If you are on Facebook and have Jewish friends — excellent possibilities since you’re reading the Jewish Standard — you’ve doubtless come across the meme Jewish and Proud.
A true meme gains momentum on its own, going viral as it spreads (like a virus, as we know too well today) from person to person. This meme came out of a January campaign by the American Jewish Committee, “amid rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad.”
The campaign urged Jews to wear “your Judaism with pride,” which you could do by donning “a kippah, or anything else identifiably Jewish,” or “Printing AJC’s #JewishandProud sign or making your own using #JewishandProud and posting a photo of yourself with the sign on social media.”
If Jews were feeling besieged, the idea went, if the world was hostile, doing something overtly Jewish could be empowering.
I’ve seen the meme often on Facebook over the last several months, but I saw it in a new light a few days ago, when I happened upon it after reading a New York Times article headlined “Trump Emerges as Inspiration for Germany’s Far Right.”
His face was emblazoned on banners, T-shirts and even on Germany’s pre-1918 imperial flag, popular with neo-Nazis in the crowd of 50,000 who had come to protest Germany’s pandemic restrictions,” the story, by Katrin Bennhold, read. “His name was invoked by many with messianic zeal.”
Jewish and Proud already struck me as a simplistic response to a genuine danger. Now I realize it has some serious shortcomings.
Jewish and Proud is an existential statement. I find pride in something I am. That sounds okay, except that if I get to say it, there are several others who get to say it, too:
Gangster Meyer Lansky, the “mob’s accountant,” sought to make aliyah. Golda Meir said no way.
Samuel Flatto-Sharon fled France for Israel in 1972, amid charges that he embezzled $60 million. To avoid extradition, he founded a one-man party and bought his way into the Knesset.
In 1986 the Jewish Theological Seminary scrubbed Ivan Boesky’s name from the $20 million library he donated, after the SEC fined him $100 million.
Others who easily could say (and maybe have said) “Jewish and Proud” include Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein.
That’ not the kind of company which I’m interested in keeping. Which is part of the reason why Jewish and Proud is a bit more complicated than it appears.
And what’s the big deal about being proud of something that’s just a natural part of who I am? I could just as logically say that I am “Blue-Eyed and Proud,” “Illinois Native and Proud,” or “5’ 8” inches and proud.”
Or “white and proud.”
Jewish and Proud is problematic because it’s an existential statement, and Jews don’t do existential. We do actual. Of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, none command us “be proud.” In fact, only two are not about an action: one (“I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt”) is a statement of bona fides, so we accept God’s sovereignty. And the rabbis explain the other (“You shall not covet….”) as an aspiration, because how can a feeling be commanded? (That’s a reason why we are commanded to honor our parents rather than to love them.)
And just as the Torah’s commandments are about actions, any Jewish pride we feel should not be about being Jews, but about what we do as Jews. I am Jewish. So what? What matters is not that I am Jewish, but what I do with it.
I inherited an extraordinary tradition, whose values and humanity are ineffable. But unless I do something with that tradition, what do I have to be proud about? Pride can be a mile wide but also only an inch deep.
What is the basis of my pride? That other people with whom I share a gene pool do neat things? That there is an impressive tradition with which I can be associated, even if I’m not particularly involved in it? To showcase Jewish pride, as an answer, is facile, like putting up a lawn sign. It expresses a lovely sentiment but what does it accomplish?
Anti-Semitism is too real. It can be racial, religious, or economic. It can be national. It can attack us as a people or us as a faith community. It is complex. And the proper response is not simple.
There are serious, substantive ways to fight anti-Semitism. We can vote for candidates who abhor it and we can not vote for candidates who give it water and sun. We can write checks to the agencies and institutions that stand up to prejudice. Instead of walking out onto the lawn to put up a sign, we can walk down the block, around the corner, and to the other side of town and march, rally, or demonstrate.
And if we wear a kippah while we do that, so much the better.
For hundreds of years, from the establishment of the first unions to the founding of the NAACP, Jews have been central to every single social and political movement to improve the common good in this country.
That is a wonderful part of our history and we must remember it, though not as a cause for pride, but as a source of inspiration.
Clifford Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.