At 19 years old, I still find it difficult to answer basic questions pertaining to my national and cultural identity.
Denationalization, the removal of a group of people from a national consciousness or identity due to their “otherness,” has stripped national identity from my family. My parents were born in the former Soviet Union; my mom was born in modern-day Ukraine and my dad in modern-day Latvia. Yet they are neither Ukrainian nor Latvian because Soviet regulations barred them from having a nationality. They were just Jews under Soviet law. Nearly every traceable generation of both sides of my family has experienced some form of denationalization and was forced from places they could not call home.
Though I have been fortunate to have an American nationality and citizenship — unlike my ancestors — denationalization is not a long-gone phenomenon for Jews. Today, denationalization is not a legal policy, but it persists in rhetoric that questions and undermines the loyalty of Jews to a given country. The demoralizing process of modern denationalization is one of the most dangerous manifestations of antisemitism and should be recognized as such.
Including denationalization in our everyday definition of antisemitism is necessary to improve the inclusion of Jews into national consciousness, as well as to monitor — and end — any current attempts to reduce a Jew’s identity to solely being Jewish.
In Western Europe, dangerous rhetoric of denationalization is gaining momentum. Polls conducted in Great Britain by the Anti-Defamation League show that of those who harbor antisemitic attitudes, 41 percent responded “probably true” to the statement “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Great Britain.” These kinds of attitudes generalize a complex group of people and strip individual Jews from their right to formulate their own identities. These attitudes denationalize Jews by using the existence of a Jewish state to cast doubt on their loyalty to their countries of residence.
Insinuating that a Jew automatically has less of a right to a national identity creates an atmosphere of insecurity and tension. My family had to minimize their Jewishness to try to live a normal life in the Soviet Union. My grandmother was able to have a successful musical and teaching career in Ukraine, but it came at the cost of hiding her Jewish identity to perform in spaces where Jews were not allowed.
Even now, the formerly vibrant Jewish community of Glasgow, Scotland, has begun to face higher level of discomfort about being Jewish on an everyday basis. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people in Glasgow declaring the Jewish faith dropped by 20 percent. There have been increased reports of Jews in Glasgow taking down their doorposts, mezuzahs, and speaking of attending “church” instead of synagogue.
While some Jews suppress their religious identities, others have decided to migrate elsewhere. Glasgow’s Jewish population peaked at nearly 20,000 towards the end of the 20th century, and now there are fewer than 5,000. As a result of the migration, only one kosher store remains open, making it more difficult for Jews to remain true to their kosher diets while living in Glasgow. This recent trend of migration, as well as increased fear of backlash over maintaining both Scottish and Jewish identities, demonstrates the need for increased recognition that denationalization should be labelled antisemitic.
On an individual level, we each have a duty to call out intolerance and to make sure every minority group feels that they have a place in their societies. While American Jews are not currently facing the impetus to migrate like British Jews, recent political rhetoric echoes the problem of generalization. Such rhetoric can range from the assumption that all American Jews support Israel and the actions of its government to the trope that Jews hold too much political influence.
For me, the solution is not a politically motivated initiative, but rather a recognition from those we interact with that it is immoral to question our loyalty and steal our right to a nationality. When we know to watch out for rhetoric of denationalization and treat it as an instance of antisemitism, we will send the uplifting message that Jews are included and respected in national consciousness.
I simultaneously celebrate my American nationality, my rich Russian culture and my religion. These diverse identities make me who I am, and though I will always be devoted to my Jewish heritage, no one has the right to tell me that it is the only thing that defines me.
Rebecca Stekol is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.