Opinion |

How Jewish Identity Turned From Liability to Asset

Why people who were considered white in every respect are poking around in the family cellars to find elements that might connect them to an oppressed group

Ofri Ilany
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Cynthia Nixon.
Cynthia Nixon. Credit: \ BRENDAN MCDERMID/ REUTERS
Ofri Ilany

Last week, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an investigative report about Wolfgang Seibert, head of a small Reform congregation in northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Seibert, 71, is recognized as one of the most articulate spokesmen in Germany for liberal Judaism and for his promotion of interfaith dialogue. For years he was known as the son of a Holocaust survivor. However, documents from a church archive in Frankfurt proved that he is an impostor.

Seibert, it turns out, was baptized shortly after his birth; his parents and grandparents were all Protestants. Moreover, unlike quite a number of Germans, he apparently has no Jewish roots at all. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain how his grandfather managed to serve as an officer in the Wehrmacht in World War II.

>> Is Cynthia Nixon Good for the Jews? Depends Which Jews

Seibert’s is an extreme case, but also typical of the cultural atmosphere in philo-Semitic Germany, where Jewish roots are a political, and sometimes also an economic asset. Germany is making desperate efforts to reconstruct something of the Jewish life that existed in the country before the Holocaust. But because the Jewish community was effectively eradicated, many German Christians are converting to Judaism and quickly becoming rabbis and heads of communities. Seibert is an exception only in not having converted. Confronted with the findings, he explained to Der Spiegel, “I think I wanted to have a Jewish history that would connect with the Jewish identity that I feel I have.”

The Germans’ guilt complex is admittedly singular, but similar episodes have been occurring lately in other parts of the world, too. Last month, a scandal erupted in the Democratic Party in the United States when the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, hinted that the candidate running against him in the party primary, Cynthia Nixon, had been “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism,” among other things.

Nixon, who gained fame as one of the stars of the television series “Sex and the City,” immediately rebuffed the allegations and emphasized her Jewish family ties. “I am the mother of Jewish children,” she declared. Confidants added that she is a member of Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan – the world’s largest LGBT Jewish congregation – and that once she even delivered a dvar Torah, on the weekly portion of Korach.

In this case, Nixon did not lay claim to Jewish roots – her parents are of German and English descent – but she was quick to adopt a Jewish identity. That pays off in New York politics.

For generations, Jews and descendants of Jews have tried to hide their roots. But in the present atmosphere, what was once a burden has become an advantage. That’s also the case with other identities that have suffered brutal suppression. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, considered to be a potential Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election, claimed in the past that she has Native American roots in the Cherokee and Delaware tribes. It was known in her family, she said, that her grandfather “had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do.” As a professor at Harvard Law School, she was registered as a member of a minority group.

Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Senator Elizabeth Warren.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In 2015, a scandal broke out when it was revealed that Rachel Dolezal, a black-rights activist and university lecturer in African studies, had posed for years as a black woman although she was fully white.

As of today, a pattern has already emerged: In liberal and radical cultural circles, it doesn’t always pay to be a WASP. It’s true that all over the world, men and women are investing huge resources to whiten their skin in order to appear more attractive. In the United States, many jobs are still a near-exclusive white, male club – a striking case in point is President Donald Trump’s administration. But in the competing camp, many advantages accrue to a spicy mix of exotic minority identities and to being part of an oppressed minority.

In the identity-discourse realm, the validity of opinions and declarations is judged on the basis of the speaker’s ancestry. That’s also why people who were considered white in every respect have been poking around in the family cellars to find elements that might connect them to an oppressed group. That may not give them an admission ticket into said oppressed group (which they usually don’t want, anyway), but it does accord them the right to speak and political status that accord with representing the downtrodden. Identity falsification of this sort can be more worthwhile than falsifying an academic degree or some other detail in one’s CV. Of course, it’s important to choose the right identity: To opt to be a Muslim, for example, is not especially recommended in much of the world.

Ideological genetics

Claiming membership in an oppressed identity group is a winning argument in every debate. It’s also a situation that generates innumerable ridiculous phenomena on both the right and the left. Everywhere you go, there are individuals whose only asset is the baggage of diverse identities that they’re carrying. Recently, an Israeli public diplomacy advocate named Hen Mazzig, one of the most vocal spokesman for the anti-BDS cause, has become prominent in the social networks. He presents himself as “a gay Jew of color,” a “gay Mizrahi Jew,” the “embodiment of intersectionality.” In his perception, that made it legitimate for him to protest very loudly against the entry into Israel of American student Lara Alqasem.

But what about those who don’t belong to any minority group? Some will make do with expressing identification with an oppressed group. But these days, that’s not enough. Sen. Warren came up with an innovation: She did a DNA test in the hope of proving that her genetic makeup contains Native American elements and published the results. It turns out that one of her forebears (six generations back) may have been of Native American descent. Warren’s move drew wall-to-wall derision, from President Trump himself right on down to members of the Cherokee nation, who maintained that Warren isn’t one of theirs.

But setting aside the ridiculousness of the move, it reflects a new development. Warren forged a connection between the most embarrassing version of identity politics and geneticist ideology: belief in genetic makeup as being an exclusive key for explaining behavior, culture and identity.

The fetishism of identity and the endless preoccupation with origins and family ties sometimes recall a liberal version of race theory. In contrast to the latter, however, it is not particularly dangerous. This masked ball has simply become a ludicrous matter that invites attacks from the right. Some claimed that the Warren-Cherokee episode has put an end to the era of identity politics. But precedents show that such absurd cases do not weaken the power of identity politics. In times such as these, stupidity and absurdity are actually an advantage.