The Jewish Community Has Some Reckoning to Do

The beliefs and fears that led some Jews to support Trump will not disappear just because he's out of the White House.

Antisemitic danger is never far from my mind. My grandparents survived the Holocaust in concentration camps. I have never known a life in which the Holocaust was not a matter of fact, part of my family history and identity, and one loaded with trauma.

I think that for most Jews, even those who aren’t directly descended from survivors, the Holocaust, and antisemitism, loom large. But the Jewish community has wildly different opinions about how best to protect and preserve the Jewish people — as they do about, well, everything.

I know this, just as I know that while the majority of American Jews tend to identify as Democrats, there were also Jews who voted for Trump. Twice. Certainly, we would not have Stephen Miller, one of the architects of Trump’s family separation policies, if no Jews supported him.

There is already much written about why certain Jews, especially among Orthodox communities, supported Trump, from his policies toward Israel to a “nurtured need for authority,” as Molly Meisels writes of her former Hasidic community. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this, as certain government restrictions did seem to unfairly target Jewish communities. To these communities, for whom, like me, the Holocaust is an ever-present part of how they move through the world, it reminded them of the not-so-distant Germany of the 1930s, in which Jewish religious practice and schools were singled out for restrictions.

Certain right wing Jewish provocateurs, like Heshy Tischler, have taken advantage of this, making a name for himself by setting a mob of Jewish men wrapped in Trump flags to beat a progressive-leaning reporter who had been critical of the communities’ resistance to the public health guidelines. In the aftermath of the mob, a Proud Boy called into Tischler’s radio show, admiringly comparing himself to Tischler. Tischler responded by inviting the Proud Boys to his neighborhood in Brooklyn. Obviously, this leads to an untenable alliance in which neo-Nazis have teamed up with Jews, creating a clear and present danger to us all.

And this danger reached its boiling point on January 6 in Washington, D.C.

For all my awareness of the growing divides within the Jewish community — and for all the writing on the wall about the alarming fact that some Jews were finding themselves on the same side as white supremacists — I was somehow still not prepared to see the son of a “prominent” Jewish community figure in stolen police body armor, invading the Capitol next to a man waving a Confederate flag. I was not ready to see a Jewish man give an enthusiastic interview on camera about happily supporting Trump as a Jew. And I was appalled that Jews would be part of the same group that included a man in a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.

For many progressive Jews, Trump imagery has become a trigger for fear. So to see Jewish men proudly carrying “Save America” signs in support of Trump in the same crowd as unabashed neo-Nazis was absolutely headspinning for me, particularly as a progressive Jew who grounds my belief in the importance of human rights and my family’s direct historical experience of the Holocaust.

But we can’t look away. As we move on from the Trump presidency, the shock I felt on January 6 can’t fade into the background. It must be the catalyst for self-examination within the Jewish community.

We must call out when Jews are perpetuating systemic white supremacy by giving legitimacy to those who call for our destruction. It fundamentally undermines the safety of all Jews when a few of us participate in a system that calls for our own end. The safest thing for Jews is a world free of white supremacy, and the way we get there is by confronting those within our community who are complicit.

That’s not easy.

Talking with white Jewish friends, I’ve asked them to think about how they felt when they saw the “Camp Auschwitz” shirt when trying to contextualize what the Confederate flag feels like to Black Americans. Now, think about how it looks to Jews of Color, particularly Black Jews, to see white Jews collaborating with neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in an attempted coup. What does it mean for all Jews when some of us — even an extreme minority — end up publicly engaging in violence on the same side as the antisemites, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists?

It means that we have a lot to talk about and a lot of work to do. White Jews have always had a conditional relationship to whiteness. We are rewarded with the benefits of white privilege, while punished with the dangers of antisemitism. We can both suffer from the structures of institutional white supremacy, but also perpetuate it. January 6 was the ultimate example of that.

Undoubtedly not all of the Jews at the Capitol were there with intentions of committing violence — and most did not — yet they were still there, fighting to keep Trump in power. Jews who have supported Trump have watched as he has caged children, banned Muslims, and spoke in antisemitic dog whistles, and yet, they did not ever think this allyship might be bad for them. And the beliefs and fears that led those Jews to the Capitol steps will not disappear magically with Trump out of the White House.

Confronting this complicity means that we must acknowledge that white Jews can and do perpetuate white supremacy and racism, and address it with the nuance needed to understand why it happens and how it functions. This acknowledgement does not erase or invalidate the history and present threat of antisemitism; Jews can still be the victims of white supremacy while perpetuating it. Acknowledging the ways in which some of us are participants, and then working to break that system, is the best way to end our victimization and protect our safety.

When antisemitic violence and vandalism is on the rise, it can feel particularly painful — antisemitic itself, even — to focus on the small minority of Jews who align themselves with white supremacists. But I’d much rather have the Jewish community hold space for this conversation than the general public — and it is our duty to do so.

It’s not antisemitic to discuss these things in good faith and with nuance; in fact, it’s essential to our safety that we do. Shaming or making blanket condemnations or assumptions is ineffective; rather, we must have the hard conversations and figure out how to navigate these essential issues with nuance, because Jews will always have a variety of beliefs and other identities. We will never be a monolith.

It does not undermine, but rather strengthens, our fight against antisemitism when we acknowledge that some Jews, even when they are a misguided minority, do things that seem counter to our end goals in that fight. It’s not infighting or whataboutism. It does not make the growing antisemitism we face in our world any less of a real threat.

When we don’t call out white Jews aligning with white supremacists, or displaying racism, we tell Jews of Color that we are giving deference to those who do not accept them. We send the message that the comfort of white Jews, and our understandable desire to not want to be conflated with those who believe in antisemitic ideologies that oppress us, is more important than the material safety of other members of our community. Jews of Color have been saying as much, over and over. If we are going to live in a world that keeps Jews safe, it cannot be a world in which we are actively contributing to the harm and oppression of other marginalized groups. And we must use the terror of the moment at the Capitol, when Jews found themselves side-by-side with neo-Nazis, to spur us to do this work.

Judaism is about cherishing all life and taking care of the world we live in. Our responsibility as Jews towards social justice — towards calling out bigotry wherever we see it — applies to our own communities as well. When we confront the ways in which some Jews perpetuate white supremacy and racism, it helps to create a more inclusive world, one free from white supremacy and one that affirms the rights of us all. And that is ultimately what will keep Jews — all Jews — safe.

Molly Safar

Molly Safar (she/her/hers) is a New York based art and design historian, passionate about social justice, Jewish activism and Holocaust education.

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