nothing about us without us

If you want to help in Israel/Palestine, acknowledge context and support local efforts

I see a lot of Western talk about Israel and Palestine, and not a lot of Western awareness of the context or the work of Israelis and Palestinians. People on both the right and the left often treat Israel/Palestine as a symbol and ignore the fact that it’s a real place, it has a real history, and real people live there.

One of many pieces of context that matters: Israeli Jews are mostly genocide victims and descendants of genocide victims who see Israel as the only reliable way to protect themselves. In their experience, most Jews who relied on non-Jews to protect them died. That context matters in any discussion of Israel, and it’s antisemitic to disregard it.

Another piece of context that matters: Israel is a mess. Israel is about as well-governed as you’d expect from a country run by people with PTSD in one of the most volatile regions in the world. In addition, Israel has from the beginning depended on less-than-stable compromises between different populations in the area, in a way that’s hard to imagine in the West.

I don’t know what would make things better in Israel and Palestine. The more I learn, the less I feel comfortable having a lot of opinions about policy. There are just too many pieces of game-changing context that I’m unfamiliar with.

One of the few things I’m sure of is that no one involved is suffering from a shortage of Western feelings. It’s not news to anyone who lives there that things are a mess. Israelis and Palestinians who live in Israel/Palestine have their own feelings about the situation.

Israelis and Palestinians also have their own opinions about what would help, and they’re doing their own work. There are Israelis and Palestinians all over the political spectrum, pursuing all kinds of attempts to make things better. (Some of which I’m inspired by; some of which I find horrifying.) I think Western conversations on all sides tend to erase the actual Israelis and Palestinians involved.

For instance, the Western left often erases the work of the Israeli left by pretending that only Americans and other Westerners have heard of justice and human rights). Similarly, the Western right often erases the work of Palestinians pursuing coexistence by speaking as though only people in the West have heard of peace.

If loud Western feelings and platitudes from afar could fix the situation in Israel and Palestine, the conflict would have been over decades ago. Palestinians and Israelis have heard it all before. It’s not helpful. Israelis and Palestinians already know about peace and justice, and many of them are working very hard to pursue both.

If you want to help make things better in Israel and Palestine, the best way to do that is by supporting the work being done by pro-justice/pro-peace Palestinians and Israelis who live there. Find Israel/Palestine-based organizations that share your values, and support their work. Foreigners can’t support political parties, but there are a lot of nonprofit organizations doing good work.

I don’t have an extensive knowledge of justice work in Israel and Palestine, but there are a few organizations I’m comfortable recommending:

The Jerusalem Open House For Pride and Tolerance. Hebrew home page; Facebook page  (They used to have an English page as well. In any case, you can use the Hebrew page to find contact emails). 

JOH is an LGBTQ center located in Jerusalem. (In Hebrew, the word for “gay” is a pun on the word for “pride”.) They provide services in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and I think Russian as well. They also organize the Jerusalem LGBT pride parade.

A Wider Bridge (an organization I’m *not* personally familiar with) has an English summary and links to English-language news articles about the Jerusalem Open House. 

Bizchut: The Israel Human Rights Center for People With Disabilities.

Bizchut works for disability rights in Israel, and has information in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They work on a number of issues, including alternatives to guardianship, inclusive education, voting rights, and communication access for people with disabilities in the legal system.

Yad b’Yad/Hand In Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel  runs joint schools for Jewish Israeli children and Arab Israeli children. The Yad b’Yad schools teach in Hebrew/Arabic/English, and are educationally progressive in other ways as well. (Eg: The Jerusalem Yad b’Yad school has physically disabled students in regular classrooms, which is unusual in Israel.)

There are many other good organizations doing important work on the ground in Israel/Palestine — these are just the ones I’m personally familiar with. Whatever justice issue you care about, there are Israelis and Palestinians who care about it too. If you want to help, support them.

Tl;dr Neither idealization nor contextless criticism will make things better in Israel/Palestine. Palestinians and Israelis are not suffering from a shortage of Western feelings. Israelis and Palestinians already know about justice, peace, and human rights. If you want to help, support local efforts led by Israelis and/or Palestinians who live there.

In which I respond as a Jew to an anon telling me off for using the word “Jew”.

Content note: This is a response to a hostile anon. (I normally don’t post hostile asks. When I make an exception, I post a content note so that people who avoid hostility can skip the post if they want.)

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
That awkward moment when a social skills blog calls people of the jewish faith “jews”

realsocialskills said:

I’m about to be ordained as a rabbi in a few weeks. 

I’ve been in an intense graduate program for the past five years, I went to yeshiva before that, and I majored in Jewish history undergrad. I think I’ve earned the right to an opinion on this.

And since I’d rather procrastinate than work on cleaning my apartment for Pesach, I’m writing a long reply to this about why I have the language preferences I have:

I’m not a big fan of ideological commitment to person-first language in any case. I identify as disabled and autistic rather than as a person with autism. For similar reasons, historically-popular euphemisms like “people of the Hebrew persuasion” and “people of the Mosaic faith” make me really uncomfortable, and insistence on “Jewish people” over “Jews” makes me mildly uncomfortable. 

That said, I try not to get too fussed over language disputes, for reasons that are captured well in Amorpha’s “On Language Dickery”. I think that what matters most is respect, and also respecting the language used by members of the group you’re talking about. (Including respecting a legitimate range of preferences within groups you’re part of.)

I don’t know anyone who refers to themself as a “person of the Jewish faith”. I’m sure there are some people who identify that way, but it’s very much not the norm in any communities I’m part of. There are people who have strong preferences about “Jewish” vs “Jews” as ways of referring to themselves — personally, I use the terms interchangeably. (Depending on which words make for the most clearly understandable sentences.)

In my experience, Jews do not define ourselves solely as a religious group, and it’s pretty weird to insist on referring to us as “people of the Jewish faith”. There’s a reason why “Jewish studies” is its own subject and generally speaking not a subset of “religious studies”.  Judaism is a religion, and that’s an important part of Jewishness and Jewish culture, but it’s not the *only* important part.

One way I’ve encountered this in my work is that when I did a chaplaincy rotation, when I’d introduce myself to Jewish patients, they’d usually start the conversation by saying “I’m not religious” — and we’d still have a lot to talk about. People who come from minority cultures have all kinds of experiences and perspectives relevant to that, regardless of what they believe about God and religion.

You can also see this on the level of Jewish organizations and Jewish movements:

For instance, BBYO is a Jewish youth organization that has much more to do with being part of a minority culture and learning to be a strong leader than it does with religion. 

Similarly, the National Yiddish Book Center is a Jewish organization, but it’s not a religious organization. It’s an organization dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish and Yiddish literature, a language which is endangered because a high percentage of its speakers were murdered by Nazis, and a high percentage of speakers in other countries were forced to stop speaking it.

Similarly, Zionism was initially an avowedly secular movement, and the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language was not religiously motivated. (And in fact met fierce religious opposition.) Jewish literature in Modern Hebrew is not an intrinsically religious thing. It runs the whole range of perspectives, just like any other language. 

There’s even a Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, which has the mission of giving secular Jews access to the skills to read traditional Jewish texts *as secular Jews*. I don’t think “people of the Jewish faith” describes this group particularly accurately. 

Nationality and language aside, there’s also a strong tradition of Jewish humor (some of which is pretty dark, because our experiences over the centuries have been really dark and sometimes laughing is better than crying). Here’s a page with a large collection of it. Some of the jokes have to do with religion, some do not. One iconic Jewish joke is:

  • A violent antisemite stops a Jew in the street and demands: Who is responsible for the war?
  • The Jew replies: The Jews and the bicyclists.”
  • The antisemite replies: “Why the bicyclists?” 
  • The Jew replies: “Why the Jews?” 

And many of the Jewish jokes that address religion are decidedly irreverent:

So it seems that these four rabbis had a series of theologicalarguments, and three were always in accord against the fourth.   One day, the odd rabbi out, after the usual “3 to 1, majority rules” statement that signified that he had lost again, decided to appeal to a higher authority.

“Oh, God!” he cried. “I know in my heart that I am right andthey are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!”  It was a beautiful, sunny day. As soon as the rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud moved across the sky above the four. Itrumbled once and dissolved. “A sign from God! See, I’m right, Iknew it!” But the other three disagreed, pointing out that stormclouds form on hot days.  So the rabbi prayed again: “Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, abigger sign!” This time four storm clouds appeared, rushed toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree on a nearby hill.  "I told you I was right!“ cried the rabbi, but his friends insisted that nothing had happened that could not be explained bynatural causes.  The rabbi was getting ready to ask for a *very big* sign, but just as he said, "Oh God…,” the sky turned pitch black, the earth shook, and a deep, booming voice intoned, “HEEEEEEEE'SRIIIIIIIGHT!”  The rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the other three,and said, “Well?”

“So,” shrugged one of the other rabbis, “now it’s 3 to 2.”

That joke is actually based on a story in the Talmud.

Every rabbi I know makes jokes like this; nearly every Jewish person I know makes jokes like this. 

I could go on, but I have a thesis about Jewish liturgy and Jewish ritual to write, so I think I’ll stop here.

In short, I think that insisting that we should refer to ourselves as solely as “people of the Jewish faith” amounts to erasure of every aspect of Jewishness and Jewish culture other than religion. I think it also amounts to erasure of our history in which people have responded to us as a racial and ethnic group in ways that had very little to do with religious. These things are vitally important components of who we are, and I am not ok with erasing them.

tl;dr A hostile anonymous person sent me a message telling me off for saying “Jews”, and insisting that I should use “people of the Jewish faith” instead. I’m Jewish. I disagree. Scroll up to find out more about why.

Autism Awareness starts with acknowledging that autistic people exist and matter

The strange thing about Autism Awareness is that a lot of people raising it seem to be largely unaware that autistic people exist.

They organize all these Awareness events, and then they don’t invite us. It doesn’t even seem to occur to them that it is possible to invite us. They invite professionals, our parents, and sometimes our siblings. They say they’re raising Autism Awareness, but they don’t seem to realize that autistic people exist and have opinions on autism.

They give fancy Awareness speeches, and they speak as though no autistic people are in the room. They say things like  “Let’s imagine what it must be like to have autism and be overwhelmed with sensory information.” Or “They really need therapy so they can come to do the things that you and I take for granted.” They talk about Awareness, but seem to be unaware that autistic people are present everywhere.

They don’t reference the perspectives, accomplishments, or activism of autistic people. They don’t reference the existence of the autistic self advocacy movement. They talk about Autism Awareness, but they seem to be distinctly unaware that autistic people exist and do things.

So, for April, this is the Awareness I’m raising: Autistic people exist. We do things. Our accomplishments matter, and deserve to be respected and acknowledged. We grow up, and our adulthood needs to be taken seriously. We learn, and our thoughts are important. We are people, and it’s time to stop objectifying us. We have perspectives, and our voices matter.

Assuming we are listening

Often, people write about marginalized groups of people, in ways that make it clear that they’re assuming that we don’t read what they say.

So – whenever you’re writing about a group of people, assume that some members of that group are listening.

Disabled folks, people of all races and ethnic groups, people of all or no religion, women, men, trans* people, poor people, rich people, mothers, fathers, children, teenagers, lots of other examples…

When you speak or write publicly, everyone in every group might be listening. Assume they are. It will make your work better.