” either.

It’s “Muslims AND Jews”.

Islamophobia and Anti-semitism are two sides of one very racist coin.

And that constant feeling of being a target, being unwanted, being impermissible because we can’t or won’t live within white christian cultures? That pressure is hurting Muslims and Jews across Europe and I suspect across the US, Canada and Australia as well.

Whiteness, Racial Prejudice and Racism (Part 2)

Part 2: What happens when you stop following whiteness’s unwritten rules

I am White.

That is inescapable. Unless White Supremacy ends during my lifetime, I will always be a White person born into and living in a world built to give White people extra privileges and to protect White people’s interests at the expense of everyone else.

In Part 1, I discussed how my race and skin colour likely influenced how I was treated by teachers and staff at my High School. The unfair advantages I was given then will have much longer lasting effects than the bullying I endured at the same time – the school gave me a good reference to get into college, when I then acted out in college I was given help and support because I had “no record” of bad behaviour… I have always been given the benefit of the doubt when others acting as I did would be branded “problem children”. Help and support to manage my learning and behavioural difficulties continues to this day.

However, since beginning to live publically as a Jew I have discovered something about White Privilege that should have been obvious to me before. It’s that tiny, tiny writing at the bottom of the metaphorical form for the white privilege I was signed up for at birth which says “Terms and conditions apply”. There are exemptions to White Privilege. There are terms and conditions you have to keep up with and if you don’t, your privilege and even your Whiteness itself can and will be revoked at any time.

One of those conditions? Don’t be Jewish.
Or rather, DO be Christian. Or at least an ex-Christian atheist. If you’re White and British, you *must* be Christian. If you insist on being Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Pagan or Sikh then at least look like you’re a White British Christian. Don’t wear strange clothes or jewellery, speak strange languages, eat strange foods, refrain from British foods, celebrate strange holidays and go to strange places of worship. DO celebrate Christmas and Easter, dress like a native, eat British foods and generally stay quiet about the entire topic of religion so people never have to confront their unspoken assumption that all White British people are, by definition, Christian. If you’re not White or you’re an immigrant, feel free to practise any religion you like, even Christianity. But if you’re Christian, you’d best make it obvious because people will spend your whole life looking at your skin and making the snap second judgement that you’re not.

Since I began publically living as a Jew, by wearing a yarmulke, keeping kosher(ish), celebrating Jewish festivals and refusing Christmas cards, giving tzedakah, not working on Shabbat and reciting Hebrew blessings occasionally during the day, people have suddenly started asking me where I’m from. And specifying that they mean what part of Israel (or Poland or Lithuania) did my parents come over from and how long have they been living in Britain? People have been complimenting my English. Asking me if I know Adam Finkelstein. People have on numerous occasions *literally refused to believe that I was born in Britain and so were my parents and their parents*. I am White but not Christian so I cannot be British.

Alternatively, I am British but not Christian, so I cannot be White. I am allowed to be British but only on the assumption that my family hasn’t been living on these Isles for more than 50 years. I am allowed to be British as long as I am grateful for being “allowed” to exist here at all. I am allowed to be British at the price of reassuring White British Christians that “Anti-semitism isn’t that big a problem now, is it?” If I can be a walking Encyclopedia Judaica, yet still absolve White Christians for treating me as one. If I accept that “Jew” or “Ashkenazi” is my race now (complete with commentary about my nose, my skin, my eyes, hair..) then maybe I can be British.

The combination of White, British and Non-Christian is erased constantly. Those actions of erasure literally try to erase ME by asking me to either deny, hide or exceptionalise my lived experience as someone who is all three.

I am told that I am not from around here. I am told to my face that I am not white. I am told that I “don’t look Jewish” and spoken over when I protest that there isn’t one way that Jews “look”. People are shocked when I turn down Christmas invites or won’t go out on Friday Night. People stare at my yarmulke in the street and stop to whisper loudly if I’m heard to speak Hebrew. People invite me to their Bible Studies classes so they can learn from me without asking, nevermind answering, the question “But how does that help me?” I am used as “the good Jew” by people whose politics agree with mine and the “self-hating Jew” by those I disagree with. I am taken as spokesperson for all Jews everywhere frequently. People make false assumptions about my body, my background, my finances, my education, my skills, my interests, my politics… because I am a Jew first and an individual human being second.

And there is a simple way to get back the fullness of that unearned White Privilege that I was born into. I could stop wearing a yarmulke. I could whisper my prayers under my breath. I could come up with other excuses for not going out on Shabbat. I could stop mentioning antisemitism. I could quietly let “Jewish” become just a box I tick on a form and not a vibrant and vital part of my life and something intrinsic to who I am. I could assimilate into White British Christianity: where you don’t have to actually be Christian but you can’t be actively something else.

I won’t assimilate. I would lose too much of who I am and gain only unearned advantages I should never have been given in the first place.

Anti-semitism is a strange beast that has become a constant companion to me. It seems to be, in part, a mix of xenophobia and racism and just distilled hatred based on the perceived failure of White Jews in the Diaspora (or, at the very least, in Britain) at being White *properly*. I see the same hatred at work against Travellers, Eastern Europeans and White Turks. We are White but not performing Whiteness adequately. We look like White people but we act like people of colour. To the eyes of a racist, we must look inferior. Anti-semitism of course also contains a hefty component of fear and hatred of Judaism but it seems to me often to be a hatred of Jews as a whole. We are seen as outsiders and infiltrators, bringing our strange languages and foods and customs and clothing into Britain – no matter how many centuries we’ve been here. We are always “not from round here”.

People of Colour in Britain can’t escape being forever seen as “Not from round here”. If, like me, they have names that White British Christians might have, then like me they might get invited to the interview only for a White British Christian to get the post. They may be asked to speak for all people of their race, like I am asked to speak for all Jews. Where some people get to be “the Black friend”, I sometimes find myself “the Jewish friend”. Society treats me like “Jew” is my race, my nationality and the whole of who I am. White privilege opens doors for me, antisemitism shuts them in my face. I feel like I have more in common with People of Colour than White people yet I know that what I get is but a shadow of the racism some of my friends face every day.

I’m not sure how to conclude this except to say that I could be wrong. I’m coming at this talking about my experiences as one person living in one part of Britain. I lived here as a Gentile and now as a Jew. The difference is huge and only many years of reading great writing from people of colour about their experiences of racism came anywhere near preparing me for it. I know that,to an extent, this too is escapable (I can pass for a Gentile if I need to and there are places in the world where Jews are more common and accepted than Britain) and that my White skin still signifies a certain level of respectability, trustability and authority that I am given over POC whether I deserve it or not. I am committed to dismantling the structures that place me unconsenting above my POC friends *as well as* those (similar? linked?) structures that place those who appear to be White British Christians above me.