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Toward Normalization

 

This 1993 piece ended up in a small magazine in Philadelphia, but made something of a splash in Vermont, of all places. It's somewhat over-written, but I still like the sentiment.

 

TOWARD NORMALIZATION

In 1988 Jesse Jackson unveiled a new term by which he preferred his people to be known: “African Americans”. This change in designation was justifiably applauded as a symbolic step toward positively affirming both his group's ethnic origins, and its place in American society. Having had their cultural heritage torn asunder by Christian European imperialists, Americans of African descent may now, at least nominally, begin to re-forge connections to their ancestral continent, if not their specific nation of origin--a lineage which, tragically, is probably lost forever.

It then occurred to me that we too are a people that for two thousand years--far longer than the African American experience--had been denied its ancestral homeland due to hostile outside forces. Also born of slavery, the Jewish nation has yet managed to preserve its cultural and religious heritage--and its connection to Israel--throughout its bimillenial Diaspora.

In the past, it surely would have been folly for the Hebrew nation to employ a self-designation referring to a homeland that existed only in dream and liturgy. And thus, for two thousand years, we have been known by a term which connotes solely our religious affiliation--Jews: Indian Jews, Persian Jews, Italian Jews, Chinese Jews, always, perhaps due to our continually endangered existence as both individuals and a nation, placing our host nation in modifier position to our underlying identity as Jews.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 has served to alter our place in the world--both geopolitically and psychologically--in ways far too profound and complex to consider here. While undeniably a gross oversimplification, the realization of our national aspirations in Israel is a step towards our long-held desire for “normalization”, taking our place in the family of nations, both autonomous and hegemonized, who, as an intrinsic component of their national psyche, possess a land of their own.

Yet while other groups in the American mosaic refer to themselves as Chinese Americans, or Polish Americans, or now African Americans, our group continues to employ the label “American Jews”, a term that smacks of ghettoization (both real-world and psychological) and a romantic embracing of a bitter past filled with violence and racial hatred.

The time then, has come for a change: our people in America are Israeli Americans. As Israeli Americans, the existence of Israel is a presupposition, with no question arising concerning our ultimate cultural or geographical origins. Just as Korean Americans trace their cultural and geographical origins to Korea, Albanian Americans Albania, Bengali Americans Bangladesh, so do Israeli Americans trace their cultural and geographical origins to their Asian roots Israel the land, as opposed to Israel the politicized entity.

The Israeli American designation would work to counteract the institutionalized invisibility imposed on our nation by the American government. Where other ethnic groups are surveyed in the national census, are uncontestedly permitted access to state facilities for their national celebrations, our status as solely a religious minority has been exploited by both the anti-Semitic Christian Right and the anti-Semitic secular Left in order to deny us recognition as an ethnic/cultural minority. As Israeli Americans, our holidays and ethnic identity would achieve equal status with those of other groups by placing our traditions in a context of ethnic expression which, as for all nations, is an amalgam of religious and secular cultural practices. The Israeli American label would thus serve to place Judaism the religion in its proper context as only a subpart of our identity, permitting our cultural, ethnic, and national identities equal footing, while concomitantly reducing the alienation felt by “secular Jews”, currently estranged by the self-appointed religious mouthpieces which abound.

Some might consider it ludicrous, analogizing from the African experience in America: while African Americans have been denied access to their homelands for only several hundred years, we have been absent for almost two thousand!

So what. There is no statute of limitations in existence on such matters. Furthermore, despite inevitable cultural evolution over the millennia, we have held fast to our aboriginal sidereal, dietary, liturgical, cosmological, and mutilative traditions. The same cannot be said of the African American community. The continuing tragedy of the antebellum policy of enslavement has so deeply estranged African Americans from their aboriginal traditions that their present ties to Africa can only be fuzzily defined in terms of a Pan-Africanism, unable to isolate national origins from the plethora of cultural and linguistic traditions of the continent.

So, in terms of real-world attachment to ancestral homelands, ours is among the most involved and fervent of any American group. And if there were passionate national movements among the Finns to return to the Ural Mountains, or among the Romany to South Asia, or among the Arabs to the Arabian Peninsula, these movements too would become more instrumental in defining the national characteristics of the people in question. In reality however, no such movements exist, and thus such analogies are rendered vacuous.

Finally, if true justice were to ever prevail on this planet, and the land masses which we refer to as the western hemisphere were to be returned to their rightful owners, there would be only one destination for our people. Instead of being shunted from hostile host state to hostile host state, subject to the primitive whims of the empowered majority, we would return to our own people, in our own land, with, of course, our own primitive whims.

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