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Selma and the Dangers of Jewish Entitlement

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

In Leida Snow’s recent piece for the Forward, “’Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights,” she asserts that the filmmakers and writers deliberately omitted the role of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement. (Snow doesn’t seem to have ideas as to why.)

I’m going to draw an uncomfortable parallel here. (As in, it may make the reader uncomfortable.) There’s this thing that happens on the internet, and in real time, when people of color or women or queer folks, etc, are trying to have a discussion in a space, and men/straight/cis/white people demand to be included, and when they’re not, they claim exclusion/reverse racism/sexism. Let’s refer to this phenomenon as “What About the Menz?”

Because of the complicated relationship between Jews, white skin privilege and power, this isn’t the most perfect parallel, but when it does work, it’s disturbing. Jews have been certainly been excluded from historical narratives (in particular, Jews of Color), and the result of anti Semitism is that we are constantly looking over our shoulders. That’s real.

What’s also real is that white folks have been taught that they should get access to everything, that all of our contributions are valuable because we, white folks, made them. There is no context in which those contributions wouldn’t be essential, when someone would be allowed to decide to leave them out, to focus on a narrative that’s not about white people. White, heterosexual, cis gendered men have been taught this as well. It’s this entitlement that drives them to demand all spaces, regardless of whether or not they are needed, wanted, or invited.

No one is arguing that Jews weren’t involved in the Civil Rights Movement — pieces by Sarah Seltzer at Flavorwire and Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes at My Jewish Learning have affirmed that, even as they have also pushed back on Snow. But there is a difference between contributing to a movement and having that movement be the means to your own liberation. People who are white skinned, Jewish or not, do not get to control that narrative. Repeat after me: You, as a white skinned person, do not get to control that narrative.

Snow, and others who take issue with the decisions that the makers of Selma made in regard to Jews, are doing a terrible job of being allies to folks of color, in spite of what they might think. One of the most essential pieces of allying (a verb, not a noun) is understanding that it’s not about taking credit for work. It’s not about being told how great you are because you did the right thing. It’s a bigger process of supporting folks of color (or women, or queer people, etc) as they work towards something, but not dictating what that something is. Being “left out” may be hard to deal with, because we as Jews have and do occupy the experience of exclusion, and also because we as white skinned Jews have been absorbed the toxicities of white supremacy. It’s not as simple as “they left us out.” It’s about learning that we are not entitled to be lauded in all situations, or even to be included.

I’m not suggesting that Snow and her ilk step politely away, cede the floor kindly, take one for the “team,” or “let” the folks who made Selma have their own narrative. That’s not enough. That kind of acquiescence is patronizing and insincere. Instead, understand why it’s not okay to insist on access to every space. Anti racist actions require white folks (yes, Jewish white skinned folks as well) to rewire our brains. But that’s not an excuse. Do better. Do better. Do better.

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