Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Is it Racist to Exclusively Date Jews When You're Secular?

I feel like I've had this conversation a thousand times with a thousand different people.

When I was younger and still somewhat religious, I used to tell people that I would only date Jews. It was partly because my religious beliefs were a part of who I was, and I thought a relationship with someone who wasn't Jewish was destined to end in fighting.

More than that, however, it was because my parents would be really angry and really hurt. When I was a teenager and began rebelling (and hanging out with people who were not Jewish), my parents sat me down and gave me a whole talk about why it's so important to only date Jews. I can't remember the specifics of the speech, but I am certain that my grandparents being Holocaust survivors came into it. Also, I remember that my parents thought it crucial that the religion not get watered down. That the only way to ensure that was to remain religious, to date religious, and to marry religious. (The whole idea of this is odd in retrospect, since neither of them actually grew up particularly observant or religious, and were certainly not observant when they dated or got engaged.)

Lately, with the introduction of a boyfriend into my life who is not Jewish, I've been thinking about the inevitable reactions that some of my family and friends will have when they find out. I've had the conversation with a bunch of my friends who do not care and the question came up again: is it racist of my friends and family to want me to exclusively date Jews?

As someone who was very uneasy with that idea in my younger years, I've been surprised to discover that my answer to that question is actually yes. Yes, it is racist. Would it be racist for my siblings to date only Jews? For my religious friends? No, certainly not. For them, religion is an essential ingredient in their everyday lives. They want to keep Shabbos with someone who wants to keep Shabbos with them. They want to be with someone for whom sending kids to (expensive) Jewish day schools is a priority. The list could go on infinitely due to the nature of religious Judaism.

But let's look at me for a second. I don't believe in the precepts of Judaism. I don't practice. I don't keep a kosher kitchen or Shabbos. I don't do any of these things. Judaism comes into my life only when I visit my family or in a sort of ethnic way -- when I make my own celebrations of holidays. There is no sense in which my life requires me to be with someone who is Jewish. If I were to narrow my dating field to only Jewish men, it would strictly be a matter of how they were born, not who they are, what they believe, or what they practice. And that, from my perspective, cannot be construed as anything but racism.

I think it's interesting how many completely secular Jews go about their lives wanting to only date Jewish people. I mean, I get it. There's the preservation instinct, which comes from the terrible things that have happened throughout Jewish history and have made us very tribal. And still, I think, when you come down to it, it's counter to what most of those secular Jews stand for in terms of their morals and ways of life.

18 comments:

chaynobody said...

Very interesting angle - I never would have seen it that way, that for people who's morals are against separating and divisiveness are the ones who's attitudes are more severely racist or bigoted. Very interesting thought.

Dave said...

Dating Jews exclusively is not necessarily racist.

Excluding people you'd otherwise date because they are not Jewish is.

So, if all the people who happen to float your boat also happen to be Jewish, no problem.

If there is someone who you'd love to date if only they'd had an ancestor who'd trotted across the Red Sea, problem.

Dave said...

Let me add the caveat that that was assuming the person in question is secular..

JRKmommy said...

Is the label "racist" even appropriate when discussing personal dating choices?

Nobody has a "right" to date you, so you aren't depriving someone else of their rights if you choose not to date them. Personal preferences do not need to be justified.

Would you be sexist, heretosexist and ageist if you wanted to exclusively date straight men within a certain age range?

On Her Own said...

Dave:
"So, if all the people who happen to float your boat also happen to be Jewish, no problem."

My sentiments exactly.
---
JRKmommy:
I've thought a lot about what you said in terms of preference. In a certain way, I think it makes sense. If you're looking for someone who has the same background as you because you'd like to be with someone who understands where you come from, etc., then no, you're not being racist. And that's why many people date people from within their own ethnicity, as well as their own age range.

However, as Dave said above, it's if you exclude someone who you'd otherwise be interested in, who you get along with, who you're attracted to, etc., strictly on the grounds that they're not Jewish, then yes, I would say that is racist.

That's the way many of the secular Jews I know who date exclusively Jews go about it -- meet someone that they really like and want to date but won't say yes (or will say yes, but then break up with them) only on the grounds that they aren't Jewish.

The thing about preferences, taste, etc., is that it doesn't translate quite so well with Jewishness because being Jewish by birth doesn't necessarily mean that you share qualities with someone else who was also born Jewish (at least, from my experience).

In other words, if someone tends to be attracted to people with a Jewish look, that's not racist. However, if they won't go out with someone who has a Jewish look but is not actually Jewish on grounds that they are not Jewish, that is racist.

As to your comment that in order to qualify as racist, you have to be denying someone a right, I don't actually think that follows. For example, no one has a right to be my friend, but if I will not make friends with anyone who is not white, on grounds that they are not white, I would say that that makes me racist.

JRKmommy said...

It just strikes me as an incredibly judgmental way of viewing your secular friends.

When I talk about preferences, physical appearance is just one aspect. We aren't talking about how we treat others in public, or even about making friends. This is a whole other level of intimacy, where you are potentially merging your life with another person and creating a new family. In that context, if someone says that a particular factor is important to them - then it's important to them. Period. If that means that you think that they may be turning down potentially great mates, that's their problem and their problem only.

I'm wondering, coming from a formerly frum background, if you may be lumping some of your friends into the "secular" category, without really understanding that this doesn't necessarily mean "wants nothing whatsoever to do with religion or Judaism". Generally speaking, in the non-Orthodox world, things are more nuanced than that. It's not an all-or-nothing thing, and their whole view of what Judaism is all about may be very different than yours. At the same time, it may be something of value to them, and they may ideally want someone who shares that with them, as a common foundation to build a future life together.

On Her Own said...

I understand what you're saying about the highly personal nature of dating/marriage. I am not going to run around condemning people who may seem like to me they are basing this decision on racism. If someone appears to be secular, but holds somewhere deep inside them a connection to Judaism or Jewish culture that they wish to have shared with their partner, props to them.

(Which is also to say that your supposition that my understanding of the terms "secular" and "religious" are flat or black and white because of my Orthodox upbringing is not an accurate one. Granted, I only mention my siblings as examples of people for whom dating exclusively Jews is not racist. But I did not mean that to exclude people for whom Judaism is important in non-Orthodox or non-traditional ways.)

Still, I do not agree that just because something is a highly personal decision, that discounts the possibility that it is racist. If a person of a race/ethnicity says they will not consider dating someone outside their race/ethnicity strictly because of that factor, that's racist. It's their very own personal racism, about which neither I nor anyone else should have a say, but that does not change the fact that it's racism. It's something they have to consider on their own.

This post was not intended to be a condemnation of individual secular people, but more to look at what I see (in an abstract, theoretical sense), and look at who I am, and who I've been, and make that evaluation of what I decide going forward.

I know that this type of racism exists because I've had it in me. At times in my life, the only reason why I would not date someone who is not Jewish was simply that fact -- that they were not Jewish. And it was highly influenced by what I knew my parents' reaction would be. I know the same is true for some of my friends.

At the very least, if we cannot agree that there is some sort of racism involved in the personal decision of who to date (or who not to date), perhaps we can agree on what I find even more problematic: the hysteria in the Jewish community which surrounds intermarriage, even when we are talking about completely secular people -- a phenomenon which is easier to call racism (to my mind).

JRKmommy said...

We may agree that much of the Jewish continuity hysteria is counter-productive.

I don't really think that you can make a truly convincing argument to marry Jewish, if you don't first make the case for living Jewish.

Philo said...

Choosing to date people who have a similar cultural background, even if you don't practice much anymore, is certainly not racism and isn't even hypocritical, which is really more what you're asking.

People do it all the time. Relationships can have so many pitfalls, that if you want to be with someone who understands where you came from, that's perfectly fine.

Even just trying to meet someone Jewish for your parents' sake isn't wrong. If you value your relationship with your parents, and you choose to preserve it by trying to find a Jewish guy, there's nothing wrong with that.

The pool of single non-Jewish guys out there isn't an oppressed minority, and you're not doing damage to them by not dating them. It's not like refusing to patronize an establishment because of the proprietor's ethnic background. THAT would be racism. Your dating preferences aren't.

All that being said, if you happen to now be in a relationship with a non-Jewish guy, and you are happy, it would be hypocritical to break up with him just because he's not Jewish, when you don't believe in it anyway. But if the secular Jew vs. non-Jew cutural divide creates problems in your relationship, then there's nothing wrong with breaking up. If you're not happy, whatever the cause, you don't have to stay in a relationship just because you think the reason for the conflict shouldn't exist.

But in your case, since you've given no indication that there's any such conflict, and you seem to be happy, then there's no reason not to continue and be happy! Happiness is hard to find, so take it where you find it.

Dave said...

Choosing to date people who have a similar cultural background, even if you don't practice much anymore, is certainly not racism and isn't even hypocritical, which is really more what you're asking.

Sure, but "similar cultural background" is not necessarily congruent with "is Jewish".

For example, someone raised "generally secular affluent Jewish" in New York City will most likely have a far greater cultural similarity with someone raised "generally secular affluent Episcopalian" in New York City than either would with someone raised "Conservative, Jewish, Midwest United States".

And while "five generations Reform in America" may be just as Jewish as "family came over in the late 1940s, grew up in New Square", they would be amazingly far apart culturally.

On Her Own said...

Philo -- I second what Dave said.

Also, re: "But in your case, since you've given no indication that there's any such conflict, and you seem to be happy, then there's no reason not to continue and be happy! Happiness is hard to find, so take it where you find it."

Thanks. :-) I am!

Jenifar said...
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kisarita said...

surprisingly enough to jews accustomed to the orthodox way, there is such a thing as a jewish culture and it can be very strong among people who are not religious and don't practice much.
For some people, this is a very important part of who they are and they want to be able to share it with someone.
In my opinion, the litmus test is how you feel with the person- do you feel like the jewish aspect is missing or not?
Also, I would caution that it should be a secular person- i would caution against marrying someone who adheres to another religion, even if it doesn't seem like a very demanding religion- such as many versions of christianity. This person is likely to want to raise his children christian, baptism or whatever, occasional church. Unless you are cool with Christianity of course. But why would you be more cool with christianity than judaism?

kisarita said...

basically what i am trying to say is that there is no right or wrong answer on whether to interdate/intermarry, its a very personal thing and neither choice should be condemned.

On Her Own said...

Kisarita--
"surprisingly enough to jews accustomed to the orthodox way, there is such a thing as a jewish culture and it can be very strong among people who are not religious and don't practice much.
For some people, this is a very important part of who they are and they want to be able to share it with someone."

-- I agree. See my comments to JRKMommy above.

"Also, I would caution that it should be a secular person- i would caution against marrying someone who adheres to another religion, even if it doesn't seem like a very demanding religion."

-- Yes, that's definitely the case if you want to have children. (If not, however, it's pretty irrelevant.)

"its a very personal thing and neither choice should be condemned."

--Again, see my comments to JRKMommy above. It is very personal, but I don't think that means it can't be a personal racism. It was not my goal with this post to condemn anyone for their personal decisions (be they of a racist variety or not), but only to think philosophically on the matter. Or, as I worded it in the comment, "This post was not intended to be a condemnation of individual secular people, but more to look at what I see (in an abstract, theoretical sense), and look at who I am, and who I've been, and make that evaluation of what I decide going forward."

kisarita said...

thats talking out of both sides of your mouth.... as racism is condemned by decent people. wanting to marry someone of your own ethnicity and culture is a separate question.

kisarita said...

regarding children and intermarriage: The thought occured to me that intermarriage is the BEST thing you can do for your kids (contrary to popular wisdom that intermarriage is bad for kids...)
Children of intermarriages have the best of both worlds. They have the opportunity to be jewish if they so choose and the opportunity to reject it absolutely completely freely. Not so for people who are born totally jewish, they can leave judaism but jewish identity will follow them around for the rest of your life. Even secular Jews.
This is especially the case if a Jewish woman marries a non Jewish man because judaism is matrilineal while the rest of society is patrilineal- so they really have equal option of identifying however they want.
Caveat: this is only true if the parents are truly emotionally neutral about the child's choice! I chose not to intermarry because I new that I could not be emotionally neutral and I would be bequeathing big baggage to my kids, and now that I've gotten to the point where I could be neutral, that man is no longer available. (you run the risk that your frum parents could get in the picture and start playing tug of war with your kid.) I mean you as the generic you, not you personally cuz I don't know whether you want to have kids or not.

JRKmommy said...

Sorry to post on an old thread, but I was having a debate elsewhere with someone who insisted that the current definition of racism involved looking at power dynamics, and was basically defined as efforts by the dominant racial group to maintain their dominant position.

While I have some quibbles with that definition, it does clarify some of the differences between general racism that we should all condemn, and preferences that may exist in a non-dominant group.

Laws against miscegenation were efforts by a dominant racial group to maintain racial divisions and keep a system in which they were superior. Clearly racist.

Personal dating preferences, on the other hand, are just personal.

As for the group preferences of a non-dominant group - I've heard it argued, using this definition of racism, that this is not racist, because the focus is on the survival of the minority group as opposed to maintaining racial superiority. For example, it may suck to be a white woman dating a black man if you get flack from black women, but it doesn't affect race power dynamics on a larger societal level.