Different Modes of Ally-ship

I asked Yavilah McCoy, a diversity activist, and Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the ADL, to engage with each other through a series of letters about the parameters and boundaries of ally-ship — and the roles that power and privilege play in building coalitions to fight injustice.—S.B.

Dear Jonathan,

In my work as an equity facilitator and social justice activist, I have come to define an ally as a person who actively supports and stands up for the rights, dignity, and empowerment of individuals and identity groups other than his or her own — especially when those individuals or identity groups are not present or otherwise afforded the ability or access to represent themselves. As I consider the state of our country and the daily attacks being made on rights, freedoms, and legislative policies that have been set up to protect the most vulnerable among us, as I consider the looming threat of neo-fascism, the rise of global terror, the perils to our natural resources and environment, and the unmitigated scourge of gun violence in our schools, I see opportunities for ally-ship in abundance.

As a Jewish activist of color, what is most salient to me about the pursuit of allied relationships — broad alliances of people dedicated to the work of social justice — has been learning to pursue justice as an intersectional enterprise that engages the depths of our differences as multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class, multi-gendered, differently observant, and intergenerational communities that are in no way monolithic in our commitments, representation, or vulnerability to the need for justice to ensure our lives.

As I ponder the successes and challenges I have experienced in maintaining allied relationships in regard to Israel-Palestine, the Black Lives Matter platform, the Women’s March, and other work to build racial justice and equity, I am curious about the extent to which our ally-ship has allowed us to not have to agree on all things while remaining committed to developing our muscles for standing together on the things that we do agree on. I am curious about our ability to invest, across our communities, in relationships that nurture an infrastructure that can be useful, across divergent interests, in times of crisis and when action is needed. I am curious about leveraging allied relationships to avoid the heightened erasure, tokenization, racism, and antisemitism that Jews of color have experienced in our work.

For me, fostering allied relationships between diverse communities has taken courage, patience, and a willingness to listen to one another, especially during inevitably difficult conversations. It has meant acknowledging that some of us have been granted access and privilege by virtue of being white. It has meant deepening our accountability across lines of privilege and committing tonot choose power over our connection to the oppressed. Working across interests has required me to see people within the issues we fight for as whole and not segmented beings. Jonathan, how do you understand the need to engage in intersectional and interconnected struggles in service of justice for all in the current moment?

I look forward to hearing your perspective, Yavilah

Dear Yavilah,

Thank you for your letter. As you know, I deeply admire your work and respect your perspective. My work as CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is inspired and guided by our charter, written over 100 years ago, that demonstrates the inextricable connection between protecting Jews and advocating for other people with equal measures of urgency. Threats to any marginalized community are threats to every community.

In thinking about being a good ally, I agree that we need to take time to build relationships with those we aim to work with, even when it is difficult. These relationships allow us to express the burdens our people carry while alsolearning from others in the same way. Ally-ship means using the access and privilege one has to help advance another’s cause and to mobilize one’s own communities to show up when needed and called upon.

And as I consider my role in addressing threats to the Jewish community, I must recognize the threats toward all in our community, which includes Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, Jews who arrived as refugees and immigrants, and others with intersectional identities. When threats of racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination are present, we must be aware and responsive to these injustices, including ways our own Jewish families and communities are impacted.

We know that many marginalized communities — African Americans, Latinx, Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQ+ people, Jews, and others — are facing increasing threats. Some of these threats are coming from the Trump Administration; others originate from groups and individuals who now feel emboldened to spew hate extremism, and foment violence (either online or in person).

Recognizing our shared stake in this fight for justice is especially important for Jews because we know the danger of discriminatory policies and actions — because of our history in Europe and in parts of the Middle East. This is what has compelled us to say”never again” — not just for Jews but for anyone.

Over the past few years, the extreme polarization of our country’s politics has made it more difficult for me to show up in some circumstances. A culture that declares”You’re either fully with us or you’re against us”is growing, which makes it difficult to be an ally even if the areas of disagreement are entirely detached from the focus of a specific initiative.

I’m concerned about an approach that demands we agree on everything in order to work together. For example, I’ve been asked not to join certain coalitions on domestic issues because of legitimate policy disagreements on Israel. And while we might have differences of opinion with some parties on some policy matters related to Israel, that should not prevent me or the ADL from standing with allies on matters of equality or fighting for justice here at home. A point of disagreement on a single issue does not justify a permanent disqualification from any collaboration on any issue.

Additionally, while our reporting tracked an alarming rise in anti-Jewish incidents in the U.S. in 2017, antisemitism is rarely included in lists of oppressions and social justice concerns, nor is it widely mentioned in speeches and platforms at political marches and rallies. How can we make sure that intersectionality is used to lift up marginalized voices while also ensuring that it doesn’t translate into the exclusion of those with some privilege, particularly members of the Jewish community with white privilege whose oppression is sometimes difficult to understand? And how can we serve as allies to others while not shying away from advocating for our own needs in this time as well?

Many thanks Yavilah. I look forward to continuing this exchange, Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,

Your leadership commitment to resist the defamation of the Jewish people while working to secure justice for all people is crucial to the work of building a world free from all forms of bigotry and associated violence. As a Jewish activist, I find your work to be grounded in the same principle from Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers that guides my own: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”In these times, when the meaning of”me,”“myself,”and”my community”is being tested and interrogated daily at the borders of our country, my attention, as an ally, is drawn to the latter half of this moral calling from our Torah: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

I see intersectionality as a lens through which we understand that our privilege and the ways we have been targeted are related. When we build coalitions, those intersectional relationships and struggles are relevant. This means agreeing to learn together, in beloved community, to fight harder than ever before to remain united in our struggle for justice for all people. I respond to the challenge you describe — that in today’s political culture being an ally demands being”fully with us or against us” — by building and joining coalitions of allies around a shared value for moving justice forward, even if the groups have some differing needs. For example, in the Women’s March, allies formed coalitions around a commonly shared value that”Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights.”This shared value brought together women from vastly different backgrounds to stand together as allies to alleviate the suffering of those who are made most vulnerable by systemic inequities in our society. Allies worked together across issues that felt closest to their communities — ending sexual violence, protecting reproductive rights, LGBTQIA rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and the cause of environmental justice — to answer the call”If I am only for myself, what am I?”

The rise in antisemitism in this country is real and must be vigorously addressed by all of our allies. And, we must remain aware that it is generally not my Jewish siblings who are being criminalized for seeking safe-haven as refugees to this country. Social justice ally-ship is not a zero-sum game where the choice of allies is to be either with or against any one group. I have always tried to figure out how to stand with my people, Black and Jewish, while not allowing privilege to provide me entry through doors that other targeted individuals cannot easily access.

In the current climate, I am not sure how we can successfully fight the binaries of extremism without taking the risk of opening our Jewish boundaries for partnership to include more than what seems immediately safe or congruent to our direct needs. For me, ally-ship is about remembering our history and the risk-taking of the privileged who saved many of us, whether it was in service to our allies to help us or at their peril.

Jonathan, how do you understand the need to engage in intersectional and interconnected struggles in service of justice for all in the current moment? How far are you willing to extend ally-ship and under what conditions?

With much respect, Yavilah

Dear Yavilah,

The urgency today, of upholding civil rights and protecting our democracy, is greater than I’ve ever seen. I agree we are stronger when organized in broad coalitions held together by shared values and common goals. In my work, this requires me to set aside differences to stand in multiple coalitions.

I am proud to have seen Jewish communities build diverse coalitions with great success. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t note the painful times Jewish friends and colleagues have been asked to leave long-standing coalitions — often because of affiliations or perceived affiliations with Israel or Zionism, despite shared values and goals. Knowing that pain, I don’t want to push it onto others, and aim to be expansive in my own coalition building.

The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James ByrdJr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is the result of a strong coalition of groups that shared a history of exclusion and discrimination along with every major law enforcement organization in the country to fight for protections against bias-motivated crimes based on someone’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion, or national origin. When some outside interest groups and powerful lawmakers urged for the removal of”sexual orientation”from the list of protected identities, the broad coalition stood as allies with their LGBTQ partners, unwilling to move the act forward without them. That moment the coalition answered the question: “If I am only for myself, what amI? “We went from being partners in an interconnected fight to standing as allies with those who had been directly singled out. When the bill passed with all groups protected, we were reminded how critical it is to stand united in pursuit of the greater good.

I see a similar notion in your example of the Women’s March, where women of all backgrounds came together to fight for the common goal of women’s rights. This movement allowed women to bring their full selves, empowering ally-ship and examinations of privilege. When a white woman from the movement speaks out against racial injustice, she turns from a partner in the fight for women’s rights to an ally for racial justice. When a cis-woman stands for the rights and dignity of her trans sister, she becomes an ally to the trans community. Furthermore, the ally-hood of women who stood up against attempts to exclude other women because of their connections to Israel was important and helped strengthen inclusion in the movement. I agree we need to move from being interconnected partners to being allies willing to jump into the fight even when we are not directly affected.

I’m committed to fighting for the rights of all marginalized communities because of my Jewish values and because it’s simply the right thing to do. I’m committed to actively showing up and not backing down in the fight for justice. Different models of ally-ship require me to sometimes lead from the front, other times quietly from behind, or silently lending support from behind the scenes.

Ultimately, we are fighting for a better, more just, safe, and flourishing society where everyone is treated equally and afforded equal opportunity. We need to stand up for each other to get there. The time is now.

With admiration and gratitude, Jonathan


Yavilah McCoy and Jonathan Greenblatt

Yavilah McCoy and Jonathan Greenblatt

Yavilah McCoy is the CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting, which provides strategic direction on diversity and equity initiatives for faith-based social justice agencies and college campuses, as well as for national training and outreach programs for Jews of Color. Jonathan Greenblatt is CEO and national director of the ADL. Prior to joining the ADL, he served in the Obama White House and was formerly a serial social entrepreneur and corporate executive.

Different Modes of Ally-ship

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