Why I’m Reclaiming This Antisemitic Term

Dismiss me as a "rootless cosmopolitan," and I will tell you that my roots are firmly planted in the notion of tikkun olam above all.

When asked about his Jewish identity by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz in a 2000 issue of the New Yorker, Maus creator Art Spiegelman said he was not religious but instead “identified with the alienated diaspora culture of Kafka and Freud…what Stalin pejoratively called rootless cosmopolitanism.”

Why does a statement made 20 years ago matter so much now?

It might strike Jewish readers as self-effacing to read of Spiegelman, author of one of the most searing Holocaust visual-texts in recent history, adopting the historically antisemitic term of “rootless cosmopolitan,” but I’m not ready to dismiss Spiegelman or others who identify in a similar way as self-hating: perhaps such an identification holds more nuance than we might think.

In the Soviet Union, “rootless cosmopolitanism” served as a euphemism to accuse Jews of harboring dissident sentiments, and Stalin’s use of the term led to very real consequences of blood libel. However, the description has not only been used to describe Jews: More recently, Trump advisor Stephen Miller accused CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta of harboring a “cosmopolitan bias,” the code here being: elitist, anti-patriotic, and distinctly not “one of us,” despite Acosta himself not being Jewish. Like all antisemitic canards, the term holds serious weight and is not to be used lightly.

Jews are no strangers to being deemed strangers in the lands in which they have been born and raised. When antisemitism cyclically rears its monstrous head, a Jew is no longer of her national origin: She is simply a Jew, and thus unbelonging. The existence of Israel provides Jews with a homeland, a place to go, but does not erase the pernicious issue. Last year, Trump accused Jewish Democrats of being “disloyal” to the State of Israel, despite American Jews generally not being Israelis themselves. It is so maddeningly easy for others to tell us that we don’t belong.

Growing up, I never had to be told I was different from my Christian peers: As one of the few Jewish children in my elementary school, I was perceived quizzically, asked if I believed in God or Santa Claus, told I could not attend the churches of my friends.

But when I entered Jewish communities, I also felt at odds with those around me. As a secular, progressive woman, I received the message that I was not Jewish enough. At the University of Chicago, I felt isolated in leftist spaces because of my familial connection to Israel, and conflicted in spaces supportive of Israel for holding criticisms of the state and support for Palestinian self-determination.

In Israel, where much of my extended family lives, I feel more American than I do in America. In America, my Jewishness cannot be overlooked; in Israel, my nationality defines me. My head spins considering where I possibly fit into all of this mess, and I can’t be alone in this confusion.

Of course, it is wrong to tell Jews, through veiled insinuations, that they are not who they say they are. But when a Jewish person such as Spiegelman knowingly reclaims an antisemitic term, there is power in such a linguistic act.

The truth is, I don’t want to conform to the institutions that want to define me. I do not want to participate in nationalism or be blinded by any one ideology. Kafka is not regarded as a Jewish, Czech, or German-speaking writer: He is regarded as Kafka, a mononym, someone singular, although he would not be who he was if not for his Jewishness.

If we redefine these words, to be cosmopolitan is to be a citizen of the world, and to be rootless means to not let one’s place of origin solely determine one’s values. This designation is only an aspersion if the world around us is woefully tribal, which it is. The slurs thrown at us have more to do with what the throwers fear about us than about us at all.

As Jews, we are so rightfully traumatized by rhetoric that we insist on casting these terms aside instead of peering closer at them. We have wandered so long that we don’t want to be told anymore that we are wanderers, but I actually revel in this aspect of myself. To be Jewish, for me, means feeling different on a visceral level, and I don’t consider that to be a bad thing. It means going from place to place and always remaining loyal to myself and my convictions above all.

I have never trusted what I have been told how to think, and historically, many Jews haven’t either: This is exactly why so many of us have made great strides in the fields of art, science, and literature, because we have looked beyond the mainstream. To be able to peer at culture from a distance is a great gift of clarity, and it is through this clarity that change can be enacted.

If Jews try to conform to what the antisemites really want from us — complete loyalty, assimilation, and less critical thinking — we will lose what makes us stand out from the herd. We will lose what makes us longtime proponents of social justice and moral reform. Despite the Jewish history of bolshevism, Stalin found Jews threatening because they did not fit the Soviet ideal of state atheism and a universal common culture. While we must mourn the Jews lost to ethnic cleansing, we also must not bow down to calls for conformity.

I am not making apologies for antisemitism: Words matter, and the language used to describe Jews is extremely important and must be examined closely. But how to react to these words is another matter. When Trump accused Jews of disloyalty, I gladly responded that I am not loyal to Trump’s America. My conscience was clear. When corrupt and fascistic institutions are afraid of us, tell us we don’t belong, inform us we are too cosmopolitan, let’s take it as a compliment and say we belong to ourselves, to the world.

Because we are here to heal the world, it must mean that there is something in the world that must be urgently healed. No one who has fit in has ever done anything revolutionary. Dismiss me as a rootless cosmopolitan, and I will tell you that my roots are firmly planted in the notion of tikkun olam above all, not to a place or identity.

Ariella Carmell

Ariella Carmell (she/her) currently lives in Southern California, where she was born and raised, after spending four years at the University of Chicago studying literature and philosophy. Her writings have appeared in such publications as Spry, Words Dance, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Bare Fiction, and The Brooklyn Review, among several others.

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