Author Miriam Libicki Thinks Jewish Identity Is Complicated
By Noah Berlatsky
Miriam Libicki’s Jewish identity is complicated. She grew up in an Orthodox household in Columbus, Ohio, where she attended Jewish school and kept Shabbat. But while her family was Orthodox, they were also hippies. When Libicki followed her brother and sister to Israel to spend a year after high school, she wore shorts — something Orthodox women in Israel never did. Her decision to join the army caused even more consternation, since Orthodox women in Israel are automatically exempted from service. “I ended up having an asterisk next to my mental health,” Libicki told me. “They basically couldn’t understand why I wanted to join.”
Libicki has dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, but now lives in Vancouver with her Buddhist husband. Her position between religious and secular Judaism — between Israel and the diaspora — gives her a unique, and multifaceted, perspective on Israel. In her collection of illustrated essays, Toward a Hot Jew, out from Fantagraphics, she talks about the fissures in Israeli and Jewish society — fissures that lead to oppression, but also offer the possibility for greater justice and understanding. I talked to Libicki by phone about her book, her identity, and her fraught relationship with Judaism.
In the title essay, “Toward a Hot Jew,” you talk about how Jewish men are often portrayed as emasculated and ugly, and how the Israeli soldier counteracts that image, presenting Jewish men as hot and virile.
There’s a book that I read by Daniel Boyarin called Unheroic Conduct. It’s about the European Jewish pre-Holocaust alternate view of masculinity. And that view was the quiet, brainy, Yeshiva type. I guess you could say that it’s when Jews came to America and felt like they wanted to be American — just the idea of Jews wanting to fit in more with whiteness, or feeling like they could fit in more with whiteness.
Do you think that male attractiveness is tied to violence or to imperial power?
I think so. Though consciously at least, people don’t think about it as beating up on people weaker than you. Because the whole mythology of the Six Day War is that Israel was outnumbered. The self image is of protecting ourselves rather than beating up weaker people. A lot of people who beat up on weaker people think they’re protecting themselves.
You talk about the mistreatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. What do you think causes this racism in Israel?
I think the whole world at this point is set up for white supremacy, and so if you don’t actively resist white supremacy as a white or whitish person, it’s going to infect you.
Certainly in the founding of political zionism, you wouldn’t find a lot of anti-colonialist thought among people in Western Europe. So maybe it was hard to embrace the idea that white civilization is not in any way superior to other civilizations, and should not be trying to remake other civilizations in its own image. But even now, there’s still a lot of that in Israel. It may have 19th century origins, but it still feels like it’s about aspiring to whiteness, and part of how you aspire to whiteness is finding someone to make black.
In the U.S., immigrants are often portrayed as a threat to jobs, or as dangerous criminals. Is that how Ethiopians are seen in Israel?
A stereotype of Ethiopians as dangerous [is] not something I ever had an inkling of talking to Israelis about. And I think more than taking jobs, the idea is that they don’t get jobs.
One of the reasons that Israel is pro-immigration is because they’re pro-Jewish immigration. They always want to get the Jewish numbers up in comparison to Palestinians. And that’s definitely one way the Russian immigration worked around the same time in much, much larger numbers. So I think that that attitude toward Jewish immigrants is a little bit different. The stereotype is not that they’re dangerous, but that they have to be helped, and aren’t able to stand on their own feet.
They’re not seen as a threat because the threat is the Palestinians.
Part of the reason that I maybe write and draw less about Palestinians than some might expect me to is there’s this idea that Israel is a united front against the Arab foe. Yes, policies toward Palestinians, both citizens and non-citizens, are terrible, but there are things that go on between Jewish Israelis that are talked about even less, but are linked to the same thinking that leads to the treatment of the Palestinians.
I think a lot of American Jews think, well, maybe the situation with the Arabs is less than to be desired, but at least it’s a great country and refuge for all Jews. But it isn’t, really.
You talk a bit in your book about strains in Black/Jewish relations in the United States. You can look at, for example, how the Movement for Black Lives platform, which came out this August, included the line, “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
And when they said “genocide,” what they recommended was less military aid to Israel. And even someone who is a right winger but knowledgeable knows that the military in Israel is not hurting for cash or resources.
So in that context, what the platform is calling for is not a terrible, scandalous thing. But the language highlights the difficulty of this relationship in a bunch of ways. (A) In the platform, Palestine is mentioned while other problems around the world are not mentioned. (B) The fact that they had to use the word “genocide” rather than just to say that it’s wrong in some way that didn’t imply that Israel is trying to wipe out every single Palestinian.
But then, ©, many American Jews could not look past the word “genocide” to see what BLM was actually calling for. Some Jewish people would say, I can’t support anything about the movement for Black Lives Matter because look, they’re anti-Semitic.
Of course, there are people in the black civil rights community who also said, “genocide is the wrong word.” And there were plenty of people, at least on my Facebook feed, who are Jewish activists who said, genocide is the wrong word, but it doesn’t negate our support.
The fact that establishment Judaism had to make it all about them, though . . . one wishes we could recognize the BLM platform is not a threat to Jews or Israelis in any way, and get over it.
You argue that empathy can, or should, lead people to resist the kind of demonization of others that justifies oppression. But can’t empathy also lead to violence? I’m thinking of the Iraq war, where sympathy for the Iraqi people was used to justify invasion.
I think this is confusing empathy with compassion. They are two different things. I was talking about Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ definition of empathy — you don’t just feel like you’re feeling what someone else is feeling. You are held accountable to that other person. You have to listen to what they are saying to you.
We knew before the Iraq war that most Iraqis did not want us to invade. And so invading Iraq was not empathy. You could say it’s compassion. We decide we can improve their lives, whether people felt that sincerely or not. But I would say if you’re not listening to the person, then you’re not empathizing.
In your book, you talk about how you loved Israel and powerfully identified with it. Do you still love Israel?
My parents moved there after I came back. So my parents live there now, and my older brother and older sister live there. So half my family is in Israel right now, and I still visit when I can, and I still love it. But there is . . . I don’t know. I still care about it to the extent that it makes me very angry a lot of the time. The fact that it’s become even more right wing, makes me angry enough that I feel like I still care about it. But I kind of feel like I am slowly more removed from the news cycle in Israel. And so sometimes I feel like . . . sometimes I still feel guilty for taking the easy way out, which is how I felt about what I did when I left Israel to come back to North America. But I’ve also gotten more interested in the idea of diaspora Judaism as its own community with its own values, and something that I can belong to.
Lead illustration by Miriam Libicki