How should white Jews approach racial justice work?
We will soon mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder — by no means the first time a Black man has been killed by police, but a moment when many of us protested in the streets and pledged to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.
Now that a year has passed, those of us who are white Ashkenazi Jews face the question: What are the ongoing actions that white people must take to contribute to racial equity? Educational leader and podcast host Antonio Saunders calls this “white work.”
This work can take many forms — from speaking up against inequity in the workplace to political advocacy to giving money and much more — but all of it utilizes the privileges and resources we have as white people in service of racial justice.
But we should also acknowledge that it’s easy to stand on the sideline, particularly when those of us with white skin are not the ones being underestimated and over-disciplined by teachers, questioned if we belong in a store, or targeted by police.
The most critical question for white Jews like us is: why should we do the hard work of dismantling racial injustice justice work if we are not the ones most harmed by it?
Oftentimes Jews frame their white work as a demanded duty. Jews, after all, are quite familiar with the concept of being commanded to do the right thing (and we’re really good at feeling guilty). And as Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice.
But while we could approach the work of racial justice from the Torah’s concept of naaseh v’nishma — roughly meaning, “first do and then understand”—simply following orders has real limitations. Doing something based out of obligation can lead to a begrudging spirit and play into a scarcity mindset, as if we need to give up something or risk losing out.
Other Jews frame their white work as altruistic allyship. Rooted in selflessness, many see their privilege as unearned and unfair. Yet these motivations can lead us to view ourselves as above and view others with a deficit mindset — as if it’s our job to help the “less fortunate.” This can also lead to a savior mentality, which blinds us to the humanity and value of others, ironically perpetuating dynamics of subjugation and oppression.
If demanded duty and altruistic allyship are insufficient, what is the alternative?
We see white work as affirmative ownership. Affirmative ownership stems from each of us having a vision for the kind of world that we want to live in. We recognize that pursuing Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is about creating the world that we want to be a part of. For us, that includes living in a world where every person has full human dignity affirmed, has true economic opportunity, feels safe walking around, has the ability to thrive and grow to be their best selves and live their best lives. A world where the color of one’s skin — or any other identity marker — has no bearing on, or predictive power towards, life opportunities.
Judaism has much to teach us about what affirmative ownership might entail and how to work towards it. Torah teaches that all people are created in the divine image. What would it mean if we truly acted as if every life had infinite value? We are taught each Shabbat to imagine the world as it ought to be, not as it is. What might happen if we used our two Friday night candles as a portal to our deepest aspirations for our shared humanity?
When we cultivate this vision of our world, it becomes that much more natural and urgent to apply that storied Jewish skill of using our voice when we see wrong around us. Once he embraced a mission of living in a world of justice, Abraham used his voice to protest G-d’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
White work is vital but not easy. The only way we’ll start, put in the hard work, and persist through challenges is if we’re clear on our why. This demands affirmatively owning a vision for the kind of world we want to live in and co-building it with our siblings of all backgrounds.
What is your why, and what is your white work?
Jeff Wetzler is the co-founder of Transcend, a national non-profit supporting communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.
Andrew K. Mandel is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, co-chair of Interfaith Justice Queens, and the founder of the Tzedek Box.
They both received their doctorates in Adult Learning and Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, and were long-time colleagues at Teach For America.