Jewish Identity, Jewish Heroes, Jewish Paranoia: An Interview with Scott Weinstein

Scott in a deli
Scott in a deli

Montreal Serai had the opportunity to have a discussion with Scott Weinstein, Montreal based social and political activist, who has often been in the fore front of organizations that have protested War in West Asia (often referred to as the Middle East, from a Europe-based mindset) and elsewhere and has supported the Quebec student movement of 2012 actively. He is as a medical nurse and has moved voluntarily into disaster affected areas in Haiti and New Orleans to respond to people seeking assistance under calamitous circumstances. Scott is also a key member of the Montreal Chapter of Independent Jewish Voices. Scott was in discussion with Rana Bose, Co-Editor  of Montreal Serai.

MS:     Scott, this issue of Montreal Serai has as a theme “Believers/non-Believers.” This provides us with a broad spectral vista to ask the question as to why people believe in the things they do and why do they wrap themselves with their beliefs. But first, I want to ask you a general question. Recently you had remarked that you are a “cultural Jew”– what exactly does that imply? What are the things you prefer to align with, as a Jewish person?

SW: Typically, my identity started early as a kid who mashed everything in early life to form an identity. Growing up, I knew I was Jewish. My parents sprouted me when they were young. They were what we would now call “hipsters” from the United States. So I thought being hip was a Jewish trait.

Lucky for me, I shipped out of the US as a toddler and lived in post war Germany where Jews were a curiosity, (decades later, a German girlfriend told me I was the first Jew she ever met, and when I asked why, she replied, “Well, we killed you all”). As a child, I lived in pre-revolution Iran, where we were mixed in with Persian and Arab Jews, Muslims and internationals. Iran had a major influence on me, and we jived well with Iranian culture. I did not feel like an outsider in Iran because I was a Jew — just the opposite.

In fact I really felt like an outsider upon moving to Montreal. And, like many of Serai’s readers, I too have the sense of being an outsider inside the country I live in. We immigrants are adopted by our city, but rarely feel embraced by the nation. As a parallel dynamic, the Jewish establishment is today busy welcoming or purging Jews based on our Israel attitude.

I experienced nostalgia during my trips to Palestine because it shares a vibe that I remember from Iran. Even Israel, except for Tel Aviv, feels like the Middle East.

As a side note to that, Shlomo Sand, a French-Israeli historian in his book The Invention of the Jewish People, writes that modern Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews who later converted to Islam, and that us Ashkenazi Jews who recently settled in Israel and conquered the Palestinians, do not have ancestral DNA links to Israel. We are converted Jews. What cruel irony that maybe Palestinians are the lost tribe of Israel now being slaughtered by converted Jews.

Later, I identified being Jewish as liking Jewish comedy, what is known as “shtick”. My family liked jazz, R&B soul, funk, etc. So for the longest time, I thought I was truly Jewish because I liked Jewish comedy and black music, etc. You know American Jews have a strong history of ripping off Black culture.

My Jewish identity might sound ridiculous, but not any more ridiculous than what other Ashkenazi Jews tell me makes them feel Jewish i.e. they like klezmer music, can swear in Yiddish, can speak some Tagalog they learned from their maids, or can trace the inedible Jewish dessert pastry that get passed from a bris to a Seder to be mercifully dumped in the trash before the bat-mitzvah banquet. The other week, I re-watched “Blazing Saddles” written by Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, and it was just as hysterical 40 years later. I just learned that Brooks wrote the black sheriff’s dialogue, and Pryor wrote the Jewish dialogue.

Another part about feeling Jewish is being a minority, which is desirable in white progressive circles. I used to get down on my knees and thank fate that even though I was born a white male, at least I wasn’t Anglo-Saxon, blond and fair skinned with a petite nose. However, the S.H.I.T. List website (naming thousands of “self hating Jews” who criticize Israel), righteously attacked me for my WASP name Scott.

Jews had some left heroes — Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, and Trotsky. Lenin was so not Jewish, obviously. Mao might have been. He had issues.

MS: How do you maintain your cultural Jewish identity, if at all? Give me some examples. I am asking you this, because I do not believe in any omnipotent being, or master planner somewhere, deciding the fate of the world and my life. I have a lot of questions for myself that remain unanswered, but I consider them a limitation more of scientific realization than revelation. I do not go to any church, temple or mosque-except when it is the premise for a social occasion. Do you go to synagogues, do you observe certain ceremonies and if you do, why do you so and what do you derive out of it?

SW: Cultural Jewish identity is very arbitrary and nebulous in today’s mass culture – especially for people who are neither religious nor participate in traditional Jewish ceremonies.

In some ways, the Jewish identity is found in the DNA of our attitude that “I am Jewish and that’s that”. My family tree goes back at least five generations of Jews and nothing but Jews. I’m circumcised. I have a big nose, unruly hair, a nasal voice, and pretty much look like a Semite and sound like a whiney Jew. My last name is Weinstein, which also identifies me as an Ashkenazi Jew, just in case people missed the nose thing.

But one thing a lot of us Jews share is a few stereotypes about ourselves, and because of that, I am quite Jewish.

I am Jewish because I have strong opinions, such as disliking synagogue and Jewish ceremonies.

I am Jewish because I love to argue, and my fights with Zionists proves it.

I am Jewish because I eat Chinese food. Jews maintain that the Hebrew civilization started in 2200 BC and the Chinese civilization started around 1200 BC, so for a thousand years, Jews starved.

MS: Are you able to define your social conditioning as apart from your identity? Or have they, over the years of activism, become the same? In other words the way you react to the news or incidents -are they part of your Jewish identity or part of your social conditioning?

SW: My early influential childhood was in Iran and my liberal parents were neither religious nor Zionists. (Just for the record, I am using the broad term Zionist in the narrow sense to describe the Israeli colonial project, but many anti-colonial colleagues like Jeff Halper reclaim Zionism as a Jewish culture). I was lucky to have escaped the Islamophobia and Zionist brainwashing afflicting Jews growing up in the West, from Zionist homes, schools, temples, etc.

MS: When people take up a position out of their conditioning– how they have been brought up, the value systems they have been taught to espouse since childhood and the identity they have chosen for themselves-do you think it is possible to unravel that through discussions? To re-align ones beliefs through argumentation? Do you believe that it is possible to have an epiphany about things that you have always upheld and at some point realize that -all this is bullshit, smoke and mirrors! “I must relook at my views and re-identify myself?” Is this something that drives your enthusiasm as an activist?

SW: Yes, I agree, but I developed the framework of my strong beliefs when I was a little kid in Iran under the Shah which had in-your-face class divisions and U.S. imperialism. Later, I had several ‘epiphanies’ from smoking some amazing shit, which sadly turned out to be less than epiphany-worthy when I came down. My only significant change was first believing in ideology such as anarchism, then not believing in ideology — I simply believe in what we call morals and ethics.

MS: In your experience what are some of the “profiling” prejudices you have suffered if any? Have you been addressed as an “anti-Semite” or “self-hating Jew”, because of your support for the Palestinian cause? Do people in the mainstream Jewish community see you as a radical believer in left wing politics and therefore a lost case as a Jewish person?

SW: There is only one negative about being a Jew in Montreal – we have a reputation of being the bourgeoisie (or descendants) that exploited so many Quebecois and immigrants in the shmata clothing business, and staffed our homes with hired help. Many French Quebecois, Filipina, Chinese or Haitians will give you that certain look when you tell them you are Jewish.

Sure, we’ve been called anti-Semites and self-hating Jews by the Zionists, but one should remember the lesson from the late great Jewish anarchist Sam Dolgoff, “You can call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late for dinner”. His wife Esther’s response was “Cook your own damn dinner”. Most of us are very aware of the Zionist’s game and our attitude towards them is not printable in your fine family publication.

But how Jews feel about ourselves is also twisted by assimilation.

When I lived in Florida in the 1980s, my American-Palestinian friend Sandra Tamari (who became well known two years ago as an American who was denied entry by Israel to visit her Palestinian family), took me to the Ramallah Club in Jacksonville. I remember thinking ‘These Palestinians are just like Jews without nose-jobs!’ They looked, behaved, moved and joked just like us.

Then my grandparents took me to their Jewish country club in New England, and I remember thinking, ‘These Jews are just like WASPs!’ Many of the women straightened and died their hair blond, they had nose jobs, and dressed like the goys.

A self-hating Jew is really someone who is ashamed of their Jewish identity, and ironically, the Jewish establishment pressures Jews to do just that.

The left version of that is non- or anti-Zionist Jewish activists who don’t want to come out as a Jew. Not surprisingly many anti-Zionist Jews might be ashamed of their class and race privilege, and association with Israel. So politically they get involved in anti-colonial or pro-Palestinian activism passing as generic white people. When we identify ourselves as Jews on these issues, there is not only more pressure to own our privilege, engage with our perhaps reactionary Jewish family and community, but also to be open to the responses from people our people have fucked over.

We started Independent Jewish Voices because progressive Jews personally benefited being inside a home that supported our values and belief, and also because IJV is a good vehicle for political activism. Six years later, IJV’s insistence that Jewishness is enhanced by the core belief that human rights apply equally to all in Palestine and Israel has only made us stronger. Meanwhile, the liberal Zionists who are trying to square the circle of a Jewish and democratic Israel are disappearing.

History is vindictive — fighting antisemitism today also means fighting Zionism because Israel’s cruelty and arrogance meted on the Palestinian people fuels anti-Semitism. Many Zionists are anti-Semites — they hate other Jews who don’t kiss their nationalist asses.

On my last trip to Palestine with a Jewish delegation, most of us got extremely upset and even sick experiencing the everyday humiliation we see Jews inflict on Palestinians. In our name. It is very difficult to maintain perspective and empathy, and not be disgusted by our own people for abusing Palestinian people, and acting like racist shits. Really, it’s a challenge.

When all is said and done, we humbly situate ourselves within a consciousness that goes back centuries, of people who seek to wrap themselves in the notion that we are all sisters and brothers trying to overcome our artificial divisions.

MS: Why do you think that the majority of the Jewish community are so firmly behind Israel, no-matter what? After all the majority of the world’s most illustrious thinkers, philosophers, humanists, rationalists and scientists have been of Jewish origins. Their thought processes should have inculcated some issues of identity in the mainstream blind Israel-supporting Jewish community, no?

SW: Yeah, it is very sobering to realize just how accurate George Orwell and Joseph Goebbles were in describing how easy it is to mutate decent people into monsters. Chomsky added another truism that explains your question by stating that the intellectual class -“most illustrious thinkers, philosophers, humanists, rationalists and scientists” readily offer their talents and power to buttress the ruling elites.

Jews have been first traumatized by the anti-Semites in Russia and Europe during the pogroms, and then the Nazis. That trauma is being unremittingly manipulated by the Israel lobby to build and maintain their Israel project on top of Palestinians. Colonialism is very difficult to support in the 21st Century, so fear, loathing, and guilt are manufactured for Israel. We Jews constantly receive low level electro-shocks about the anti-Semitic boogeyman outside our door.

Read the B’nai Brith’s emails — they don’t get fancy. It is non-stop screaming headlines about anti-Semitism — real and invented, here, around the work and even incidents that happened ten years ago. Sexual minorities and people of colour experience far more real assaults and threats than Jews, but they don’t have the establishment support that Israel has. When some anti-Zionist youths politely occupied the Federation CJA in Montreal last week, the FCJA called them an “anti-Semetic riot”, which if the kids had a sense of humour, should be their new name. The Israel lobby is shameless and relentless that: Anti-Semites are gonna kill you and your babies. Send money. We are the victims. The world hates Jews. Support your homeland – Israel. Better yet, move to Israel, etc.

My colleague Fabienne Preséntey said the pure anti-Semitism is the Jewish establishment assaulting Jews, telling us we are victims and we should be afraid.

This is classic psych-ops. The powerful hate and fear the people they oppress, and they invent extraordinary myths to justify their cruelty.

MS: Do you believe that there resides an individual in you, that is masked by a persona or do you believe that you live life as an individual already? When I refer to the concept of the individual, I am talking in terms of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who in my opinion was the ultimate rationalist and believer in the ethical individual. A secularist and constitutionalist. Does that appeal to you to be an individual in your life and political assertions, as opposed to being part of an identity and a believer and soldier for a cause?

SW: I am a product of the modern North American empire, and we are conditioned to think about ourselves as individuals by shopping a lifestyle in the supermarket. So I am confused about what my inner individual is and what my product description is. What did Spinoza have to say about branding? Politically, I stick by the classics of: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; Do your own thing; Be nice.; You are your brothers and sisters keeper. Organize and keep your eyes on the prize.

Religion is just a belief system, like political organizations, sports teams, and provincial identity. People in groups act predictably. Extremists in any group can be terrible. I have known some wonderful deeply religious people who are more revolutionary and socially positive than many of our bitter atheists. The PQ, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins showed us recently how dogmatic, sexist and racist atheists can be.

The thing I take away from anarchism is that the seeds you plant determine what you will reap. A revolutionary people must implement the structures and the relationships that they want to realize – be it democratic informed decision-making on consequential issues, self-management, cooperatives, fair distribution of resources and power, a sustainable ‘de-growth’ economy, and solidarity with those who are hurting.

It means that violent institutions like police, militias and militaries post-revolution are very likely to become instruments that will re-grow and protect a paranoid and greedy elite that will again oppress the people. So revolutionary violence is not something to be glorified or preserved. However, the responsibility for ending the chronic violence between Israel and Palestine lies with us – making sure our governments and corporations stop supporting Israel’s occupation and military beat-down of Palestinians. I think the only real solution for global survival and justice is demilitarization.

Palestine taught me that police are the problem with violence and crime. When I was first there in 2003, the Oslo Accords essentially forbade a Palestinian police force. Like an anarchist dream, Palestinian society had very little crime and people lived in relative peace with each other. Palestinians felt responsible to resolve incidents that might escalate into a crime, and treated each other with a minimal solidarity. Very much like a village, people resolved their own troubles, instead of calling for a cop. The violence came from outside — from the Israelis. When I returned seven years later, the Palestinian police were established and are now the instruments of violence for the Palestinian Authority. It is obvious why the first form of foreign aid the imperialists often insist on is police and military training.

MS: Do you think that in your discussions with your friends and colleagues and even your detractors, there is some hope that rational discourse could one day lead to an ethical understanding of the human condition-in terms of fairness, justice and honest ethics, when it comes to Palestine?

SW: If I was to play poker with auteur Rawi Hage inside his taxi, I would be the smiling fool with a bad hand betting everything will turn out fine. Rawi would be holding the Aces up his sleeve, take all my money, give it away to his destitute female neighbour, and still feel taken. It helps to maintain an optimistic attitude, some passion, and a faith in people to ultimately do the right thing.

While some are motivated by rational discourse, most folks are moved by shared values, desires and raw emotions. Our challenge is to show that the Palestinian people are as deserving of security, comfort and freedom as you and I, and that Jews can go back to being Jews without colonizing or shooting Palestinians.

Sometimes I use emotions and cold facts with Jews who hate Palestinians, and say, “If you don’t stop the occupation and killing of Palestinians, Israel is gonna get nuked”. You can’t say that to the Christian Zionists, because their eyes light up if you threaten the Apocalypse. But you know, the Apocalypse isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Scott and Rohan
Scott and Rohan
Rosie and Scott
Rosie and Scott
  • Avrum Rosner

    As I read your words, the phrase: “YES, in my name!” came to me. Thanks so much for doing this, Scott!

  • mary ellen

    memorable quote 1: “Most of us are very aware of the Zionist’s game and our attitude towards them is not printable in your fine family publication.”
    memorable quote 2: “This is classic psych-ops. The powerful hate and fear the people they oppress, and they invent extraordinary myths to justify their cruelty.”
    thanks SCOTT and thanks Rana!

  • Mark Etkin

    My life has been enhanced by knowing Scott these past 6 years. This interview with him is another contribution to my knowledge base, and to my appreciation of Jewish humour.

  • Shanti

    Wonderful! Thank you both for this interview.

  • Best interview on Jewishness I read in a long time, if ever. And I don’t mean to be reductive. Beside the Jewishness thing it is witty and insightful. Scott, I admired you for your actions and commitment, but I didn’t know you were such a cool, clear headed, and sharp interviewee.

  • maire

    Splendid interview!!(which I’m only coming to now – how could I have missed it?). There’s so much in there.

    “While some are motivated by rational discourse, most folks are moved by shared values, desires and raw emotions.”

    Yes – so true. I for one am motivated by the former, but often frustrated by reactions of the latter type in arguments with others. But I do appreciate a bit of raw emotion in appropriate places. There is a lot of rational discourse in this interview, but it’s got some good emotion bubbling through in places. And the values are all spot on!
    Thanks Scott, and Rana.