Last December, I was at a science fiction convention, hoping to spark interest in the paperback of my alternative history, Judenstaat. I lingered by my copies in the dealer’s room, and got to talking with Laurie Edison, a photographer and jewelry designer. Her stuff was gorgeous and intense, and like its maker, a little witchy. I had a feeling that the earrings and pearl necklace I bought had a story behind them, but part of me didn’t want to know it.
It wasn’t long before I pitched my novel about a Jewish State established in Germany. She, in turn, told me about a personal project. She was making Jewish stars in bronze and sending them to Jews. The deal was this: the Jews would have to wear them.
It was—she said—a way to openly mark yourself as Jewish in a time when attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions are on the rise. She didn’t have to explain. Many friends of mine—men and women both– have started wearing yarmulkes in public as a way to defiantly assert Jewish identity. I should also note that I always make a point of letting my Community College students know I’m Jewish a few weeks into the semester.
I thought about Laurie’s offer for a while. Then I said no. Here was my reason at the time: The Jewish Star is at the center of the flag of Israel. Even then, the answer felt dishonest, but it was the best answer I could give.
Last May, I was in Israel and Palestine, doing research for a novel-in-progress. It wasn’t exactly a calm before the current storm. I was in Jerusalem the day of the funeral of the Al Jazeera reporter, Shareen Abu-Aklah, when the Israeli police beat mourners and nearly overturned her casket. That evening, I wandered through the Machane Yehuda market where Israeli flag-draped bars were packed with men singing along to a song about soccer and world harmony. As I traveled to the West Bank city of Nablus, we passed settlement after settlement as Israeli flags fluttered on both sides of the bypass road. I began to be reminded of a long-ago trip through Mississippi where I was so surrounded by Confederate symbols that for the first time in my life, the sight of an American flag brought relief.
There was no equivalent relief that May. The flag of the Palestinian Authority flew in Nablus but it was plastered over with hundreds of martyr posters. From the roof-deck of my hostel, I’d hear gun-shots at night: Israeli soldiers? Palestinians testing weapons? A wedding party? I left with a sense of the banked fury of the young men I met, not least towards the Palestinian Authority. I’m not surprised that the new militia, The Lion’s Den, was founded in Nablus. It was certainly in the process of forming when I was there.
Yet, what I want to write about here is this: when I was in Nablus, a city known for its proud militance and history of resistance, a city almost entirely Muslim and fervently anti-Israel, the most revelatory and intimate moments I had there were when I let Palestinians know I’m a Jew. First there was the architect and community leader, Naseer Arafat, the author of Nablus, City of Civilizations, who’d responded to my email about Nablus by offering to be my guide to the city. I wrote him before I arrived, uncertain how he’d respond. He wrote back: “If I had my worries I would have been clear and straightforward from the beginning”. He never mentioned it again, yet as we sat on a hilltop by the ruins of Sebastia, and he reflected with profound honesty about his life, was it a response to my own honesty? I can’t know.
I told Sara, a marvelous accounting student I’d met on the street, that I was Jewish after she treated me to the best kunafa in the city. I told Mai, the manager of my hostel and a comparative literature student. We discussed Dostoyevsky, a Palestinian novel called Return to Haifa, and the Holocaust. I didn’t tell everyone. The young men who shared their anger at the Palestinian Authority said, “You’re Christian, right?” I think I nodded. I didn’t tell old men I met through Naseer who had taken part in the 1967 Palestinian General Strike. Still, it turned out that just about everyone at the guesthouse knew. They gave me free coffee anyway.
.A deeper question might be this: why did I feel the need to tell these Palestinians that I was Jewish at all? Did I want them to know a Jew who wasn’t holding a rifle? Did I want to somehow complicate their images of Jews? I absolutely didn’t think about it on those terms. Somehow, withholding that part of myself just felt wrong in a way I can’t articulate, and under those charged circumstances where so much felt at risk, letting these open-hearted people know I was a Jew felt like giving them a gift—no strings attached. They didn’t have to change the way they thought about Jews, let alone Israel. Not at all.
I’m not a believer in stable identities or primary identities. We are all at the center of crosscurrents that make the word “identity”, at best, pointless, and at worst, dangerous. Yet, I am a Jew. Again and again, my novels turn back to Israel in ways that feel rooted in my contradictory imagination. When people reveal their own mixed emotions and divided hearts, I want to take the risk and do the same.
After Nablus, I spent a few days in Tel Aviv to decompress. I stayed in a neighborhood not far from the beach, and blessedly free from mass displays of Israeli flags. Yet just before I flew home, I read a report about Jerusalem Day. Ten thousand Israelis streamed through the Old City of Jerusalem, draped in those flags with those blue Stars of David in the middle, shouting “Death to the Arabs” and “May your village burn”, kicking in the grates of the closed shops of the Muslim Quarter, attacking cars and houses, pepper-spraying old women. It was —this is the only word that fits—a pogrom. Outside my Tel Aviv window, someone on a scooter passed by singing cheerfully.
I thought, with tremendous clarity: Israel is not a Jewish State. It uses the symbols of Judaism. The flag is modeled on a tallis—a prayer shawl. Hebrew is a language adapted from our liturgy. A lot of Jews live in Israel. I will never stop feeling drawn to that place. Yet in terms of everything I know and feel about what being Jewish means, Israel has no right to call itself Jewish.
This brings me to the Star of David that Laurie offered. If I believe that Israel has appropriated that symbol, then why shouldn’t a wear it? Why can’t I take ownership of the symbol on my own terms? Well after I met her, I turned this question over and over, and that’s when I realized that I was afraid.
I’m still not sure of the source of this fear. Is it a fear of facing anti-Semitism? Is it more a fear of casual assumptions about what I believe—including about Israel? If I could wear a tee-shirt that reads: “Not a Zionist” along with the Jewish star, would it make a difference? Is it actually a fear of being visibly marked? It isn’t the way that Black people are marked by the color of their skin or people with visible disabilities are marked and judged before they’re known, yet it’s inviting a comparison. In Nazi Germany, I would have been marked with a yellow star. I wouldn’t have a choice. Is wearing the star all the time a weird appropriation of the symbols of the Holocaust?
Here’s the truth: When I tell my students that I’m Jewish, when I told a small number of Palestinians in Nablus that I’m Jewish, it’s a gift I give them in exchange for what I hope to get in return. If I always wear the Star of David, what does it mean? I’m exposing a part of myself—and a deep and complex part—to people who may not deserve it. The symbol is not about asserting pride. In many ways, it’s about asserting vulnerability. Is that who I am? Is that who I aspire to be?
Well, reader, I thought about it. Then, I thought some more. I wrote to Laurie and ordered the star. It came two weeks ago. She’d told me that it wouldn’t look at all like the star in the middle of the Israeli flag, and she was right. It was two smallish, longish, overlapping bronze triangles. My first response was: this looks like something my mother would have worn in the 1970s. Then: it’s kind of beautiful, but will I really wear it? I put it the necklace on, and the hammered halves glowed, falling just below the neckline of my sweater. The star felt startlingly visible. I wore it to school the next day, and felt a hypocritical relief that my college lanyard partially covered it.
I’ve wore that Star of David necklace steadily. None of my colleagues or students have mentioned it. Wearing that necklace doesn’t feel quite right. It casts a spell. My teaching rhythm’s off. I get a little prickly about small grievances. I suspect these tics will pass, but then, I wonder: is the Star of David in the middle of the Israeli flag a little like the Star of David I wear on my sweater? Am I demanding something?
Thanks for sharing this. It leaves me with a lot to think about. I’ll try to write again in q week or two when my thoughts may be a little clearer.
BTW, are you a fan of the mystery writer Walter Moseley? I just read a recent novel of his, Red Death, which is set in the McCarthy Era. I enjoyed it tremendously …
I’ve heard wonderful things about Walter Moseley but haven’t read him, Rachael. Something that’s certainly true about genre fiction is that it’s a great platform for exploring some very complicated issues!
Wow, that was a very interesting read.
I am impressed with the thought process you went through to write that. I also realize that your thinking that out makes you stronger. Good work.
Thanks, Barbara. I hope the thinking makes me stronger…still feeling ambivalent about putting on that star again when classes start after Spring Break…
So interesting and thought provoking
Thanks, Steve. That means a lot, coming from you. I wonder what Eve would make of it…