I live in a part of the world where Confederate flags hang unironically and “Make America Great Again” signs still sit in windows. The part of America where some get offended if you respond with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It’s an interesting place to live when you’re a Jew.
When I first moved to central Pennsylvania for work, I had no idea what to expect. I was lucky enough to grow up in an area with a decent Jewish population. I anticipated that there would be some people who had never met Jews. And I knew I needed to prepare my usual shpiel: “Jews don’t hate Jesus; we just don’t think he’s God,” and, “No, my family does not have a Hannukah bush.” Still, I never enjoy the thought of being someone’s “first Jew.” Being forced into the position of token representative for an entire ethno/religious group is, among other things, overwhelming and exhausting. And in my experience, “coming out” as Jewish sometimes reveals insidious discomfort and ignorance, particularly in other white people.
My first business dinner occurred the same week as Passover. My colleagues were from all over the country but none of them knew of the holiday. At their suggestion, we went to an Italian restaurant. As someone who loves Italian food and eating in general, I was struggling well before we sat down. Someone requested a prix fixe menu for the table. The salad course came and went without incident. Then the pasta showed up. I quietly mentioned they didn’t need to provide me with a serving. The whole conversation immediately turned to why I was refusing to eat a perfectly good plate of pasta. When I explained my reason, all their faces took on a perplexed expression, like a math problem they couldn’t solve in their heads. It became awkwardly quiet. The woman next to me said, “I’ve never met one of you before.” These were educated people, but they had never met one of “my kind.” I wanted to take the matzah out of my purse and smack her over the head with it. But I didn’t, because my parents taught me manners.
The moment after the word “Jewish” leaves your lips, a re-calibration of sorts occurs. Any comfort from the knowledge that you are similar because you are both “white enough” diminishes, and there’s nothing you can do. I’m not proud to say that I have omitted mentioning my Jewish heritage whenever I’m around certain people. I knew I would live in places where people would not understand my traditions or my heritage, and where my progressive politics were very much in the minority. Still, I thought I had the self-preserving tools I needed to peacefully coexist.
And then November 8, 2016 happened and the entire world changed.
What I am struggling with now is not how to handle strangers’ ignorance, but how to respond to the deafening silence from my white, usually Christian, friends. We all know them. The people who are incapable of recognizing that when every person who is “different” loses rights, it is only a matter of time before everyone else does, too. Or worse, the people who recognize the issues but refuse to act.
The terrorist acts in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend gave all white Americans an important opportunity to support minorities. But I heard mostly silence. These silent white people are keeping me up at night. The same people who aren’t writing anything on their social media about literal Nazis marching in an American city, but who ranted about how President Obama was a Socialist and a Muslim. The same people whose fathers and grandfathers fought and died in World War II, but take no issue with Holocaust deniers supporting the President.
I refuse to be complicit in white silence. I don’t enjoy the idea of losing friends over politics, but the question of what to do next is no longer political. This period of history is a referendum on our values as Americans. I think Jewish Americans have the obligation to stand up against these bullies and remind them we are just as American as they are, and their bigoted beliefs have no place in our society.
A small part of me wants to curl up and hide, as if burying my head in the sand would make anything better. It would be so much easier if I stayed in my apartment and watched “The Great British Baking Show” until I died. I am privileged enough to have options, including that one.
But then I force myself to think about my ancestors and how hard they worked to get me and my sister to where we are now. In some ways, they were able to do that because they were considered “white enough.” But that “enoughness,” that status, is changing every minute of this administration. With people like Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer exerting nationwide influence, we need to steel ourselves for a new overtly anti-Semitic paradigm. Yet we also must remember that our feeling unsafe is insubstantial compared to millions of other Americans.
That means we are in a prime position to help other marginalized people. Jewish values are the conduit for improving the greater good. My Jewishness allows me to empathize and sympathize with people who are oppressed, while my whiteness simultaneously preserves me from experiencing those forms of oppression. This delicate position is a privilege, and we should all think long and hard about how we want to use it. So what can we do?
For one, I’m promising myself to never hide my Judaism again. No matter how awkward it can be to pop someone’s “Semitic cherry,” I can’t let that fear stop me from speaking up. We need to show up and to listen. We need to be allies for Jewish and non-Jewish people of color. We can’t let ourselves be the “allies” who float in and out of conversations about race when it’s convenient for us. We must stay informed and unafraid. We need to recognize our individual feelings are unimportant in conversations about race. We need to check other white people. We need to register people to vote. We need to find community organizations and volunteer.
Whatever it is, prove to yourself and your community that you are focused on things bigger than you. We cannot let ourselves fall for the lie that we can stay apolitical. We come from a long tradition of fighting against oppression, and it is our birthright to do the same.
Image via Flickr/Lynn Friedman