A lot is awry at the moment: political violence in America, white nationalists in the streets, and a general feeling of unease as 5783 kicks off with a renewed sense of dread and antisemitism. A recap of October.
020: We need to talk about Stephen Miller: Challaween, Masks, and Identity
I was shocked to discover recently that White House advisor and architect of Trump’s most vile, racist, anti-immigrant policies is Jewish. (Forward: Leaked Emails Show Stephen Miller Promoted White Nationalist Material)
This man no doubt crafted the concentration camp system where kids are abused and disappear and migrants don’t get healthcare or even blankets. (see Jews Against ICE)
Let’s get some things out of the way:
- Being Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person
- Someone’s actions have nothing to do with their Jewishness
- Someone’s Jewishness has nothing to do with their actions
Judaism is steeped in mitzvahs around your actions, so what makes me state this?
The concept of a mitzvah as I understand it is that a mitzvah isn’t just a law, it’s a framework. So if you don’t follow a law, that’s on you. You’re not going to be locked up or otherwise stripped of your Jewishness. That’s the legal aspect at least, the idea being that the moral/ethical and spiritual repercussions are on you assuming you’re not harming others. Of course their may be social and familial impacts. If you’re in an Orthodox tradition, maybe that’s going to be felt more.
So to me your actions have nothing to do with your Jewishness per se. You have to want to be a good person and do good in the world on your own; Judaism just gives you that framework, a network, a community, some great guidelines, and tells you to go at it.
You (probably) won’t burn in hell if you don’t do good (Tikkun Olam), and of course you’re still considered Jewish if you’re not observing. Being born Jewish doesn’t mean you identify with being Jewish; I don’t know what Miller’s life looks like.
So in that sense your Jewishness doesn’t have anything to do with your actions. Should it? Can it? Sure. I can state I’m doing X because this tradition calls me to. And yet at the same time non-Jews can walk the exact same path for the exact same reasons, say, championing social justice or not butchering animals in an inhumane manner. (Noahide Laws)
So do we call Stephen Miller a bad Jew?
So do we call Stephen Miller a bad Jew? I’m tempted to but then remind myself I’m not yet a Jew for one, and calling people bad Jews or Christians—while super tempting (and I’m guilty of the second one)—is a slippery slope. The Hamberdler in the White (Orange?) House called American Jews on the left bad Jews. He didn’t use those words but he used an ancient trope—they’re “disloyal”—which is anti-semitic because it’s xenophobic and really fails any logic test. Jews can never be loyal to anything under this test; if they’re loyal to Torah and Halakha first, they’re disloyal to their country. If they love Israel, they’re disloyal to their country. If they, as the President claimed, are loyal to country first and don’t support the current radical colonizing policies of Israel under a far-right regime, then they’re disloyal to Israel. They can never be loyal. Someone who can never be loyal shouldn’t exist. That’s what Trump really means, though I doubt he knows that’s what he’s advertising.
This is the tack taken by the “alt-right” (they’re Nazis and white supremacists) that cheer Miller’s and Trump’s policies. Those groups don’t even consider Miller to be white, so I can’t wrap my head around him championing their dogma. What mask is he wearing? Does he not wake up daily knowing he’s co-creating his own oppression?
It makes me think of internalized homophobia and wonder if there’s internalized anti-semitism at play here for Miller. Does he hate Jews? Maybe not. But he’s aligned himself as a leader among those who do, those who will never consider him white and whose endgame means horrible death for him and millions others. He’s working directly below the man whose rhetoric is stochastic terrorism that inspires increasing mass-murders of Jews and minority groups since he took office.
Also his skin suit looks real uncomfortable
Aside: Miller reminds me of certain Chappelle Show skit (language!)
I’m crafting my Jewish identity. That means trying on many masks, figuring out what feels right, and getting used to being in wildly new spaces both physically and metaphorically. We all wear masks; I don’t mean I’m trying them on in any duplicitous sense. There’s no pretending. Putting on a kippah the first few times, going to a synagogue, even going to class at first felt like I was in costume. Becoming an adult, going through midlife, aging—they all craft our identities in surprising ways.
For Challaween I did my usual dance of not making plans til the last minute and certainly not planning a costume. I wound up putting on a mask, something some would consider sacrilegious. I was Homoses. It was fun, uncomfortable, and all I had in my closet, and I was hyperaware I may have been appropriating another culture, something that’s been in my noodle since that first kippah. But it also felt OK to do that to craft that identity, even if it meant showing a little leg.