Toxic masculinity is bad for the Jews

Hello everyone. I apologize for being so bad about posting. I’m trying to finish my dissertation and apply for postdocs; it makes it hard to do longform writing that isn’t dissertation-related.

I’m not going to recap what went down with the JDL (Jewish Defense League) at the action I medicked for IfNotNow (a progressive Jewish group that I am also a member of), because I have already done that a bunch of times on Twitter and elsewhere this week, mostly in rapid-fire bursts of tweets/messages. For that background (all links here get content notes for physical violence, anti-Arab/Islamophobic bigotry, intra-Jewish conflict), read this +972 Magazine article (with the note that the events of the second video actually happened before those of the first) and these two Twitter threads. Violence and injury always have a context, and for me, and I assume for most people, this affects the emotional response. I don’t have the same emotional response to a broken arm where someone fell at a LARP that I do to a broken arm that police broke. I don’t have the same emotional response to someone punching a Nazi propagandist vs punching a queer person. Even cases that are similar aren’t the same – because of something early in my street medic career, I have a much more intense emotional response to people being hit with batons or anything baton-like than I do to people (including myself) being pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed. Various aspects of the context of this particular situation have caused it to hit, emotionally, like a speeding truck.

But I actually want to discuss it in the context of something else I’ve been thinking about, which is the way that cultural construction of masculinity, the gender-policing of men, affects some Diaspora Jews. I don’t have a ton of data here, this is mostly observation-based. Antisemitic stereotypes of Jews are often about ugliness, and, particularly when aimed at Jewish men, physical weakness, neuroticism, and effeminacy, the notion that Jewish men are particularly unlikely to meet cultural ideals of masculinity and that that (because this is how misogyny works) that makes them inferior. To pick a high-profile example of this from a few years back, The Forward had a very good article in 2013 about how the absurd “Pajama Boy” Obamacare-advertising controversy (I am sorry for reminding you of this exceedingly silly episode in national political discourse, but it is relevant) was grounded in antisemitism. It’s unfortunately not very hard to find antisemitic assholes propagating the idea that Jews are weak cowards who were passive in the face of genocidal violence (not going to go looking for citation links for this one, folks).

Any oppressive stereotype is subject to being internalized by the people it’s aimed at, and this one is no exception. April Rosenblum mentions it in the internalized oppression section of her leftist-to-leftist zine on identifying and resisting antisemitism, which, seriously, you should all read in full. This one is also, to a degree that I find pretty disturbing, intertwined with traditional Zionist ideologies (see especially the two paragraphs starting with “Sternhell distinguishes…”). See also here. American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley covers the links between Zionist thought and antisemitic stereotypes of Jews, and especially Jewish men as weak, in a characteristically grotesque cartoon from 2008. Internalized shame among Jewish guys over feeling like they aren’t physically strong enough or can’t defend themselves is by no means a Zionism-specific thing (though I think Zionism plays interestingly into young US Jews’ self-concepts – look at the common idealization, by all genders, of IDF soldiers as symbols of Jewish physical prowess and ability to protect ourselves, the cliches about hooking up with them on Birthright trips). I happen to love progressive superhero Captain America, and often wear a Cap bracelet or t-shirt. But Noah Berlatsky points out, reasonably, that Steve Rogers (and Clark Kent) are wimpy Jewish stereotypes transformed into physically powerful mainstream men.

I participated an interesting conversation earlier today on Twitter with Noah about Holocaust-related media, in which Inglorious Basterds (which I have not seen, because Tarantino’s style of violence tends to distress me and I often don’t get through his movies when I try) came up. Noah makes a good case, as far as I can tell having not seen the movie, about it being more complex than some of the commentary makes it sound. But – not necessarily through any fault of the movie, people read odd things into movies – it seems like there’s a subset of Jewish men who react to it the way that Tarantino’s Jewish friends did, or that Jeffrey Goldberg did before he’d cooled off from the initial high of the movie. A revenge fantasy for personal experiences where they or family members couldn’t protect themselves. I don’t see that tendency, and what it’s responding to, as separable from the idealization of the IDF. As Goldberg, who discusses his own experiences with childhood antisemitic bullying in the linked piece, says, “When I came out of the screening room the night before our interview, I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank—and possibly the East Bank.” After internalizing the idea that you’re not capable of fighting back, the idea of not just being able to defend yourself, but to be able to dominate your enemies, terrorize them, prove that you too can be the masculine ideal, can be appealing.

The question of whether the mainstream masculine ideal is something worth emulating, worth showing off your conformity to, sometimes gets lost in this sort of discourse. It shouldn’t be. Most activist spaces that I’ve been in, women and nonbinary people, are the majority, and that’s not a bad thing. IfNotNow puts great emphasis on “relational culture” (cultivating personal connections between members), something generally coded as strongly feminine, to the extent of having a specific role tasked with propagating relational culture (the Hivekeepers), and providing training in it. At meetings, I often hear people request that cis men take on roles that are traditionally heavily done by cis women and by trans folks of any gender (and the cis men are pretty good about responding). Song, art, education, community gatherings, are all treated as important. In my opinion, all of this is very good and cis men shouldn’t be embarrassed to be associated with it (and indeed, in IfNotNow, as far as I can tell, they aren’t).

None of this is separable from the JDL, an organization founded, ostensibly, for Jews to defend themselves and other Jews from violence, with a long history of attacking Palestinians and other Arabs, progressive Jews, and others. They were a mixed-gender group at AIPAC, but while the women shouted and did things like rip up a Palestinian flag, it was the men getting physical. And they didn’t fight the way that someone fights in self-defense. They fought to physically dominate, terrorize, throw their weight around, make a statement of power. That’s what people ganging up on someone and causing them 18 stitches in their eye is. That’s what beating someone up while they’re fleeing, or holding someone down with your flag to beat them, or shoving into and hitting a group of physically untrained people who are singing, is. It’s not a fight exactly, it’s a chance to show off your power and masculinity, it’s symbolism and statement. And against whom? An elderly Palestinian man – horrifying but unsurprising given the rabidly anti-Palestinian sentiments of Kahanism and the history of JDL members’ attacks on Palestinians and other Arabs – and the progressive Diaspora Jews that they despise.

It’s not an accident that the JDL is trying for a comeback in the US now. Fascism, white nationalism, Trumpism, are ascendent, and so is antisemitism. Kahanism is pretty fascist and virulently Islamophobic, making the current US potentially fertile ground. But the other side of it is that a lot of Jews are genuinely and reasonably freaked out. Antisemitic hate crimes have spiked in places like New York City. Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized, Jewish journalists are receiving dozens or hundreds of death threats from Nazis, Nazis are going after a Jewish community in Montana. College students are finding swastikas in their dorms and bathrooms, a student at my own university was attacked by a driver asking for directions. People are worried, people want to do something (and for some right-wing and/or very Islamophobic elements of the Jewish community, the idea that the something they do should be against Trumpism, well, that’s something they have a vested interest in not believing). People, especially the young guys for whom vulnerability goes the most against what they’re told they should be, and plays the most into what they fear being and want to vanquish in themselves, are looking for ways to not be vulnerable. I’d previously seen a couple of old guys who are not rightists saying that maybe it was time to bring back the JDL. Well, they’re back, and recruiting at AIPAC, and they and their sympathizers are bragging about how much the college kids loved them, and how much fun they had partying with attendees after. I don’t know how much of this is truth vs propaganda, but the fact that I could see it being true is disturbing. Hell hath no fury like worried young men, with their elders carefully cultivating their Islamophobic bigotry and their rejection of everything that society has taught them is bad in their own community, trying to assert their masculinity.

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