Focusing on the “Philo” in Philo-Semitism

Last week, Kveller, a partner site of MyJewishLearning, published a provocative piece about one woman’s experience being Jewish in the South.

I had mixed feelings as I read the piece. The post’s author, Michelle Anne Schingler, writes of converting to Judaism, and her subsequent experiences of the “fetish-ization” of the faith by her Southern Christian neighbors. In the piece, she outlines several of her negative philo-Semitic experiences.

It’s well-written and interesting, and starts a very worthwhile conversation; it just also felt… harsh.

In one sense, I identified with a lot of her experiences. It happens a lot down South, though not only down South– and it’s strange, certainly, to meet people who are so excited to tell you how much they love Judaism/Jewish people/Israel/Jewish culture… before they even know you. Being told by a Christian stranger that I’m “God’s chosen” has happened to me more than once, and it’s always a little odd. (I mean, how am I supposed to respond? “Thanks?” Or the more honest but controversial “Actually, I see chosen-ness as metaphorical, and think we’re all equally special?” Or perhaps just “I know, right? It’s amazing.”)

In another sense, I bristled a little at the characterization of these encounters with people as a “litany of pestilent microaggressions.” Yes, sometimes the motivation behind the expressed love of Judaism can feel like a micro-aggression: “I love Jews! You know, Jesus was Jewish… [subtext: I can’t wait until you all accept Jesus and become Christians].”

Still.

That evangelical sentiment isn’t always there when someone expresses a genuine interest in Judaism. (Schingler herself notes that she wore a Star of David and described herself as 3/8 Jewish, prior to converting.) I never assume someone has an ulterior motive until they say outright that, y’know, they really want me to read The Book or something. And even if that thought is there, lurking in the background of their questions about seders and sukkahs, well– as long as it’s not expressed in a painful or relentless way, how much should we police those thoughts? How much should we really let it bother us?

My mother (who, incidentally, converted to Judaism and is one of the most Jewishly-knowledgeable people you could ever hope to meet) often told my siblings and me when we were growing up that “it’s the thought that counts” is NOT a Jewish idea. “It’s the action that counts,” she would remind us. “Thought is nice and all, but if you think about going to the soup kitchen and never actually show up to volunteer, that nice thought doesn’t count for much.”

To extend that notion… if people love Jews/Judaism/Jewish culture/and on and on, well– whatever the subtext or thought-behind-their-actions might be, if it leads them to befriend and defend and generally be loving and supportive of the Jewish people, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what counts?

Yes, to a degree, I’m playing devil’s advocate here; evangelism is an uncomfortable experience, and I’m not saying friends-with-an-agenda is something awesome. What I am saying is that philo-Semitism does not always equal “fetish-ization,” nor is it always an attempt at conversion. What I am also saying is that we live in a world where there has always been anti-Semitism. It’s not just something in the history books. It’s something in the news, it’s something in our own lives. Even if the thought behind some of the sentiments might not be ideal, when it comes down to it – I’ll take philo-Semitism over anti-Semitism, any day of the week.

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