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What I’ve Learned as a Gay Jew in America

In the Forward , Peter Fox writes of “What Being Gay Taught Me about Zionism.” Peter’s voice as a gay Jewish American — and connecting those aspects of his identity — is one among many. At age 68, mine is another. I don’t presume to speak for all my peers, but a history lesson (however personal) is in order here.

I was born in 1949, but my parents didn’t shame me for being gay. Allen Ginsberg was a role model (and later, something of a mentor); I was also a disciple of Paul Goodman. I came of age in the era of the counterculture, experimenting with sexuality, and along the way, I’ve chosen whom and how to love. I claim that as my right — as a matter of personal freedom. I’ve never found it necessary or desirable to claim “I can’t help it; I was born this way.” My pride as a gay male (yes, as a gay male — not diluted into “LGBT”) stems from my identity (and hard-won rights) as a unique individual. One of my own cameo roles in the fight: getting Patti Smith and Lou Reed to perform at 1977’s Pride rally in NYC, as our answer to Anita Bryant.

An analogous perspective informs my identity as a Jew.

In America, we view self-determination as an inherently individual right. Enshrined in our Declaration of Independence is the assertion, “we hold these truths to be self-evident” that ALL “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” that “ALL are created equal” — entitled to equal protection under the law, regardless of ethnicity. We waged a bloody Civil War to establish that in this country, self-determination — as emancipation — is a universal principle. We don’t conflate ethnicity with “nationality.” Under that principle, generations of Jews have flourished here.

As for “Jewish nationalism”? “Jewish” is my ethnic and spiritual heritage, a core aspect of my identity. I’ve never considered it a nationality. (“Israeli,” conversely, is a nationality.) “Jewish American” is not a contradiction in terms.

I believe in the Jewish narrative of exile and return, but I don’t believe that this, in itself, implies the need for an ethnocratic “Jewish state” in our ancient homeland. (Needless to say, I’m also no fan of “Arab Republics” — or of an Arab “Palestinian nationalism.”) Does Israel have a “right to exist”? Yes — in the same sense that South Carolina has a “right to exist” — but not as a “white peoples’” state (I’m no fan of black nationalism, either). At this late date, we’re all indigenous to planet Earth.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. “Israel” and “Palestine” are, in fact, the same country — from the river to the sea — embroiled in its own bloody civil war. If I had my druthers, Israel would annex the territories, granting the inhabitants full citizenship, thus becoming a fully modern, multi-ethnic nation-state — with equal protection for all, regardless of ethnicity and outlawing any organization seeking to undermine that principle. We need to be concerned with the well-being of Jewish people and Palestinian people as people, and not segregate them arbitrarily by geography as “the” Jewish People and “the” Palestinian People.

In any event, that’s what being gay has taught me about my Jewish identity — the blue sky behind my rainbow.

So am I a Zionist? In a sense — a “spiritual Zionist,” like the late lamented Judah Magnes — but in the end, my take on Zionism (and tribalism) is the sound of one hand clapping, which is the same as the Jewish name for G-d. (After all, another gay Jew, Wittgenstein, taught us about the existential limits of language itself.)

As they say, “two Jews, three opinions.”

PS: Like Peter, I deplore what happened to those women at the Chicago Dyke March — merely for self-identifying as Jews. After all, each of us is a unique intersection of identities. That’s not a matter of which identities get to score in the “oppression olympics;” we shouldn’t even be playing that game.


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