First, a note: I am just one person, and I want this reflection to empower readers to do their own contemplation. I encourage all non-Black Jews to do more reading and listening alongside me, as we continue the journey of self-discovery sparking ongoing action. This self-reflexivity combined with action is a key to systematic change.
To my fellow non-Black Jews, it’s well past time we talk about anti-Black racism in our communities and the wider world. While I do love horses, I do not want you to think I am on a high horse of racial enlightenment. Rather, I have made many missteps in my life. We may not be born hating anyone, but we are born into a society structured around systemic racism, and none of us are immune to the inherent biases and bigotry that it breeds.
But I have learned the difference between being unsafe and being uncomfortable. This distinction allows me to listen without defense and look at my own socialization to see the ways in which I have internalized anti-Black racism. I have had the honor of learning from Black educators, activists, and organizers, and much of what I share below is from the fruit of their labor.
I also learned an important lesson from a rabbi of mine, who explained how anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism are deeply connected in white supremacist theory. Eric K. Ward, who writes about his own life experience as a Black American as well as his primary research on hate groups in the United States, explains the connection in his piece “Skin in the Game.” After spending lots of time “among people plotting to remove [him] from their ethnostate” at white supremacist gatherings, Ward teaches that “American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.”
As Ward argues, because white supremacy devalues Black people as subhuman, white supremacy believes that in order for Black people to make such incredible strides in the movements for civil rights and Black Lives, there must be a force that controls the media, financial institutions, and government. And that force, you guessed it, is Jews. Ward writes that white supremacists believe this “evil” force of Jews “must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious.” White supremacy is counting on the once unspoken (though unfortunately today, very often loudly spoken or tweeted), sometimes dogwhistled fantasies that Jews represent a secret, diabolical power while people of color represent subjugation.
Another key aspect of Ward’s writing is what he names as a “cardinal rule of organizing” — that you can’t ask people to do anything you haven’t done yourself. This essay is just a glimpse into my journey as a white Jew in America trying to do anti-racist work in my own life, which is both possible and necessary for each of us.
In my experience, many non-Black Jews can be very defensive about racism. We cling to our own marginalization of anti-Semitism to avoid the inconvenient truths of how we have internalized racism. But white supremacy prevails when we are divided. And, as Jeanné Lewis and Timi Gerson write on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s blog, “racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are not separate strands of hatred for these ethno-nationalists, but rather deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing.” When non-Black Jews fail to show up against anti-Black racism, whether it’s within the Jewish community or outside of it, we allow the status quo, a nasty feedback loop of division of marginalized peoples, to persist.
If we want to break the feedback loop of racism and anti-Semitism, non-Black Jews must do our part. It is not usually comfortable, or familiar, but that is exactly the point. The status quo is unacceptable, but we do not have to let this inheritance of white supremacy be our legacy.
If you are ready to do this work, here are some suggestions for where to begin:
1. If you are a student, take advantage of courses and educators available to you, and push for more Black educators! Maximize the potential of the student organizing available to you. Even if you are not on a school campus, there is already powerful anti-racist organizing in every corner of the country. Seek it out, show up with an open mind, and ask how you can be of service. You will grow, you will learn a new type of bravery, and even though you will be shaken, you can do it.
2. Follow in the footsteps of prominent Jews actively doing their own critical self-reflection and subsequently, organizing against racism. As if you needed another reason to love Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have both recently illustrated how they are actively choosing to learn. I may be biased because I love their show, but I also love their encouragement to read the books and watch the shows that I know will teach me things and shake my own perception. My fear of being “shook” by this reading is in itself white fragility, so I am grateful to have people to look up to for devotion to justice.
3. Much to my bank account’s chagrin, I have a love for shopping. Because I know that my shopping decisions have consequences beyond my immediate view, I am trying to consume less plastic and avoid fast fashion. Similarly, my spending dollars have serious consequences for racial equity. I need to work harder to support companies that uphold workers’ rights and pay living wages. In fact, there is a strong Jewish legacy in the fight for workers’ rights, and we should embrace it. Short term inconveniences are necessary for long-term structural change.
Speaking of money, now’s also a great time to look into organizations specifically working to end racism and police brutality and donate whatever you can. Whether it’s your local bail fund helping to bail out protestors, a non-profit doing the hard, on-the-ground work of fighting the racist systems at play, or just a Black friend who you know is struggling, sometimes opening our purses is the most effective way to help.
4. We must not erase Black Jews from this conversation. We must commit to intentionally listen to and uplift Black Jewish voices in our community and do so without judgment or defense. If we continue to perpetuate a whitewashed version of the greater Jewish community, we will continue to alienate and erase Black Jews and other Jews of Color. I have to remind myself that despite the dominant depictions of Jewish identity, in reality, our Jewish community has many Jews of Color. In our journey of anti-racism, we cannot forget that Black Jews experience intersecting oppressions. It is not “us” Jews trying to help “them,” but rather, “they” and “us” overlap. As we examine the racism in our Jewish communities, institutions, and beyond, we need to center the voices of Black Jews.
You can start right here on Alma by reading this roundtable discussion between Jews of Color, the history of the term “Jews of Color” by Shahannah McKinney-Baldon, one of the women who coined it, and this personal story from Liyah Foye about the baggage that comes with being a Black Jewish convert. There are many, many more pieces on Alma and elsewhere about the Black Jewish experience — seek them out!
5. Interrogate your relationship with the police. I have grown up seeing Black and Brown people being brutalized by police, even in the cafeteria of my high school. At the same time, my synagogues and Hillel have been guarded by police officers and private security guards, especially in the wake of the past few years’ horrifying anti-Semitic shooting attacks. But this state-sponsored protection is not a long term answer to anti-Semitic violence, and in the immediate, it places the Black and POC members of our own Jewish communities in harm’s way.
As we learned from Ward, anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism depend on one another. As Jews who care about the liberation of all peoples, including our own, we cannot rely on an institution that was built to brutalize Black people. At the very least, Jewish congregations need to open a dialogue to address the implications of such a police presence. If you are uncomfortable with police presence at your synagogue or other Jewish community space, speak up.
This is scary for me. I know first hand how it feels to be unsafe because you are Jewish. In thinking about how I can be safe without perpetuating violence against BIPOC, I came across a helpful list from @freedom2thrive:
I have also been learning how to envision this from my freshman year suitemate and a feminist abolitionist activist, Richie Reseda (@richiereseda). It is difficult to envision our country as anything but a police state, as that is what we are accustomed to. But beyond demanding better training to stop police brutality, we must envision a radically different system, as our justice system — of police, courts, and prisons — are deeply flawed. Dare to imagine what could change when we invest in communities so they have what they need, rather than investing in state sanctioned violence against people who are acting in desperation.
In order to get out of the house (and honestly, to just feel something) during this quarantine, I have taken to going on sweaty two-mile runs, which I have the privilege to do so without threat. As the waterworks that is my sweat glands empty down my face and neck, my giggly and upbeat Peloton app trainer whispers to me, “Do you want it more than you fear it?” While the app is most definitely talking about some vague healthy lifestyle and not sweeping overhauls to our society, I can’t stop thinking about this quote. Although real systematic change can feel scary, because we have been taught not to envision it, we have to want justice more than we fear it.
Today, my eyes sting from the tear gas that riot police launched to intimidate peaceful protesters in my hometown last night. But I want to be an accomplice of justice more than I fear temporary discomfort.