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Roundtable | White Jews: Here Is What Black Jews Need From You In 2019

I’ve never felt fully welcome in Jewish spaces. I’ve never felt like I truly belonged. This is common among Black Jews.

There’s a subset of us that just wish to proceed in the Jewish world unbothered, and to continue our Jewish lives as we see fit, apart from the assumptions and stereotypes assigned to us — you know, the conversations about conversion, the assumptions that we lack Jewish knowledge, or that we’re not Jewish at all.

Even deeper than that is the desire on our part for white Jews to finally figure out this race thing.

As a Black person living in a country filled with white supremacy, I don’t have the luxury of being conditionally anything. As a result, I feel an underlying anger at white Jews who can’t acknowledge the immense white privilege they are awarded in nearly every situation, an anger that has emerged as a unifying sentiment among many Black Jews.

So, so many Black Jews, including several close to me, have left Judaism in whole or in part because of racism, or exclusion, or being pushed out. Even more Black Jews are slowly disengaging from the Jewish community because of this ever-present elephant in the room.

That’s a travesty. We talk so much about “Jewish continuity,” but Jews are being pushed away and little is being done. If we are to really care about Jews and the future of the Jewish people, we absolutely must care about Black Jews.

Your shul’s doors may be open, but if I’m being pushed out in subtle ways from the moment I step into it, it’s not welcoming. Similarly, denying the privilege you are afforded in this country by claiming to be non-white — to the face of someone who isn’t given that privilege — is not welcoming. And it’s most certainly not pursuing justice.

As someone who is Black and who is Jewish, I desperately want white Jews to “get it.” I want my mother, a white Jewish woman who I love dearly, to understand my experience as a Black Jew and to give me exactly what I need.

So as someone who is faced with anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism almost constantly, and as someone who is involved in a fair amount of American Jewish communities in which I’m the only person of color, I recognize that I need help. Help in finding the problems, help in solving the problems, and help in making sure the problems don’t happen again.

In 2019, I ask of you to stop neglecting your responsibility to pursue justice within your own communities.

Because there is no one Black Jewish experience, just as there is no one Black or one Jewish experience, I talked to six Black Jewish leaders, asking each to articulate what they need from white Jews in the coming year.

Chanda Prescod- Weinstein, activist and professor of physics

I want white Jews to acknowledge that they are white. I want white Jews to acknowledge that Ashkenazi is not a synonym for white. I want white Jews to acknowledge that some Sephardim are white too. White Jews may not live at the center of the tent of whiteness, but they are still white. When white Jews refuse to acknowledge that they benefit from and participate in white supremacy, they are wasting time that could otherwise be spent upending that white supremacy.

Kendra Watkins, student and activist

I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with conversations in Jewish spaces that frame the United States as a safe haven that’s strayed from its mission. This place has always been filled with racial terror for myself, my family and community. Many times, when you say “us” or “we,” it’s clear that you don’t see how racialization impacts individual and communal experiences. Now more than ever I think it’s important for white Jews to really investigate whiteness in the U.S., what it means, your place within it, and understand anti-Semitism not as an exceptional form of oppression, but part of a larger framework that uses various forms of oppression to reinforce one another.

Tema Smith, Director of Community Engagement, Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto

So many black Jews have heard the line, “But you don’t look Jewish.” I, on the other hand, constantly hear, “But you don’t look black.” There is no one kind of black Jew. Some, like me, have one parent who is black and not Jewish and pass for white. Some have more typical “mixed race” looks. Others have family lines that are both black and Jewish. Some are adopted into Jewish families. Some have converted… and so on.

Many of us are asked to explain our Jewish “stories” when we walk into Jewish spaces. Often, these probing questions are the first thing people ask about us when they first meet us. Every day, we encounter assumptions about our families and our identities.

Let us tell you our stories in our own time. Don’t assume our stories before you hear them from us. And above all, don’t start a sentence with, “But you don’t look…”

Nylah Burton, Forward columnist

At this point, I’ve realized that there is nothing I can do to force people to confront uncomfortable truths about race and racism in America. The willingness to do so must come from within the individual.

Furthermore, I have no motivation to force people to realize these truths. I don’t need white people – including white Jews – to do anything to “include” me, because I’m intentionally building my life so that all my needs are fulfilled by black people.

For me, that feels like the safest and most comfortable route. However, I strongly suggest that white Jews face these uncomfortable facts about race that many seem so desperate to ignore.

Failure to do will cause, and is currently causing, an irreparable split in the community, which is counterintuitive to the intra-community goals we need to achieve.

Liyah Foye, student and Alma ambassador

White Jews must stop asking Black Jews if we converted. It’s not only against Jewish Law to ask, but it’s also an incredibly invasive question! You aren’t asking because you are “just curious”. You are asking because you have created a narrow-minded narrative of what Jews look like. If we answer “Yes, we converted,” then our answer affirms your thoughts that a black person couldn’t possibly be a born Jew.

Being Black and being Jewish are not two separate things. People are not pies, stop dividing them. Even liberal white Jews have the issue of “whitesplaning” black issues to me (a Black Woman) within Jewish spaces.

People make a habit of acting as if I know nothing about Jewish traditions , mitzvot, ideas, and thought. When I call them out on it, they complain to other white Jews that they were just trying to be “helpful”.

It’s not helpful. It’s degrading, awkward, and at the very least, annoying.

MaNishtana, Orthodox rabbi, speaker, and writer

Here’s a statement: “White women uphold white supremacy.”

It’s not a crazy statement. And before your knee jerk #notallwhitewomen gets triggered, all one has to do is look at the voting record of the 2016 election, or at the voter record for any of the most problematic recent Republican candidates. This, despite #metoo, the Women’s March, attacks on reproductive rights, misogyny, wage disparity, and rape culture.

Here’s another statement, also not crazy: White Jews uphold white supremacy.

Likewise, do not chime in with #notallwhiteJews or “But anti-Semitism!”

Because, firstly, the white Jewish ashkenormative narrative in America continues to masterfully erase and invalidate Jews who are not white. Secondly, in our synagogues and pews, there isn’t any anti-Semitism, yet still racism and white supremacy aplenty.

The only folk capable of convincing anyone that “Jews” are not white, or do not uphold white supremacy are Jews of Color. And guess who isn’t exactly interested in dying on that hill so long as we continue to experience racism, prejudice, and discrimination in our own communities?

Upholding white supremacy doesn’t inherently mean running around in white hoods or marching with tiki torches any more than being a college student inherently means going to frat parties and doing keg stands every Thursday night.

Bentley Addison is a sophomore studying sociology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University. Follow him on Twitter, @ashkenegro.

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