Is "philosemitism" really just a form of antisemitism?
April 14, 2017 3:18 PM   Subscribe

And if so, can I avoid it while still engaging with Jewish culture?

Ever since I can remember, I've felt drawn to Judaism and Jewish culture. I can't pinpoint where this attraction came from, but even when I was in elementary school, it was noticeable enough that fundamentalist Christian kids harassed me for it. As I got older, this affinity developed into a deeper interest in Jewish literature, music and food. I also studied Hebrew for several years. I'm a supporter of the Jewish museum in my city and often go to events sponsored by them and other Jewish organisations.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to convert, but I lived a long way from any Jewish community. Recently I've felt that desire nagging at me once again, but I think that my family situation would make a conversion unworkable. (Although my husband is - coincidentally! - the son of a halachically Jewish father, his family haven't practiced the religion for a few generations now, and he doesn't have any interest in adopting it. I know Judaism is a faith lived out largely through home and family life, so I think this would be a nonstarter. Also, I'm not 100% sure I believe in God.) So I think the best plan is to continue as a Gentile with ties to Jewish culture, and to be the best ally that I can in the face of what seems to be a rising tide of antisemitism.

Now, here is my problem. Although I would never use the term to describe myself, I'm aware that I am what people would consider a "philosemite." And I'm also aware that many Jews consider philosemitism to be just another form of antisemitism - a backhanded way of making Jews into "the other." I don't think that this is my motivation, but then I wouldn't, would I? I'm also not confident that I can always tell when cultural appreciation crosses the line into cultural appropriation. Is there a way for non-Jews to engage with Jewish culture that avoids these traps - that does good or, at least, does no harm?
posted by Perodicticus potto to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Also, I'm not 100% sure I believe in God.

I have a friend whose father is a rabbi who doesn't believe in God, so you may not have to worry about that part.
posted by ejs at 3:45 PM on April 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

Have you tried making an appointment to talk with a rabbi about your concerns? They might be able to provide you with guidance on whether conversion is a good goal or how to continue to be an appreciative but non-appropriative non-Jew.
posted by epj at 3:53 PM on April 14, 2017 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Have you looked into the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (US) or Humanistic Judaism UK? Those groups believe, more or less, that the culture of Judaism is the whole ball of wax. Obviously, the groups tend to be located in major metros that have significant populations of atheist but "culturally Jewish" people. For my own curiosity I attended a seder put on by a local organization and the folks could not have been more welcoming and certainly did not ask about my religious or cultural background.
posted by wnissen at 3:56 PM on April 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Bearing in mind that the old adage "two Jews, three opinions" applies here:

1) Jewish atheists abound; you may want to chat with a Reconstructionist rabbi.

2) What you describe right now would not strike me as offensively philosemitic. (Several years of Hebrew? Hey, go for it.) For many Jews, philosemitism is problematic not just because it exoticizes or "others" us, but because it's intimately linked to evangelical conversion rhetoric (of the "oh, I so looooove the Jews" variety), and you certainly aren't doing that. Speaking over Jews is, again, an issue, but you don't seem to be doing that, either.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:04 PM on April 14, 2017 [17 favorites]

One thing that's really interesting about Jewishness is that it's really three things : it's a religion, it's a culture, and it's an ethnicity (and each of those is not one thing, so it's even more complex, but I'm going to set that to the side for now!). Each Jew identifies with the three pieces to varying degrees. I think it's totally legitimate for you to appreciate and participate in Jewish culture without becoming religiously Jewish (I say as another non-religious "technical Jew").

Personally, as a non-religious, "Jew-ish" person, I have a lot of friends like you - non-Jews who love Jewish culture and people - and I think it's great! Sometimes I even learn about Jewish things from them. I could see it being weird if you were fetishizing Jews (either sexually or not), or if you were into Jewish culture but had some weird antisemitic ideas about Jewish people (like how many white Americans love black culture but are uncomfortable with black people), but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Also, if you are interested in becoming more religiously Jewish, do you think your husband would be totally opposed to following certain traditions? I mean, maybe not keeping kosher and a strict Sabbath, but Reform-style Friday night Sabbath dinners can be a lovely thing, and I know a lot of non-religious Jews who do Seders. If you feel spiritually drawn to Judaism (even if you don't believe in God!), I think it's worth exploring.
posted by lunasol at 4:47 PM on April 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I am Jewish and I see no problem with what you're doing. But I would think it was weird if we were friends and whenever we talked you brought up a Jewish topic; I would start to feel like I was just present for my Jewishness. It doesn't sound like that's what you're doing at all --- just saying it's one common way that people who think of themselves as philosemites can set off squick in Jewish people.

I agree with you, given what you've said, that it probably doesn't make sense to convert.
posted by escabeche at 7:04 PM on April 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

If it adds to your life, it's a good thing. This isn't a case of your making or believing in generalizations about Jew or Judaism. You want it for yourself.

As an example of how your partner might participate: My husband is Jewish, but he's also anti-organized-religion. He said he had zero interest in worship or even in traditions. But when his father died, I looked up some of the traditional acts and gestures. I read somewhere that at some point in the mourning process, you're supposed to take a walk near the house, so I asked him if he'd like to do that. We walked, and talked about his dad. Then when we came back, I said I wanted to light a candle, if that was okay. It was really nice because it was just the two of us doing things we wanted to do.
posted by wryly at 8:00 PM on April 14, 2017

Best answer: You probably already know that a huge part of Judaism as a culture is doing good in the world, volunteering your skills and assets in ways that productively help others. I just attended a seder where we mostly talked about how important the story of Passover is in terms of what's happening to many groups of people in the world right now, and what we can do for them from our perspective and with our strengths.

I'm sure you have unique skills and ways to contribute that many Jewish groups would love to know about, and most won't care at all about your designated religion. If you aren't physically near any synagogues or community centers there are still many ways to help if you're computer or language-savvy (and it sounds like you are, considering your Hebrew studies). This could be a good way for you to involve yourself in Jewish culture without concern of appropriation and knowing that you're being a positive force.

I've known many adult couples where one is a practicing Jew and the other eschews religion, including my childhood rabbi and her agnostic husband! Although there are a lot of things that are traditionally done with the family, that doesn't mean that doing them in other ways makes them any less right for you and your practice.

It doesn't sound like you're fetishizing Jews from your question. I think that is something you should keep in the back of your mind for now as you walk the path of an ally and participant, because God knows we need as many as we can get right now. Check in with a rabbi if you find one you mesh well with, but just having asked this question makes you thoughtful enough to likely avoid the problem.
posted by Mizu at 3:28 AM on April 15, 2017

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