Inclusivity gone wild: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the oldest story in Jewish journalism

“Toronto’s new mayor, a member of the United Church, is Jewish.”

So reads the headline of a 2014 Times of Israel article about John Tory, the recently disgraced former chief magistrate. It’s a curious statement because it seems, on its face, like a contradiction in terms. If he’s Christian, he’s not Jewish, and vice versa. Which is it? Is it just that he has matrilineal Jewish ancestry and could, if interested, claim Jewishness across the board? But what if he isn’t interested? Then what’s the point?

Jewish publications, since there were Jews scribbling them onto the sides of caves in prehistoric times, have devoted much of our ink to declaring that various public figures are Jewish. The emphasis tends to be on the ones about which one would not expect this: WASPy politicians, sports figures, blonde actresses. (There may be a certain pride in a Gal Gadot or Natalie Portman, but a Gwyneth Paltrow or Alicia Silverstone gets a did you know?)

It’s always about the secret Jews. No one is writing the breathless article about how Rabbi So-and-So is Jewish. (Is the Pope Catholic, etc.)

In our apparently boundless enthusiasm for claiming Jews, Jewish publications sometimes go overboard and welcome those who don’t want in to begin with. This happened in 2021, when the Forward decided that the U.S. Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff’s daughter, Ella Emhoff, an artist and fashion model, was Jewish, only to get a chilly (but understandable!) statement from her people along the lines of, nope, please exclude her from your narrative.

The Emhoff confusion wasn’t a category error along the lines of mistaking someone like Joy Behar for Jewish, on account of Italian-Americans from Brooklyn giving off a Jewish vibe. No, Ella’s definitely got a Jewish father married to Vice President Kamala Harris, this is not up for debate. But she doesn’t consider herself Jewish, and as such, doesn’t want Jewish groups claiming her. Which is her right. Or is it? (I do think it is, and will get to that…)

Yes, at various points in Jewish history, there have been crypto-Jews, ostensibly Christian but secretly Jewish in the privacy of their own homes. So it is indeed possible, not just that someone could be Christian and Jewish at the same time, but that their Jewishness might speak to a deeper truth about who they are. It is nevertheless unlikely in 21st century North America that someone is living the life of a Converso.

More persuasively, there’s a case to be made that anyone an antisemite would consider a Jew is, in some sense, Jewish. It’s not the whole of Jewish identity and thank goodness, but it is one facet. If you’re advocating for Jews, part of this is opposing antisemitism, and antisemitism impacts a certain number of people who do not understand themselves as Jews. This was the case in the Holocaust, where plenty of Christians were killed as “racially” Jewish, but also in less dire times such as our own.

And it’s not even a matter of false consciousness or (to use a term nobody likes) self-hatred. I’m not talking about a personal decision to break from some preexisting state of Jewish belonging, although a Jewish convert to some other religion might wind up in a similar boat. I’m talking about people who genuinely have no connection to Judaism or even cultural Jewishness, and never did. They’ve just got the same last name as their Jewish great-grandfather. Or, in Emhoff’s case, father.

But it’s one thing to say that if an Ella Emhoff or a John Tory were barraged with antisemitic trolling, we would have their back. It’s another to say that they are actually Jewish because… well, what is the rationale?

In Ella Emhoff’s case, it appears to have been a convoluted attempt at “radical inclusion.” The thinking being, there are children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers who find themselves turned away from (some) congregations, and therefore… what? This is where I get a bit lost.

That other people, who are not Ella Emhoff, are the children of gentile mothers, and find matrilineal descent exclusionary, hardly implies that Emhoff herself is plagued by such concerns. To radically include Emhoff is a bit like insisting that a straight celebrity is gay, and then earnestly citing the importance of gay pride as the reason for doing so. It doesn’t add up.

There is a tendency within the Jewish community to assume the world is full of people clamouring to be included among our ranks. This ignores that for a whole host of reasons, many who are welcome want out, and many more who would be simply aren’t interested.

Yes, Emhoff-gate is old news, John Tory’s quasi-Jewishness older still, but what Rabbi Chaim Strauchler calls “the ‘Jews In’ genre” is forever. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Indeed, maybe part of fighting antisemitism is not deferring to antisemites about who counts as a Jew. Maybe “radical inclusion” could be a touch less radical and only issue the invites to those who have, bare minimum, expressed some interest.

(Avi Finegold and I talked more about this topic with Rabbi Strauchler on the latest episode of the Bonjour Chai podcast—give it a listen and let us know what you think.)

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz