Jews of convenience: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the new gatekeeping around identity in the aftermath of Oct. 7

Joe Roberts posting a day before the details of his identity were questioned online.

Let me state upfront that I don’t have the inside scoop on Joe Roberts’s whole deal. All I know is that the same man who wrote a syndicated Jewish Telegraphic Agency column in February about fearing he’d have to become a U.S. immigrant-turned-refugee from Canada—which I wrote my own column about in response—who now stands accused of having invented a Jewish identity for himself.

Roberts has pushed back against this publicly, but thus far without addressing the specific claims:

This leaves open, among so many other possibilities, that he is Jewish, but was less than forthright about biographical details. Also possible: everything he said was true and people on social media are trying to smear him. Also possible: he’s lied about it all and is going to pop up in the next town a purported lifelong Zoroastrian. Like I said, I don’t know!

Now I will readily cop to being a curious so-and-so, who is on some level wondering what the story here turns out to be. I’m not that curious, however. Not enough to become an amateur let alone professional Joe Roberts-ologist. To me, the more interesting angle is the way squabbles over the boundaries of Jewish identity have emerged post-Oct. 7.

As we discussed on a recent Bonjour Chai podcast episode, it’s not even straightforward whether there is such a thing as faking being Jewish. I mean there is, in the superficial The Mad Adventures of “Rabbi” Jacob sense, wherein you are a non-Jewish character in a 1970s French farce impersonating a rabbi due to plot twists too convoluted to get into.

But there are enough definitions of Jewishness floating around that anyone who in good faith (so to speak) insists they are the thing, is the thing, at least in someone’s book. If you claim to be Indigenous and you’re not, you may get found out. Jewishness is in some sense more like being a member of a sexual minority. Someone might be lying about being bisexual, but what would it even mean to fact-check such a thing? If you’re not attempting to get married by an Orthodox rabbi or to move to Israel under the right of return, and you’re simply going around saying you’re Jewish, who’s to say otherwise?

Of course, for all the internal Jewish communal discussions of gatekeeping, of which Jews feel how welcome in which environments, it can be helpful to zoom out and consider whether there is, in fact, a horde trying to get through the gates in question. Outliers aside (George Santos, Julia Salazar), there just plain doesn’t seem to be a tremendous interest. Or rather, there wasn’t, until we became the ultimate trending topic.

If you’re Jewish, you might find yourself wishing—at least, I find myself wishing—things were just the tiniest bit less about us all the time. But if you’re not, maybe you want to be where the action is at? Maybe you wish the news cycle was all about you? I have no idea.

The real question is, what is the political significance of questioning the Jewishness of a prolific pro-Israel poster? If it turns out that the accusations are true and there’s a big-on-X Zionist claiming to be Jewish under false pretenses, why would this be a source of delight for pro-Palestinian activists? After all, most Zionists aren’t Jewish. There are outright Christian Zionists, as well as non-Jews who don’t want Israel wiped off the map.

Now some of it is that people are always thrilled to hear that someone with the wrong-in-their-view politics is a fraud. But I think it’s about more than that.

Consider, for a moment, the place of Jews in post-Oct. 7 antizionism. There are individual Jews with antizionist beliefs, such people absolutely exist, but their numbers, for complicated reasons, seem greater than they actually are. One reason is that the Jews who want Israel gone tend to be found in places like media and academia and therefore have articles written about them, or write articles themselves. Another is that it is beneficial to pro-Palestinian activists to deflect charges of antisemitism by pointing to the presence of Jews in their movement. That is, if it is still considered important to deflect in this way; frankly it’s heartening if it even is.

This is why every protest and rally scene has those big banners attesting to Jews’ opposition to the war, or to more than just the war, i.e. Israel itself. It’s not that no such Jews exist, or that they aren’t real Jews (as if I were interested in gatekeeping this!). It’s that there is an even larger group of people for whom it is useful to be like, look, we don’t hate Jews, we just hate Zionists! Thereby eliding such things as, that virtually all Jews are Zionists of one sort or another; that Zionist and Jew get used interchangeably; and that events where people mobilize against “Zionists” not infrequently include outbursts against Zionists of the non-euphemistic variety, a.k.a. Jews.

This is why even in my not particularly Jewish bit of west Toronto, the signage is not just ubiquitously pro-Palestine but with an on-behalf-of-Jews motif. One of the groups listed as behind this window describes itself as “A home for white people working for justice.” I mean some white people are Jewish, and benefit-if-the-doubt the ones behind this display are, but if you’re advocating as white people, maybe pick a different sign, maybe? Although I guess Whites against those nefarious Zionists would have a different ring to it.

The fact of the matter is that I have seen more stickers, pins, graffiti, etc., in recent months about how the Jews feel about Israel—negative, per the signage—than… how to put this? Than is plausible given how many Jews there are in these parts, period, let alone antizionist ones.

So while you do get people questioning the Jewish authenticity or values or whatever of pro-Palestinian Jews, you also get people like yours truly, who simply doubt that a tiny minority within a tiny minority could possibly be the driving force behind Free Palestine, at the levels the signage and hashtags insist.

What a boon, then, for that side to have a No wait, it’s the ZIONISTS who are the fake Jews! moment. After saying for however long (decades in some cases, or since learning about this topic a few months ago in many others) that actual Jewish values dictate opposing Israel in all ways, they see a chance to see-how-the-tables-have-turned suggest that there is some sort of epidemic of people pretending to be Jewish in order to…?

But here is where I’m lost. Jews tend to like having allies. Particularly in times like these. And an ally is by definition not a member of the group in question, nor claiming to be. If there are pro-Israel Jews who took/take comfort in Roberts’s anti-antisemitism, Israel-defending timeline, of course they’d take it as a blow if it turns out he’s not quite who he says. But this isn’t because Jews demand that everyone who fights antisemitism be Jewish. Hardly! It’s that it’s never a good thing when someone on your side is outed as disreputable.

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The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.