(first published in the Jewish Week, September 3, 2019)
We are tired of being spoken about in the third person. We are old enough, have seen enough, to know the importance of telling our own story. We have been co-opted, used as pawns in other times, other places, and it never ended well for us. We were hunted, exiled, tagged, forced to renounce ourselves, and when none of those things were enough, entire communities of us were murdered.
It always starts with the third person. “They.” They secretly control us. They are disloyal. They are on the wrong side of this or that political test, this or that high-stakes battle of succession, this or that war over land or language. The oppressor’s favored grammatical point of view is the third person because it objectifies, distances, silences.
Those who fight oppression prefer the second person. “What do you believe? What stories do you tell yourselves when you are alone? What do you need from us to feel safe? Who are you really, and what are your aspirations?”
The oppressed themselves struggle to reclaim the first person, especially the first person plural. “We” is a sacred word, one that, in our isolation, is difficult to say. But we are not alone. We are a community. We have our own story to tell, and we don’t need anyone telling our story for us.
Maybe the reason there is such a space in which others, on the right and the left, are telling our story is that we are not sure exactly what our story is. And maybe the reason for this is that our story is crippled unless it contains all of us, the breadth of our experience. The sense of unity that has sustained us through the millennia is more important than ever. It is also threatened, as so many of us feel connected to but a sliver of our story. But that story contains multitudes.
It is not just a story of continuity and the transmission of a tradition with great fidelity. It is not merely a tale of survival and reaction to the latest persecution. It is not a story of progressive social action only. It is all of these and more.
Here is one version of a story we might tell: The only people of antiquity to survive antiquity, we were scattered around the world, and everywhere we went we held onto our defining values, we remembered our ancestors and the moments that made them who they were, and we worked — in spite of the lure of despair and fatigue — to choose life, to choose hope, to build families in an uncertain world, and we built communities, of learning, of growth, and of mutual caring and support, and we didn’t stop there: we looked outward at all the others and asked, “How can we help?” And we did, we did help, in the form of many social movements towards freedom, equality, dignity, compassion, and justice. We were fierce, we cared for our own children, we supported our longed-for homeland when it finally arrived, we protected our lives and culture and knew it to be a moral and not a selfish act, and we also fought for friends and neighbors in other communities and cultures; we did all of this in spite of tremendous pressure and anxiety, regular outbreaks of verbal attacks and sometimes physical violence, and we did all of this as Jews, as beautiful, human Jews.
As Elie Wiesel put it, “We do not let the enemy define us.”