Dear Jewish Community: We Can’t Return to ‘Normal’

In 2021, I hope to see more white Jews actively work against bigotry in our own communities.

January 6, 2021 was the second time since the 2020 election and the third time within the last year that I feared leaving my home due to the threat of white supremacist violence. As pro-Trump rioters invaded not just the U.S. Capitol but various places of government across the country, I once again found myself taking steps to ensure my safety from bodily harm.

As a Black Jew, I grew up with stories of loved ones fleeing persecution. My version of “the talk” when I was an adolescent included having the stories of Emmet Till, the Central Park Five, and Leo Frank etched onto my heart. I know what it means to live in a society that considers your existence a threat, whether because of my Blackness, Jewishness, or foreignness as an African. During times like these, I find myself thinking not only of the insults that I’ve endured at the hands of bigots, or the disrespect shown by those meant to “serve and protect,” but the visceral hatred I’ve faced when staring down at white supremacists.

I’ve always found myself most at home when I’m able to connect to my own Judaism, a Judaism that is inseparable from any other aspect of who I am. My Judaism was nurtured to preserve what I know to be right and to stand against what is harmful and unjust. It’s a Judaism based in active conversation with a like-minded community.

Jewish tradition commands us to vigorously pursue justice and to actively set ourselves in opposition to those who seek to harm others, especially when they hold systemic power. Ancient sages like Hillel the Elder taught, “If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These words are part of an expansive tradition that has always stood in opposition to exploitation and inequality. Yet we live in a society where violent white supremacy is the norm. A society that traumatizes BIPOC and other marginalized people within it and actively forces us to fight for our humanity. In this society that actively debases the most vulnerable populations, we must be active in challenging and combating the toxicity it spews.

After Joe Biden won the 2020 election, I started seeing many people cheerfully post about how finally, America was going to go back to normal, back to the good old days before Trump. But my fellow members of the Jewish community should know why this desire for “normalcy” is so harmful. That “normal” is the killing of unarmed Black bodies. That “normal” is inhumane immigration policies. That “normal” is the surveillance of Muslim and Arab Americans. That “normal” is the brutalization of Indigenous communities. That “normal” actively overlooks the issues that may have been made more apparent in the past four years — but for those marginalized communities, have always been loud and clear.

The trauma that people of color experience in this country goes beyond racial epithets spewed by the most obviously hateful members of society. BIPOC not only face the threat and reality of state violence disproportionately when compared to our white counterparts, but we also are systematically discriminated against due to long-held cultural biases. This doesn’t even begin addressing the issues of redlining, the prison-industrial complex, and the legacy of Jim Crow.

But one thing is clear: We as Jews have a commitment to creating a more just world.

When I think about my goals for 2021, I hope to see white Jews move from being “allies” to “accomplices” to people of color, starting with Jews of Color. While an ally acknowledges the problem and may share petitions and voice support, they rarely find themselves truly working in the trenches for the people they are trying to help. To move into being an accomplice, it becomes necessary not only to educate oneself but also educate your community and actively create a movement with those who are working for a more just world.

So how can white Jews be better accomplices in the coming year and beyond?

As a child, my grandfather instilled in me that knowledge is the foundation that will never betray you. Take time to find educational resources that will make you aware not only of the structures of white supremacy, but also ways to actively resist them. We must develop solidarity that ensures the long-term health of the Jewish community and works towards liberation as the end goal. Judaism requires us all to see one another as a large extended family bonded by customs and laws that date deep into antiquity. Calling out the various injustices in our own Jewish communities does not divide us; instead, it forces us to live up to our legacy as Yisrael, “those who wrestle with God.”

The momentum the Black Lives Matter, Land Back, and Abolish ICE movements have made has come entirely from the works of grassroots organizers — who we need to continue supporting, no matter who the president is. This means taking it upon yourself to become educated on the problems that are faced by those who these systems of oppression harm the most. Learning how your presence affects the spaces that you show up in can also help to decenter yourself and really be there for Jews of Color and other marginalized groups you are there to support.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon says, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This demands for us to take the role of active responsibility in our communities to do what we know to be the right thing, especially if it may not be what is popular or comfortable.

Of course, I understand the urge to celebrate and be hopeful about the election outcome and what it means for the future of America. But we still live in a country where 71 million people voted for fascism, and where the most vulnerable among us are abused on a regular basis.

Last week we faced the first coup attempt in living memory on United States soil. During this time period, we saw American Evangelicals wave the Israeli flag alongside the Confederate battle flag and Trump banners. Unfortunately, we also witnessed a portion of Trump loyalist Jews present as well. We must address the fact that bigotry does exist in Jewish spaces, and we need to come up with a plan to address it. Racism and bigotry isn’t just inherent to neo-Nazis and other extremist groups.

So no, let’s not go back to whatever “normal” looked like before. Let’s keep fighting. The harsh realities that these past four years exposed are not going to disappear, and they must be actively combatted. There is no going back now.

Isaac Ofori-Solomon

Yitzhak/Isaac Ofori-Solomon (he/they) is a student currently living and attending school in Asheville, NC on Yuchi and Cherokee East land. He is a history major with a passion for Jewish studies and social justice work. In their free time you can find him researching some niche field, cooking for friends, or just enjoying what’s on SoundCloud. Isaac is a 2020-2021 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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