Posted Under: Anti-Semitism,Civil Liberties,Culture,Identity,Israel/Palestine,Jewishness
The stalemate over the status of circumcision in Germany has pulled a lot of voices out of the woodwork to stick their oars in – and aside from anodyne rights-based debates about choice, the most pernicious ‘defence’ of circumcision comes in the form of ‘Commandment 614’. Giles Fraser invoked it in his article in today’s Guardian, for example, and I find it incredibly distasteful.
I’ve got to lay out my stall here: I’m circumcised, and barmitzvah’d, and am now entirely happy to disavow the religious side of my Jewish identity. I’m culturally Jewish (and the rest), but I’m not in any way religious. I’m happy to acknowledge that there are important factors which press on our identities other than rationality – let’s call these habitus, for the sake of brevity. There’s a necessary negotiation to be made between our multiple identities (all of us partake in multiple identities, derived from our job, our status, our skin colour, gender, religion, whatever). It’s not necessarily a negotiation that we as individuals have any choice over.
Plus, I’m quite ambivalent about circumcision. I don’t think it’s mutilation necessarily, but I reckon there could be a way for it to be formalised and made non-harmful while keeping the religious communities happy. Banning it in the way that they did is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut (if you’ll excuse the inevitable mental image that conjures up).
This is where the good part of Fraser’s argument takes us: he’s right to point out that the liberal model of choice is vacuous, and entirely in thrall to a capitalist idea of identity as formed by consumption. But that doesn’t mean that the counter-argument is good. Fraser moves into perilously conservative territory when he starts talking about Commandment 614: Thou must not grant Hitler posthumous victories.
I actually found it difficult to type that, because it makes me so angry. Fraser’s telling of the story goes like this:
The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, himself a survivor of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, famously added to the 613th [sic] commandments of the Hebrew scriptures with a new 614th commandment: thou must not grant Hitler posthumous victories. This new mitzvah insisted that to abandon one’s Jewish identity was to do Hitler’s work for him. Jews are commanded to survive as Jews by the martyrs of the Holocaust. My own family history – from Miriam Beckerman and Louis Friedeburg becoming Frasers (a name change to escape antisemitism) to their grandson becoming Rev Fraser (long story) to the uncircumcised Felix Fraser – can be read as a betrayal of that 614th commandment.
And I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with. On some level, I feel like a betrayer.
“Jews are commanded to survive as Jews by the martyrs of the Holocaust”. How are we supposed to understand this? I’d argue that it’s part of the horror of the holocaust that it turned an evolving community of different interests and opinions into a nostalgic model for ultra-conservatives to point to as the community that has to be maintained. But since Fraser comes from a ‘mixed’ family, like me – Jewish and Gentile – then he’s surely experienced the side of Commandment 614 that I have: mishlings aren’t Jews. Their parents are letting Hitler win (certain shuls in London will accept kids of ‘mixed’ families only as ‘single-parent’ families regardless of the marital status of their parents). Reformed Jews aren’t Jews. Jews who eat treyf aren’t Jews. How can they keep letting Hitler win like that? Of course he feels like a betrayer, when his whole argument can’t help but make him into one.
Now, I’m not saying that all, or even most, Jews believe this. It’s a specific guilt-tripping tool of an ultra-conservative tendency within parts of the Jewish community. It’s just a shame to see someone like Giles, who’s been so supportive of Occupy and the anticapitalist left recently, employ such a crude and dangerous notion.