What do you do with a problem like Nazi internet trolls?

Last week, Talkin’ Reckless was the subject of a blog post on a Neo-Nazi website. Ever since then, I’ve been getting a lot of shockingly graphic, anti-semitic, hatemail. I’m talking “Elders of Zion”-type shit. To be honest, I was taken aback. I can’t say I’ve ever had that kind of Nazi-speak directed at me, personally, before. I’ve grown up not completely sheltered from anti-semitism, but luckily it was rare. Much more common was just ignorance, like the kind revealed in the “Shit Christians Say to Jews” video. But there’s a big difference between ignorant comments and hateful comments. And boy howdy, was I getting some hate.

Now, I know as much as the next person how important it is not to feed the trolls. And these Nazi commenters are trolls of the worst order — the angry, threatening kind. I tried to ignore the whole thing. But everyday, new anti-semitic threats and slurs kept showing up in my inbox.

Two of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. They lived in the Lodz ghetto in Poland and were both sent to Auschwitz, although they didn’t meet each other until after the war. I always felt that they, and my dad (their son), were paranoid about anti-semitism. I mean, the paranoia was pretty damn rational for them, but it never felt like a real threat to me. Then again, I had never received emails from people saying they’d like to put me in an oven before.

I’ve taken a few days to think about it — whether I should respond, and if so, what I should say. I figured out what I wanted to say long before I decided whether I should say anything at all. I made a video. And then I agonized about whether or not to share it.

“You’re just going to bait them and get worse hatemail,” said a friend. “Why are you taunting them?” It’s true. I probably will get more hatemail. But is this just feeding the trolls, or is this a chance to say something important? To call attention to the reality that old-school anti-semitism still lives (even if it is in a small and pathetic sort of way).

In the end I thought about my grandparents. How would they feel if they knew their granddaughter was getting this sort of hatemail? They loved to say things like “I didn’t survive the Holocaust so you could drop out of high school and become a janitor.” Or maybe it was my dad who loved to say that… (“Your grandparents didn’t survive the Holocaust so you could get a tattoo!)

Well here’s what I have to say: My grandparents didn’t survive the Holocaust so that I should stand silently and be bullied by racist idiots.

It may not be the most mature way to handle internet trolls, but at least I live in a world where I’m free to express myself, free to be Jewish, and free to delete emails without reading them.

So, without further ado, this is what I have to say:

Shit people have actually said to me (a Jew)

I know this is a post about the “Shit ___ Say” meme, but don’t worry. I’ll keep it brief and try not to rewrite things smart people have already said.

1. So, when the Shit Girls Say video first came out, I liked it but I wasn’t exactly sure why. Then I read Elissa Straus’s piece on it and now it all makes sense.

2. I was blown away by the Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls video. It’s truly brilliant. So is this article by Tami Winfrey Harris about why it’s not “reverse racist.”

3. Then I saw Shit Christian Say to Jews.

This one was particularly striking because it was all. too. familiar.

My family was one of the only Jewish families in my small, rural town. Here’s some shit that’s actually been said to me and/or my brother:

  • What do you mean you don’t celebrate Christmas?
  • You don’t believe in Jesus? You’re going to hell.
  • Do you have … birthdays?
  • Do you guys celebrate Thanksgiving?
  • Your nose isn’t that big.
  • Do you go to church?
  • Did you, like, get circumcised at your bar mitzvah?
  • If I lived during the Holocaust, I would have saved you and your family.
  • Do Jews eat rotten fish heads?
  • What’s Jewish church called again?
  • I think Jews are really holy. They’re God’s chosen people.
  • The other day some Jews came to church to teach us about Passover. You know, Jews for Jesus?
  • [In Spain] I’ve never met a Jewess before. So exotic!
  • I was going  to give you a Christmas card, but I thought it might be rude.

I think I find this video particularly striking because people assume that everybody knows about Jews, or even that American culture (pop culture?) is overtly Jewish. Not enough, apparently.

The Jewish Press Must Not Kowtow to Religious Homophobia

This is another piece I wrote for Jewesses with Attitude in response to a Jewish newspaper’s retraction of a gay wedding announcement. I am re-posting it here because, though it is about an incident that happened within the Jewish press and Jewish community, the lessons are applicable to the mainstream press and national community as well.

On October 4, the New Jersey Jewish Standard published an apology for printing a same-sex wedding announcement. In that apology, the paper’s editor, Rebecca Boroson, made it clear that the decision to stop running same-sex wedding announcements, and the apology, was in response to pressure from the so-called “traditional/Orthodox” Jewish community. Thanks to the internet, the outrage felt at this editorial decision was felt across the nation.

David A. Wilensky at Jewschool was quick to respond with a letter to the editor. He wrote:

Next week, you will be apologizing to the wider Jewish community for jumping at the snap of some Orthodox bullies’ fingers. You will be forced to apologize to unaffiliated, non-denominational, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews for forgetting that they are the vast majority of the community. Despite your otherwise pusillanimous handling of this journalistic catastrophe, you somehow managed the chutzpah to apologize for the “pain and consternation” you caused a few noisy homophobic readers. When can we expect your apology to the gay community for the pain and consternation you have no doubt caused them?

Today, the NJ Jewish Standard published a note on Facebook, saying:

We ran the wedding announcement because we felt, as a community newspaper, that it was our job to serve the entire community — something we have been doing for 80 years.We did not expect the heated response we got, and — in truth — we believe now that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community. We are now having meetings with local rabbis and community leaders. We will also be printing, in the paper and online, many of the letters that have been pouring in since our statement was published. The issue clearly demands debate and serious consideration, which we will do our best to encourage.

This response seems to have satisfied Wilensky, who wrote: “In the end, kol hakavod to NJJS for recognizing their mistake and rectifying it. And kol hakavod to NJJS for stopping the apologies in their tracks.” He even suggested that the NJ Jewish Standard’s interest in encouraging “debate and serious consideration” on this issue is an example of “journalism of the highest order.” With this last point, I respectfully disagree.

As someone who has spent more time studying journalism ethics than working as an editor or reporter, I will admit that my opinions are based on idealistic principles rather than experience. Still, I don’t believe that “fair and balanced” means giving equal time and voice to “both sides” of an issue. Especially when that issue is a question of equal rights for gay people. A newspaper that says it is “not affiliated with any program, organization, movement, or point of view, but is dedicated to giving expression to all phases of Jewish life” should not hide behind “fair and balanced” in order to avoid taking a stand and acknowledging that “giving expression to all phases of Jewish life” means including gay Jewish life. Saying that this issue “demands debate and serious consideration” is a practical, political, and cowardly way out.

Exclusion is a form of discrimination and so is giving voice and legitimacy to homophobia in a paper that is supposedly for “everyone.” And this type of discrimination is directly related to the sorts of direct harassment and bullying going on in schools and colleges that has contributed to a tragic string of suicides by LGBT youth across the nation. Comedian Sarah Silverman bluntly connects the dots in this video:

The NJ Jewish Standard could not have picked a worse moment to kowtow to the homophobic minority of the national Jewish population.

The It Gets Better Project, started by Dan Savage to give hope and support to LGBT middle school and high school students, has been getting a lot of positive and negative attention. Tablet writes: “While most coverage of the project has been favorable, there has been some backlash, among other things over the fact that the project allegedly stereotypes religious people as bigoted. Religious people bigoted? Thoughtful people refuse to play into that stereotype. So do thoughtful publications.” As much as the Jewish press would like to keep the Jewish community united, religious homophobia is still homophobia and it has no place in publications that are intended for the larger Jewish community.

Here’s how you can help:

Sign the petition to tell the NJ Jewish Standard to print same-sex wedding annoucements. (“Encouraging conversation” is NOT sufficient.) You can also participate in Wear Purple Day on October 20th to honor the 6 gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/month due to homophobic abuse in their homes at their schools.

Equality is not something that requires “debate and serious consideration.” It requires courage and love for all of our Jewish brothers and sisters. It requires us to be brave and take a stand on what we believe in. It is obvious now that there are lives at stake.

[Originally posted at Jewesses with Attitude]

A Closer Look at TLC’s Sister Wives

I returned home from my cousin’s wedding Sunday night, happy and exhausted with barely enough energy to flop onto the couch and turn on the TV. That is how I found myself watching the two new episodes of TLC’s Sister Wives, a reality TV show about a modern polygamous family. I think the expected feminist response to a show about polygamy is a negative one, summed in this post on Jezebel: “Sister Wives Talk Like Soul-Sucking Stepford Zombies.” It’s easy to condemn the show, and “the lifestyle” (as they call it) but after watching the first few episodes, I found myself pondering polygamy and its presence in our history as Jews. After all, my biblical namesake was a sister wife.

When it comes to bible study, I am only familiar with the basics. But even I know that polygamy features prominently in the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The story I know best is that of Jacob, who married both Leah and Rachel. (This story is expanded in the midrash told by Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent) Rachel, the woman Jacob married for love, gave birth to Joseph and eventually died in childbirth with her second child, Benjamin. Thanks to polygamy, Jacob was able to father the 12 sons (and one daughter) who would go on to father the 12 Tribes of Israel with his wife Leah and their hand servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. It’s hard to ignore the centrality of polygamy, or “plural marriage” in our own cultural heritage.

This is not to say that I condone polygamy, especially in its biblical form. The Torah is also full of incest (Leah and Rachel were Jacob’s first cousins), slavery, and other things we now understand to be wrong. Judaism’s strength is that it grows and adapts with the times, although we too have fundamentalist communities that oppress women through rigid adherence to traditional gender divisions and roles.

The fundamentalist fringe of Mormonism that is spotlighted on TLC’s Sister Wives is of a similar vein. And by embracing polygamy in a form that mirrors the biblical tradition, in which one man marries and fathers children by multiple wives, the “Polyg lifestyle” is wrought with anti-feminist land mines. Jezebel writes:

It’s too bad the Today show host didn’t ask Kody or his wives to discuss their beliefs. Because if you’re not familiar with what Kody vaguely calls “his faith” — that is, religious fundamentalism — then you might think, wow, these people are so edgy! So open-minded! It’s just a big happy family! You might not realize how the extreme, patriarchal belief system belittles and oppresses women.

But after watching Sister Wives, it’s hard to hate or even snark at these people. From what we see, anyway, these people – the four wives, one husband, and 15 children – are genuine and intelligent people. For religious fundamentalists, they seem pretty normal; they live modern lives, integrate into the secular world, and are happy to give their children the freedom to make their own choices about faith and marriage when they grow up. Despite Jezebel’s categorization as “Stepford Wives,” the women are open about their feelings, their insecurities, and their personal struggles with polygamy. They readily admit jealousy and doubt, but also discuss the support, love and fulfillment that they gain from the arrangement. If anything, they are complex characters who made a choice, and like the rest of us, understand that bettering ourselves and working on our relationships is a lifelong process.

Watching Sister Wives, I started to realize that the benefits of polygamy that the show highlights are real, but they are not exclusive to polygamous lifestyles. The benefits are the same ones you would find from any type of communal living where multiple adults contribute incomes to a larger family unit and multiple adults parent the community’s children as a group. (Think: hippie commune, Walden Two.) I would also argue that there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about rejecting monogamy. The idea that men are allowed to have multiple partners but women are not is sexist. You can also argue that the institution of marriage, which traditionally made women the property of their husbands, is sexist. But polyamory, often dubbed “ethical nonmonogamy,” is a great example of a very feminist-friendly model in which men and women can both have meaningful and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners. The poly community is, in fact, a place where you are likely to find some of the most progressive, liberal, and feminist people out there.

I think it’s important to take the time to think about Sister Wives before we condemn it outright. While polygamy in this form is illegal, and Kody Brown is now being investigated by the police, it is possible to gain some insights from this peek into “the lifestyle.” For one, it made me think about the benefits of communal living among extended families or friends. By examining certain similarities to the modern polyamorous community, I was reminded that some alternatives to monogamy can be feminist and progressive. I came to realize that my problem with Sister Wives is not a problem with the family itself (they are actually quite likeable people), nor is it a problem with alternate polyamorous lifestyles. What I do have a problem with is religious fundamentalism and its adherence to biblical notions of marriage and paternalism. And that applies to Jewish fundamentalists as well.

[This was originally posted at Jewesses with Attitude.]

New beginnings, new directions

Today is Rosh Hashanah which means that all of us Jews are celebrating the beginning of a new year. (5771? But I was just getting used to writing 5770! Har, har.) Today is also the day I begin my MA program in Health Communication at Emerson College (in partnership with Tufts University). And you can bet pretty soon, I’m going to be even more obsessed with health issues than I already am.

A lot of people ask me what health communication is and at this point I am starting to feel like I can give them a relatively accurate answer. Health communication is essentially communications tailored for the health field – more specifically, the study of creating and disseminating messages that will be effective in getting people to change their behavior – to quit smoking, wash their hands, eat more fruits and veggies, etc. I was attracted to this field because I already work and enjoy working in communications, and I wanted to mix that together with my interest in sexual health and healthy sexuality. Basically, I chose this program because I wanted to learn how to effectively communicate a few messages in particular, like “use a condom,” and “no seriously, just use a freaking condom!”

I’m pretty sure this program was a match made in heaven because I just got the syllabus for my first class and my first assignment is to pick an illness and analyze how it is perceived in our culture. I am so excited; that’s like my hobby. I’m pretty sure I’m already halfway through a video about just that. I know I’m a huge nerd, but I can’t wait to sit down and learn some theory and some skills to create effective health messaging and save the world, one sexually active teenager at a time. But, of course, I can already tell that it’s not going to be that simple.

Today a couple posts on Feministe caught my eye. The first is from former-Feministe blogger Zuzu, and is about fat and health, and succinctly states near the beginning: “Feminists typically agree that body policing is a bad bit of business, correct?” She then goes on to argue that being overweight does not necessarily mean someone is unhealthy, and that “There’s no Duty of Health”:

“Health” seems to be a codeword these days. It’s something to throw around when you get busted as a fat-hater: “I’m just concerned about your health!”

Well, let’s talk about health. First off, why is any individual obligated to be healthy in order to be accorded all the rights and dignity accorded to all human beings? What is this, “Starship Troopers,” with health substituted for military service? If you argue that fat people don’t “deserve” certain rights because in your judgment they aren’t “healthy,” then how do you feel about disabled people and their rights? If your argument is that the disabled can’t help it and fat is a choice, do you make the same argument for religious discrimination? Because religion is a choice, too.

The second is about slut-shaming, and hits on another feminist bulwark – “My body, my business.” And this ties closely into the pro-Choice “My body, my choice” philosophy too. The author illustrates this nicely:

Clearly, there is some conflict between the feminist approach to bodies and healthcare and the health communications goal of getting individuals to make healthier choices. It assumes that there is an objectively “healthier” choice, and also places the burden on the individual to be responsible for his or her own health. Zuzu wrote:

I’ve written about this before, and it ties into the whole good fattie/bad fattie defensiveness thing, but whenever we start focusing on the health of the individual, we erase the systemic problems that contribute to health issues. This is a perfect example of the personal being political.

Institutions love to shift the burden onto the individual, because it means the institution doesn’t have to examine its own behavior or its own contribution to a problem. Let’s look at bullying. States and schools love to have zero-tolerance policies so they can look like they’re being tough on bullying — but then when bullying incidents happen, they just don’t define it as bullying, and suggest that the victim change his or her behavior. Problem solved!

It’s really tricky.

The personal responsibility issue relates pretty directly to what we were discussing here earlier about safer sex, where I argued that the most effective way to prevent STD transmission was to emphasize personal responsibility in sex education and health messaging. But we do have to be careful not to ignore the social structures and institutions that make it difficult to make healthy choices, and perhaps the ethical route is to work towards changing those institutions and systems as well as changing individual behavior.

It’s also problematic to assume that we all agree on what “healthy choices” are. I am a believer in western medicine, but even doctors and scientists don’t always agree on what’s healthy. (Coffee? Having a glass of wine while pregnant? Hormone therapy?) So who am I to tell other people how to live their lives?

On the flip side, health is one of those things that as a society, we feel is important. And so there is some context for health messaging and health education being generally accepted as a positive thing. But there are ethical potholes to be wary of, and I’m definitely going to have them on my mind as I enter this program.

As we enter into this New Year, I plan to keep blogging on sexual health issues. I am excited to see how my new program will influence and inform my thoughts. I am also terrified to see how I will manage full time school and a full time job and my own health in the midst of the stress and chaos – and still find time to blog. It’s going to be a hell of a ride folks, I hope you come along with me.

To Tattoo? Or not to tattoo?

I try not to mix my work and personal blogging, but I recently wrote a post for work that seems to be resonating with a much wider audience than I originally anticipated. For this reason, I am cross-posting the beginning here, with a link to the full article at the end. I encourage you to share your responses to this piece where it is originally posted, or here if you feel more comfortable.

The Loaded Tattoo

Today on Truth, Praise & Help, Renee Ghert-Zand expressed her displeasure at two Israeli men who decided to honor their Holocaust survivor matriarch with a tattoo of her Auschwitz number on their forearms. She, like many Jews, has trouble with tattoos and finds Holocaust remembrance tattoos particularly offensive. While I am also a little uncomfortable with the idea of remembering a survivor by their Nazi-given number, I am not opposed to the idea of remembrance tattoos–even ones on the forearm. As a grandchild of survivors who has seriously thought about getting a remembrance tattoo, I would like to offer a different point of view.

I have always wanted a tattoo, but I never saw the point of butterflies or shooting stars; I wanted something meaningful. And since this tattoo would be permanent, it would have to represent a part of my identity that would never change. The only thing that ever “felt right” was my Jewish identity, which to a large extent is based on being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. While I would not get my grandparents’ numbers tattooed on my arm like the Israeli men profiled (I would not want to remember them by the number the Nazis gave them) I have considered getting the Hebrew word for “Remember” or perhaps “Love” tattooed on my forearm.

I was not the first person to have this idea. Holocaust remembrance tattoos are not new, but they are always controversial in the Jewish community, especially since tattoos are somewhat taboo according to Jewish law. At the same time, tattoos are experiencing a revival among young Jews, and are perhaps becoming integrated into our generational identity and culture. But could or should I go under the needle myself?


What the Brits can teach us about Jewish identity

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series includes a poignant metaphor for racism the in the discrimination against “Muggle-born” wizards (wizards born to non-magic parents) by “pure-blooded” wizards.  Recently in England, the question of “pure-blood” status moved from a fictional magical community to the real-life Jewish community, as a London Jewish high school denied acceptance to a 12 year old boy whose father is Jewish and whose mother converted.  The high school defines one’s Jewish identity by the Orthodox standard that Judaism is passed through the matrilineal blood line, and since the boy’s mother converted in a Progressive shul, her conversion did not meet the school’s Orthodox standards.  The family sued and lost, but the decision was reversed on appeal.  Last week the British Supreme Court made the final call on a sensitive question: who is a Jew?  It decided in favor of the boy.

In Harry Potter, the term “mudblood” refers to someone with Muggle (non-magic) blood, and is considered a highly offensive, ethnic slur.  Alternatively, it is acceptable and common to refer to people as “half-Jews” or for folks to identify themselves as “one-quarter” or “one-eighth” Jewish.  Why do we put such stock in these distinctions?  The problem with identifying one’s blood status is that implies a hierarchy of Jewishness – that some Jews have a more legitimate claim to Judaism than others. (Some Jews are not “more equal” than others.)  This type of hereditary hierarchy breeds what we now understand to be discrimination.

The British court overturned the ruling, recognizing a distinction between religion and ethnicity. The court decided that a decision based on blood was an ethnic test, and that a religious test should be based on the belief and practice of Judaism, and perhaps more importantly, one’s own asserted identity. 

Freedom of religion is important to Jews, but we are hypocrites if we do not acknowledge that true freedom of religion means that anyone can be Jewish. Converts to Judaism face prejudice and exclusion simply because they were not born to Jewish parents. As we have seen in the media blitz over Ivanka Trump’s conversion, the Jewish community is distrustful or suspicious of women converting to Judaism for their spouse, often making accusations of insincerity or “gold-digging.”

The Jewish community must take into account the reality that the Jewish family is diversifying.  We must consider Jewish adoption and its effect on identity as people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds are being raised in Jewish families.  Nicole Opper deals with some of these issues in her new film, Off and Running, a documentary about an African-American girl raised by a Jewish lesbian couple.  The inclusion of GLBT Jewish families breaks down the matrilineal bloodline argument even further – is a child Jewish if he has two dads?  What if the child’s mother is a transwoman? 

In fact, our contemporary understanding of identity is informed by gender scholarship, and if we have learned anything from the gender theory, it is that identity is something asserted by the individual.  Identity is something you feel you are, not something assigned to you or decided for you.

The British courts have instructed Jewish schools to use religious practice, rather than blood, as a test of Jewishness.  This is a step in the right direction, but is still problematic because not all Jews are practicing.  When Wizarding parents in Harry Potter produce a child who is does not perform magic, he or she becomes an outcast in Wizarding society.  This is not a perfect comparison to atheist, non-practicing, unaffiliated, or secular Jews, but it is close enough.  Non-religious Jews have an equal and legitimate claim to Jewish identity because Judaism is more than just a religion.  When you are Jewish, Judaism is your history, your culture, your cuisine, your values, your traditions, your family, your people. For plenty of non-practicing Jews, their Jewish identity is central to their understanding of self.

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was founded by four teachers, one of whom believed that only pure-blooded students should be admitted.  That teacher’s final descendent, Voldemort, became the most powerful and most evil Wizard of all time. Voldemort envisioned a perfect society of pure-blooded Wizards.  He turned pure-blooded Wizards against their mixed-blood neighbors.  He created an army of “Death Eaters” to round up mixed-blood wizards and their Muggle relatives, and torture and kill them.  His aims and methods should sound familiar, especially to Jews. 

Harry Potter has taught a generation of kids and young adults that to discriminate by blood status is in no uncertain terms racist, immoral, and evil.  The Jewish community should take a lesson from the Brits – in real life and in fiction — and remember that exclusion or hierarchy based on one’s ethnic or blood status can lead to discrimination, hate, and violence.

At a time when the Jewish community is worried about the continuity of the Jewish people, we should not close our doors to those who consider themselves Jewish, or wish to become Jewish.  Many groups consider intermarriage a threat, but it is only threatening if we employ such limited definitions of Jewish identity. If we’re worried about shoring up the numbers, we should accept the children of intermarried couples as members of the community, regardless of their mothers’ blood status.  If these children are welcomed warmly into the fold, they will be that much more likely to identify as Jewish, and raise their own children as Jews. The power to expand the Jewish community will come from acceptance and equality, not exclusivity and hierarchy.