Jewish Identity Divided: Our Labels Make Us Weak
By Izzy Sakhaie
“I” vs “We” is an age old dilemma. I know who I am. I have my own labels I use to define myself: Jew, Iranian, American. A friend, a daughter, a foodie. A strong, independent woman. I live in peace with my different labels.
The desire to belong is human nature. The problem really seems to arise when we as a Jewish nation begin to subdivide ourselves into various categories. Doing so creates disunity, giving us a much weaker voice and making it harder to have a unified front in support of Am Yisrael. The desire to be part of something is so strong, it leads us to naturally categorize ourselves into minute sub-categories. But unfortunately, this often results in categorizations that can increase our seeing those outside of those subcategories as different.
We often ask each other about our Jewish labels: “Are you Orthodox? Reform? Conservative? Conservadox? Reconstructionist? Sephardic? Ashkenazi? Traditional? A 'daven 3 times a day' Jew? Or a 'synagogue 3 times a year' one?” Yes, we are all Jews; and yes, when we meet a random Jew in the middle of a small town in Italy we feel an immediate bond. “Jew” is the label that unites us but, the second we walk away, we tend to re-affiliate ourselves with our self-defined sub-labels.
Why do we identify with our specific labels more than we identify with our larger and more fundamental label - being a Jew? Why does everyone from the outside treat us as the same (an Antisemite doesn’t discriminate between different types of Jews) but we so starkly discriminate within ourselves?
During times of difficulty for the Jewish nation and Israel, it would seem that every Jew around the world unites. We change our facebook profile; we post a picture on instagram; we write heartfelt messages and statuses that “we are one,” for the pain inflicted upon us is the same no matter what kind of Jew we are, where we live, what temple we go to. We are one family and like in any family, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.
Why then, when strife is not at the forefront, do we forget our unity? That we are part of the same religion; the same faith; the same history; the same struggle; the same beauty; the same nation; the same people wherever we might be in the world?
I firmly believe that as long as we are dis-unified, those that want us to vanish will continue to win in their battle to delegitimize us as a People, because not even we are recognizing that we are one, unified whole. If we do not recognize the legitimacy of all the elements and sub-groups of our People, is it any surprise that our enemies succeed in undermining our legitimacy as well?
I’m not here to say that labels are all bad. We need labels. They help us navigate the world and find belonging. It’s healthy and natural to feel that more intimate connection to smaller, specific groups.. But, at the same time, it is helpful to rise above the minute and recognize the bigger picture.
The focal image of Judaism is the Star of David, or Magen David. The star is made up of two triangles overlayed on top of each other. Each of the three sides of the Magen David represents a different aspect of the Jewish existence. They represent the unity of the Jewish people connected by three different aspects: Hashem, The Land, and The Jewish People. Each element is connected together, with our faith laying at the core. The form is maintained by the balance between the sides. So why do we so often look to one element without giving focus to the others?
It is common to find a person that is extremely observant and strict in keeping Halacha, focusing mainly on unity with Hashem. But what about unity with The Land? Or with other Jews, including those who may have different ways of practicing their Judaism? Often devout Zionists focus on unity with the Land. But what about unity with Hashem? Or with other Jews? And there are also those that are avidly focused on making connections with their fellow Jew. But what about The Land? Or Hashem? It seems hard to find a community with a healthy balance between these 3 elements.
As balance between each element is important to us as individuals, the balance between each other is important to us as a People. Am Yisrael is made up of a wide variety of Jews. While it seems easy for us to remember this in times of trouble, we must strive not to forget when times are good.
Our labels as individual affect the way we interact with the group. When as a group, as a family, we divide ourselves, we sabotage our balance and stability. This means that we are “easy game” for those who wish to destroy us as a People. It’s the oldest play in the book: divide and conquer.
This is why unity is so important. A divided nation makes us weak. We are stronger, together.