It is a scary time to be Jewish in America. Our communities have watched with alarm as Donald Trump wielded anti-Jewish stereotypes to energize his base and with outrage at his administration’s brazen flirtations with Holocaust denial. In the past two months, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, our synagogues fired into, and our community centers terrorized by scores of bomb threats.
For those Jews who have convinced themselves that anti-Jewish oppression is over while cocooning themselves in the false security blanket of whiteness, the jig is up.
As M. Dove Kent, a leading Jewish organizer against racism and Islamophobia, recently explained, “We know that whiteness is about power and not about skin tone. What we are seeing in this moment is the conditions of the Jewish community’s relationship to whiteness are coming to the fore.”
In this moment, we see an opportunity to demand that more white Jews join the fight against white supremacy. It is long past time that we showed up in stronger numbers for immigrants, black and brown folks, trans people, and others who are the primary targets of the Trump administration and of white supremacy in America.
To play our part in the work of collective liberation, Jews must also show up for ourselves. This means advancing visions of liberation that include anti-Jewish oppression and demanding that our allies stand vocally and visibly against our oppression.
First, we have to be unafraid to acknowledge our Jewish community’s failures and weaknesses.
Whiteness runs rampant through Jewish communities, few of which have taken proactive steps to address patterns of systemic racism and implicit bias. We have rejected Jews of color and Mizrahim while coding Ashkenazi Jews as holders of the true, authentic Jewish narrative and culture.
Meanwhile, our institutions continue to place mostly full faith in an Israel that denies basic civil rights to Palestinians, whose lives it has dominated for over 50 years. In one illustration of how far off the rails Israel’s democracy has fallen, a member of the ruling Likud party of Israel’s parliament recently suggested that in his ideal political vision, Palestinians “will get all of the rights like every citizen except voting.”
Our myopia on Israel extends to domestic issues. When The Movement for Black Lives released a visionary platform for racial justice that included language criticizing Israel, the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council released a statement announcing they could no longer support M4BL. While some Jews may disagree with the M4BL’s position, they cannot wash their hands of the modern day civil rights movement because of one platform point.
Fortunately, there are also visionary Jewish organizations addressing these issues head-on. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice builds Jewish community that centers Jews of color and queer Jews and fights police brutality and tenant abuse in New York City. IfNotNow has arisen to demand that the American Jewish community take responsibility for its complicity in occupation. In February, 19 rabbis organized by T’ruah were arrested while protesting the Muslim travel ban. These are just a few of the Jewish organizations doing this work.
But even as the Jewish community begins to take stronger stances against the oppression of others, an uncomfortable truth lurks — many on the left don’t consider Jewish oppression worth their time. Take a look at any list of oppressed groups in otherwise radically inclusive spaces. Why are Jews never included? And why is Christianity, so obviously an identity that conveys power and privilege in America, never named as such?
As we demand that our Jewish communities reject white supremacy, we also need to be able to count on our allies to take vocal, visible stands against anti-Jewish oppression.
To be clear, we are not asking those most targeted by racism to start marshaling their time and energy toward Jews. But the call for collective liberation rings hollow for Jews when it excludes us — particularly when our community is in the midst of anti-Jewish violence that triggers memories of a systematic plan to exterminate our people less than 80 years ago.
We want to share our understanding of how anti-Jewish oppression functions and how that oppression hurts and confuses us so our allies can show up better for Jews and more effectively call us into the important work of dismantling white supremacy.
Anti-Jewish oppression operates in Western societies by isolating and demonizing Jews and turning them into what Rabbi Robert Marx has called “the people in between.” Early Christian evangelists told stories of Jews with horns and tails who reeked of the Christian blood they used for their rituals. As these stereotypes spread, Jews were then forced by ruling classes into middleman roles like moneylenders, tax collectors, and landlords. Tasking Jews with managing the oppression of others further isolated us and positioned us as a buffer between elites and other marginalized groups. For thousands of years, Jews have been scapegoats.
These patterns of Jewish isolation, demonization and scapegoating haven’t gone anywhere. They justified horrific violence against Jews in the past; because they remain in place, we fear future violence. With pressure from all directions, many Jews turn their anger, confusion, and hurt inwards.
As white men, the authors of this piece are among the most privileged of Jews, yet between the structural forces of anti-Jewish oppression and our negative internalizations of ourselves, we know that we are not free. As Jewish men, we suffer deeply from the internalization of anti-Jewish oppression. Our masculinity is othered. We have learned that our bodies, marked as Jewish, are unattractive and undesirable. We compensate to avoid being perceived as stingy. We go to extraordinary lengths to appear earnest and without an agenda. We choose to name these things because Jews need to have the courage to make our oppression visible if we expect others to stand against anti-Jewish oppression.
We have also noticed that sometimes, the behavior of Jews coping with and reacting to their oppression is misunderstood.
Example one: Some Jews are convinced that nobody cares about our oppression. When someone does offer acknowledgment, we react as a starving person might, gorging on whatever recognition is offered and hungrily demanding more. What sounds like neediness is the result of the magnitude of our trauma and our fear that it might happen again if we do not emphasize it enough. It is an irrational reaction, but it is also understandable.
Example two: Some Jews see our oppression as eternal. To cope, we have honed a morbid sense of humor. As Jews laugh in terror at the violence swirling around us, other oppressed people see a callousness to their suffering. We lean on humor for resilience because facing our oppression means facing the possibility of future violence against us. When Jews join coalitions that imagine a world free of anti-Jewish oppression, we will be able to confront our demons more courageously.
We choose to discuss the particular concerns of Jews because for our movements to achieve collective liberation, they must understand how anti-Jewish oppression works today.
For example, Donald Trump exploited anti-Jewish oppression to help him win the presidential election. In his final campaign ad, images of three prominent and powerful Jews flashed across the screen while a voiceover declared, “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.” Addressing the root causes of economic inequality is hard. Shifting blame to “wealthy and controlling Jews” is much easier.
Ripping away the veil of anti-Jewish oppression will refocus our energies on the true forces of economic oppression in our society. Time spent thinking that Jews are the sole or primary authors of economic hardship is time wasted.
Collective liberation means Jews must be better at attacking white supremacy at its roots. Collective liberation means non-Jews must be better at recognizing and dismantling anti- Jewish oppression. Let us hold these two truths together as we work to get free.