These past weeks, many in our country have mourned, and felt enraged, over the overt racist sentiments, behaviors, rhetoric, and antisemitism of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. We all watched in horror as this racist movement marched through the streets of this quaint town donning the symbolic robes of the Ku Klux Khan; a symbol that is reminiscent of America’s dark history of slavery. Jews watched in horror as Klansmen marched defiantly wearing swastikas, giving honor to the horrific events of the Holocaust.
As a Jewish woman of color, I was sickened by the blatant parading of hatred on display by the white supremacist movement. While many groups around the country are banning together in solidarity against racism, those of us who are African-American see the actions of the supremacists as more of the same; an ever-present trauma of living in a racist country. As a black woman, I recoiled and felt the pain my ancestors have felt for centuries in this society. As a Jew, I also felt the pain of the ancestral memories of my ancestors during the time of the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition due to antisemitism. Same trauma, same bigotry; just in different eras, times, and spaces. How does one begin to process this continual assault on one’s dignity and identity? If whites ever questioned the perceived severity of America’s racist past, they are seeing it firsthand now. Racism and bigotry in this country has never died, it just went undercover for a while and moved covertly under the radar of the public eye………..until now.
I talked with family and friends about why they believe it has reared its ugly head now. The reasons I received profoundly resonated with me. Based on consensus, it is about the loss of power and privilege. This is the undercurrent behind the notion of white supremacy. Those of us in the Jewish community need to understand and internalize what this means in today’s society for all of us who are being marginalized and attacked by the supremacist mentality.
During the time I was watching and listening to the racist ideology and anti-Semitic rants of Klansmen and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, I remember turning to a friend of mine and asking, “I wonder at which angle they would come after me first?”, referring to my multidimensional identity. She then stated, “Well, you can hide being a Jew, but you cannot hide being black”. The reality of this statement sank into the very core of my soul. I do not have the same privileges of my white Jewish brothers and sisters to blend into and freely move within the “majority” in America. White supremacists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis would condemn me for being black, first and Jewish, second.
We must remember, the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866, was created as a vehicle for white southern resistance to Reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for blacks who were seen as only 3/5 of a person according to a provision in U.S. Constitutional law. The Klan, also known as the “Night Riders”, waged an underground campaign of violence, murder, and intimidation of blacks and some of their white allies in the North. Although Congress passed laws on the books against the Klan’s clandestine activities, their reign of terror against blacks continued through the south; as some of their members infiltrated every level of governance in this country. It was not until after a period of decline, the Klan revitalized itself at the turn of the 20th century and decided to wage campaigns against blacks, first and foremost, and a new wave of people, inclusive of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and basically anyone who did not look, think, or believe in the way they did. To this day, our country still feels the effects of the institutionalized racism of this critical era in our nation’s history. This is something Black America has yet to escape.
White Jews need to accept that fact that they are not systemically undermined in America the way they were in Europe. Police are not targeting and murdering them at alarming rates in custody, they are not systemically placed in educational institutions that are sub-par, lack access to a healthy quality of life, nor are they overwhelmingly living in poverty but are living under the shelter of white privilege. In many ways, they enjoy the same privileges of non-Jewish whites; as most people cannot readily identify a Jew based on the color of one’s skin.
This brings me to the point I want to make regarding the Jewish responsibility to racial justice in America. All my life, I have heard people say, both blacks and Jews were oppressed so they share a similar, historical experience. Torah talks about never forgetting we were slaves in Egypt. This obviously drums up empathy for the black experience in America.
But, the question is, where does this leave space for non-white Jews? In my life and travels, I have met Jews of every hue. Jewish and non-Jewish friends of color have asked me countless times, how I feel about the label, “Black and Jewish”. My answer is simple, I believe this label should be retired because it implies the groups are separate and distinct. The truth of the matter is, they are not. Jews have always been a mixed multitude, absorbing people as it has moved along for millennia. We as a community need to stop focusing so much on labels and see each of us as people who make up a Tribe, a Nation, full of Diversity.
If we acknowledged and embraced this more, we would get out of the box and see how this blatant racism does affect the Jewish community more than anyone realizes. Racist rhetoric is touching some members of “the Tribe” more than others because they cannot hide behind white privilege. Perhaps this agitation to defend our own will spill over into the teachings of the Torah, where we are commanded to seek justice in an unjust society. True justice is not just about giving to charity or providing a few meals to the poor, it is about fighting for change on a more systemic, macro-level approach to the problem. This requires going above and beyond the norm. Putting oneself on the line for justice. It involves taking a stand for what is right regardless of the opposition. No change was ever won without a fight. If we as a community want to counteract the poison of racism that is slowly destroying the fabric of our nation, we need to stand together and not see the problem as affecting “them” that doesn’t involve “us”. Instead, the “we” model should be adopted because “we” are all in this together, and we should denounce racist sentiments, anti-Semitism, and bigotry as one voice.