The personal identity they wish to assume

That bit of Tuvel’s paper I reserved to take issue with later:

Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume. For instance, if some one identifies so strongly with the Jewish community that she wishes to become a Jew, it is wrong to block her from taking conversion classes to do so. This example reveals there are at least two components to a successful identity transformation: (1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual’s felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group. For instance, if the rabbi thinks you are not seriously committed to Judaism, she can block you from attempted conversion. Still, the possibility of rejection reveals that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to a different identity category is often accepted in our society.

I don’t think that’s entirely right about becoming a Jew, and I don’t think it’s right about assuming a personal identity in general. I think it’s more complicated than that.

It’s more complicated than that in the case of becoming a Jew, for sure. Why? Because just for one thing it feels like what people call “appropriation” – and in this case (and others I can think of) that doesn’t feel exaggerated or unfair. I wouldn’t feel I could “become” a Jew because my relatives were never in danger of being sent to Auschwitz. That’s a barrier, a large barrier. I can imagine converting, if I were a very different person, but I have a hard time imagining myself claiming to be a Jew. It’s not mine to seize in that way.

But there is conversion, so some people do become Jews in a sense. Yes but only in a sense, because Judaism is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a Jew.

In a better world that wouldn’t matter. In a better world we could all switch identities as we needed or wanted to. But in a world with multiple histories of ethnic wars, mass migrations, religious wars, inequality, war crimes, invasions, colonialism?

I don’t think so. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think gender identity is more complicated than that too, for the same kinds of reasons.

Note that none of this means I think Tuvel shouldn’t have written the article or that Hypatia shouldn’t have published it or that the APA shouldn’t have selected it to be read at their convention earlier this year. Not a bit of it.

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