by Danya Lagos
I would like to thank Lizzie Busch for her thoughtful response piece to my post “Therapy and the Jewish Left” and for assuming in good faith that my intention in the piece was not, in fact, to drive a wedge between the personal and the political, as nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if we want to talk about the personal and its relation to the political, when I call for the Jewish Left to relegate its overblown therapeutics regimen to the sidelines in favor of immediate direct action, I speak precisely from my own vantage point as a Jew operating largely on the margins of the traditional sites of class, ethnic, and gender privilege within in the North American Jewish community that Busch suggests might have been missing from my analysis.
When Busch suggests that my analysis falls short by focusing on the role of therapeutics in “a subset of organizations that might mainly serve white, Ashkenazi, class-privileged Jews,” I would very much like to ask – where is there a Jewish Left organization that isn’t predominantly white, Ashkenazi, and class-privileged? I would really like to find one, because as a Hispanic and Sephardic Jew from a middle class background who does not identify with a gender, I’ve never had the privilege of working in a Jewish Left organization or coalition that is not dominated by mostly white, Ashkenazi, professional class, and comfortably heterosexual and/or cisgendered people. It is precisely because of the very real way that power works and is distributed, even on the Jewish Left, that I often find myself being the captive audience to the “self-care” practices of people hashing out a strange mix of white guilt and white envy, class guilt and class anxiety, and predominantly heterosexual and cisgendered concerns that do not apply to me (even though I sometimes wish I had such compelling crises such as “am I being hegemonically Ashkenazic-normative right now?” on my plate!).
I do not normally like to call attention to the identity-politics salad of marginalized identities that makes my experience fundamentally different than that of my Jewish Left allies. In fact, I loathe identity politics precisely because of how it plays into this whole white-audienced therapeutic healing regimen, but I am engaging with it now only to point out that I am not coming at this from some sort of Stoic, manarchist perspective, glibly denying people the right to attend to their needs. It is simply that from experience, I don’t have much faith in the ability of even the most well-meaning, privileged folks who tend to organize the Jewish Left to facilitate effective moments of “healing” that have any relevance to people like me and others on other marginal spectrums that Busch mentions, nor do I really think it is effective for people like me to pursue this in the vast majority of Jewish Left spaces.
I will depart here from responding to Busch directly, and use the points she made as a springboard to analyzing the situation further, since I don’t want the tone I need to use here to be confused with how I feel about what I thought was a pretty cogent and well-meaning response.
Exhibit A: I was at a Jewish Left event once that, in attempts to be inclusive, made a distinctive noise noise and hand gesture to indicate that “jargon” was being used that might not be accessible to people with minimal background in Hebrew or broader Jewish education, so that the word could be properly defined and explained by the person who used it. A noble gesture towards inclusivity, I initially thought, but throughout this event, the noise and gesture kept being used liberally and quite obnoxiously to indicate that words as basic as “Shabbat” and “kashrut” could be considered jargon, mostly by people who very well knew the meaning, and seldom, when it came down to it, by people who actually did not know the meaning. At some point, it came time for me to invite people to a caucus for Sephardic Jews, one that I was urged to head in order to provide a “space” where those of us in the vast minority might congregate to have some sort of “healing” time of our own, since the event skewed 98% Ashkenazi, despite doubts I expressed initially about the need to have a “space” for this kind of thing. This was, of course, after a multi-hour session that was primarily focused on confronting issues of anti-Semitism in America that were primarily tied to Ashkenazi culture. Well, I began to announce the caucus time, but no sooner than the word “Sephardic” came out of my mouth, the “jargon” gesture and noise came out of Left field. Yep – a part of my identity was labeled potentially exclusive jargon, and I had to stop and explain to an entire room of Ashkenazi Jews what Sephardic meant. Not surprisingly, no one came, because no one else was Sephardic or interested in caucusing around being Sephardic, but this did succeed in embarrassing me in the name of being gracious enough to provide this “healing time.”
In short, thanks, but no thanks. Those of us who don’t have large coalitions that match our identity-driven concerns at our disposal at every Left event are used to finding or creating healing times and practices of our own when we can find them, and for many of us for whom the practical interests of tactics drive us to forge alliances with people in higher positions of privilege, “healing” often has to take a back seat to what we can work on together during preciously limited time, whether or not this is a devaluation of (white-dominated) “feminine” forms of care. Picker’s suggestion that the disparities in access to self-care can be mediated by extensive cooperation between privileged folks and non-privileged folks is laudable, but ultimately unrealistic to those of us who have been let down numerous times by promises of a redistributed social burden with those who can do better than partnering with us. To people with whom there is a significant basis of forming healing partnerships along lines of similar social position, that is a different conversation, and I eagerly invite it, but I’ve just never seen this take up a majority of the time in the coalitions that are facing the highest stakes if direct action is left unfinished. To people with tremendous privilege, especially those who form the majority of the Jewish Left, who see healing as an integral process of activism, and would seek to make it the center of any broader Jewish Left action, let me make this clear:
I don’t want to heal with you.
Heal on your own.
Form specific groups of specifically white, Ashkenazi, classed-privileged, whatever, etc. folks – just like the rest of us have to when we’re in “your” spaces – and please don’t invite me to watch in the name of inclusion.
I want to work with you towards concrete, direct, material emancipation, and that’s basically it. Please let me do this without having to go through the extensive hand-wringing and navel gazing that seems to be the price of admission to today’s Jewish Left coalitions.
Danya Lagos is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Chicago and recently studied at Yeshivat Hadar.