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Bintel BriefDear Bintel: I’m a Jewish anarchist, and increasingly uncomfortable in both communities

Bintel says: The good news is that both Jews and anarchists respect intellectual debate, so get into it

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in “A Bintel Brief,” Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send your quandaries about Jewish life, love, family, friends or work to [email protected] or @bintelbrief on Twitter, and check out the Bintel podcast.

Dear Bintel,

In my community organizing and religious life, I have had to become two separate selves.

I’ll explain: I’m a Jewish anarchist, but I’ve found that I cannot be Jewish in anarchist spaces. And I’m unable to be an anarchist in Jewish spaces.

My politics are partially informed by the Talmud and Torah. I have learned to love and welcome and provide care for the stranger (mutual aid); that it is righteous to question (authority? everything?); and just to oppose tyrants.

I have found that being open about my Jewish faith or identity in radical political circles can be met with a cold response — criticism of religion in general or, often, pressure to condemn Israel or Israelis. And in Jewish spaces, my radicalism can be seen as a turnoff to an older crowd or a perceived disrespect for tradition and religion in general. Shul becomes a quiet, ostracizing place of discomfort. 

Is there any way to bring these selves together? I’m sure I’m not the first to ask this, nor do I think I’ll be the last.

Signed,
Religious Radical 

Dear Religious Radical,

There will always be tension between anarchy and organized religion at a fundamental level.

Anarchism, as a political philosophy, is about rejecting authority and institutions. And theistic religions by definition have at least one major authority — are you there, God? It’s me, Religious Radical — not to mention human authorities like rabbis and priests.

Judaism is full of rules — kashrut, Shabbat, when to pray, how to dress, who to marry and even when to have sex with your spouse. Not every Jew observes every rule, but, to the casual observer, it is the antithesis of anarchism.

And, these days, leftist political groups are increasingly united in condemning Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Plus, one of the fundamental tenets of anarchism is stateless societies. Israel is not just a state but one so focused on maintaining its borders that it built a wall to guard them. You can’t be surprised you’re getting pushback.

I have to give you some tough love here: Existing in both religious and anarchist spaces might just not be comfortable. But who says everything has to be comfortable?

You seem secure in your own relationship to your identities, both religious and political, which goes a long way. But you can’t expect a shul full of old traditionalists to immediately encourage your anarchism, nor can you expect a meeting of ardent anarchists to embrace God. 

You’re going to have to explain your dual identities, and I’d expect some fractious debate. From what I understand, the old saw about “two Jews, three opinions” applies just as well to anarchists.

You say you base your anarchist values in texts from our Jewish traditions. Try explaining that to those skeptics at shul — and in your anarchist meetings. I mean, the Talmud is a canonized book of people arguing. We even lionize Abraham and Moses for arguing directly with God. This kind of debate is exactly what draws you to both groups. So have it!

Maybe do some reading on the storied history of the Jewish anarchist movement. (Emma Goldman! Noam Chomsky!) Admittedly, most of these folks were vehemently secular, but they were also deeply Jewish. And Yiddish anarchist organizing was a pillar of the movement in the 20th century. Even some early Zionist thought was pretty in line with anarchism.

I get that defending integral parts of yourself doesn’t feel good. And let’s be real: Political talk about Israel nearly always feels fraught. You’re going to have to get personal, and get deep, and that’s scary — but it’s also core to bringing your full self to both spaces. No one can accept both sides of you if you don’t give them a real chance to get to know them.

And the good news is that both Jews and anarchists respect intellectual debate. So if you can show you’re grounded in the values of the respective community and have grappled with tough issues such as your relationship to God, to the texts and — even tougher — to Israel, people should accept it.

If they don’t, it’s time to go shul-shopping, and whatever the anarchist equivalent is. Not every Jewish space is dominated by an older, traditional crowd. And there’s about a billion different schools of anarchist thought — maybe you can even find a modern Yiddish radical space.

Once you’ve given people a chance to ask their questions and understand you, debate shouldn’t be a daily occurrence — you shouldn’t have to repeatedly pass some sort of ideological purity test. But if you’re going to hang out in spaces with specific ideologies and values, you’re going to have to pass it at least once.

Signed,
Bintel

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