Who's a good Jew?

Trump, Jonathan Glazer and the pernicious need to call out who's doing Judaism correctly.

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My grandmother recently passed away at the age of 89, and while sitting shiva, I had the chance to spend some time with my cousin. She’s just one year older than me, but is Orthodox Jewish, has five children and lives in Jerusalem. We couldn’t be more different. 

In the course of our conversation, I admitted something that had been eating away at me for quite some time, and especially since October 7th. I felt shame that the rest of the family thought I was a bad Jew; that I was doing Judaism wrong, and that even though I knew I was practicing in a way that felt true to me, I worried they all thought that because of my politics that I didn’t worry about my dozens of family members living in Israel.

I had a missed call from this same cousin a few weeks before my grandmother passed, and I never managed to call her back. It felt too hard. I felt too self-conscious. But when I saw her in person, she told me she had been calling to say she’d read a piece I’d written during Hanukkah about how all Jews—and all human beings—are one vessel. “I just wanted to tell you how much I loved it and how much it resonated with me,” she said. 

Despite this welcome moment of catharsis and recognition within my own life, there is a persistent intra-religion argument about the right way to be a Jew in this moment. I’ve asked myself, what makes someone Jewish? How do you prove your Jewishness? Who gets to judge who is and is not a good Jew?

I haven’t gotten too far with answers, but a few recent events show the constant and loathsome effort to try and define who’s doing Judaism right while we contend with the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the ensuing slaughter of more than 30,000 Palestinians.

Let’s start with Trump. “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion, they hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves,” he told host Seb Gorka, a former Trump White House counterterrorism advisor who has a history of making Nazi’s proud, in a radio interview published Monday.

Trump also took a shot at Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, saying, "When you see those Palestinian marches ... guys like Schumer see that, and to him, it's votes. He's very anti-Israel now."

Schumer responded on Twitter by saying, “To make Israel a partisan issue only hurts Israel and the US-Israeli relationship. Trump is making highly partisan and hateful rants. I am working in a bipartisan way to ensure the US-Israeli relationship sustains for generations to come, buoyed by peace in the Middle East.”

Even ADL President Jonathan Greenblatt, who believes any antizionism is antisemitism, chimed in with a “Hey, man! Not cool!”

But I think Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff said it best: “This is a disgusting, toxic, antisemitic thing to say, by anyone, let alone a former president of the United States and it must be condemned.”

Trump’s remarks are, in fact, deeply antisemitic: He’s not Jewish, yet sees himself as the arbiter of what Jews should and should not do. Because he has the strong support of Orthodox Jews and the Evangelical Christians who pretend to be their allies, he judges Jews based on their loyalty to his party. 

And this is far from the first time he’s said this insulting crap. In 2019, he said Jews who vote for Dems show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” He later told reporters, “if you want to vote Democrat, you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”

But naturally the New York Times could only muster this description of his most recent remarks: “The comments, on a conservative radio program, echo an antisemitic trope and escalate claims he made as president that were widely criticized.” 

This characterization made me wonder if Trump will ever be given full agency over his actions: his racism; his white supremacy; his ableism; his Islamophobia; and yes, his antisemitism. At what point will our country’s most influential media outlets straining for so-called objectivity allow Trump to own his speech and actions? Perhaps never. And certainly not today. The comments, they contend, acted alone, and even they weren’t antisemitic—they merely reiterated a trope that was.

Naturally, Trump’s campaign doubled down. The campaign’s national press secretary Karoline Leavitt said in a statement. “President Trump is right — the Democrat Party has turned into a full-blown anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist cabal.”

The bad Jews are, in fact, bad, according to the Republican presidential nominee. 

And in another corner of the culture, Jewish Hollywood creatives have gone to the trouble of publishing an open letter denouncing Jewish director Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars acceptance speech. If you missed it, his film “Zone of Interest” won Best International Film at last week’s Oscars. 

In his acceptance speech, Glazer said this:

All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present, not to say look what they did then, but rather look what we do now. Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October — whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist? 

The backlash began almost immediately, thanks to a willful misinterpretation of what Glazer said—mainly that he was renouncing his Jewishness because of Israel’s occupation and continuous slaughter in Gaza.

Of course, Greenblatt responded in his typical way: “It’s truly disheartening to see someone minimize the Holocaust literally as they are accepting an award for a film they made … about the Holocaust. Glazer talks about understanding where dehumanization can lead, yet is blind to the fact that it’s Hamas’ dehumanization of Jews & Israelis that led to the current war. Let me be clear: Israel is not hijacking anyone’s Jewishness. It’s defending every Jew’s right to exist.” 

And now this week, the open letter was published with signatories like actors Debra Messing, Juliana Margulies, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and various other Jewish producers and talent reps. They claim to have more than 1,000 signatories, though anyone can sign the Google Doc circulating without any sort of verification. (Twitter has added a Community Note to the Variety post about the lack of verification—which is hilarious coming from Twitter, but nevertheless—saying one of the signatories is listed as “Riverto Thesea.”)

The letter reads in part:

We refute our Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination.

Every civilian death in Gaza is tragic. Israel is not targeting civilians. It is targeting Hamas. The moment Hamas releases the hostages and surrenders is the moment this heartbreaking war ends. This has been true since the Hamas attacks of October 7th.

They also say referring to it as an occupation, “gives credence to the modern blood libel that fuels a growing anti-Jewish hatred around the world, in the United States, and in Hollywood.”

Aside from the idea that Israel isn’t targeting civilians being a total lie, the supporters of this letter (like Trump) are calling Glazer a bad Jew. Moreover, they’re calling him anti-semitic. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re calling the director of a film about the horrors of the Holocaust antisemitic. Do they even hear themselves?

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner was the voice of reason on the Haaretz podcast this week, calling Glazer’s speech "unimpeachable and irrefutable." He continued:

What he was saying is so simple: that Jewishness, Jewish identity, Jewish history, the history of the Holocaust, the history of Jewish suffering, must not be used in the campaign as an excuse for a project of dehumanizing or slaughtering other people. This is a misappropriation of what it means to be a Jew and what the Holocaust meant. He rejects that. Who doesn't agree?

To answer his question, those who don’t agree are the ones intent on turning the crosshairs on our own instead of those who actually wish us harm. Progressive Jews want peace for all Jews. I’m not so sure those working tirelessly to weed out the “bad” ones feel the same.

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