by Martin Friedman
For the purpose of this piece I will be referring to Blacks who are for the most part gentile and white Jews (Jews who have come to get the racial designation of White in the context of the US regardless of self identification). This particular piece is really written for Jews who have come to be called White. Jews who are also people of color are writing excellent pieces from their unique perspective. I will not attempt to speak from that perspective.
What a(nother) crucial time for relationships between “Blacks” and “Jews”! What will we choose? Will we, as we have done so many times in the past, choose whiteness and the perceived safety that we feel goes with that in the US or will we choose to align ourselves with those that are most oppressed in a given society? This is a very familiar spot for the Ashkenazi (and occasionally Sephardic) Jew who now gets a racial designation as white in the US. Let’s get this out of the way right now. Jewish, in the United States, isn’t a race. It is a culture that includes both spirituality and religion and also includes non religious ways of life. Jewish is also, arguably, an ethnicity based on being a cultural marker that has traveled with us and defined us. In this country Jewish is NOT a race. So please, Ashkenazi Jews, just stop saying, “I’m not white. I’m Jewish.” Yes we are Jewish and we will also be assigned a race based on how we are commonly perceived by institutions and systems. How we see ourselves or how we self identify does NOT matter in this race-constructed and race-constitutionalized country. A Jewish person who is also Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or mixed race will be identified first by their race even as they self identify as a Jew.
Ok, let’s get something else out of the way too. I am a self loving Jew (who is also white). I love my Jewishness. I am unapologetically Jewish. So let’s just wipe out the whole, “Oh he must be a self hating Jew because he isn’t mortally offended that the Movement for Black Lives platform used the terminology of genocidal and apartheid policies in relationship to Israel.” Or, “Oh we don’t have to listen to Martin because he went to Israel and visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been critical of Israeli policy on his Facebook page”. Not true! On my grand and great grandparents! On my great Aunt Leah from whom I got my middle name. I love my Jewishness! I love the connection I feel to my Eastern European Jewish heritage. I am also in love with an ideal of Jewishness that isn’t rooted in whiteness and domination. A Jewish ideal of true Tikkun Olam; of REPAIRING the world. All the world! Not just a world defined by whiteness or Europeanness. Not a world where we get to control the conversation. The world is broken. Does our refusing to engage with BLM help repair it? Can we repair it if we don’t engage with people who criticize current Israeli policy and US financial and Military support for the government that developed and enforces those policies?
It’s time for White Jews to stop choosing whiteness and align ourselves with those most oppressed in the US because that is what true Jewishness is about. And why wouldn’t we? The point of the Movement for Black Lives Platform was to speak truth to all power, not to use pleasing language. It is our duty to sit across the table from people who have been most oppressed in our country and hear what they have to say about what they perceive to be genocidal policy that’s connected to Institutional, Systemic and Structural Racism in the US. What are we afraid of? Why are we, of all people, afraid of conversation about oppression? If the policies of the Israeli government really are leading to a fair 2 or 1 state solution, why can’t we sit at a table and discuss it? Remember, the 1 piece of the platform we are so hyped up about is about governmental policy both here AND in Israel NOT about hating or oppressing Jews? Remember that Egypt was mentioned at the same time as Israel? I hope we are not forgetting those things because this is just an easy reason to disengage. We are a people who have such a long history of debate and multiple interpretations of the same text (or in this case policies) so why are we shutting this conversation down? Because of multigenerational historical trauma from the European Holocaust? All the more reason to sit down with people who have multigenerational historical trauma from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and US chattel slavery. Multigenerational trauma from lynchings and Jim Crow. From a Eugenics narrative that was studied here in the US by German Nazis. My people, we share roots in our historical trauma.
We, White Jews, have confused comfort with safety. And the root of that confusion is the root of the problem, power. Power defined (by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) as legitimate access to institutions and systems sanctioned by the state. Power that is equivalent to Whiteness. People that have strong access to institutional and systemic power confuse discomfort with safety all the time. I put forth, vehemently, that the wording of 1 section of the Movement for Black Lives platform makes us uncomfortable, NOT unsafe. We must be willing to engage. It’s pure privilege to get to pick and choose when and with whom we engage on this subject. It’s extreme privilege to just say NO I’m done. Extreme privilege to be able to shut someone down.
This is another in a long line of moments in history where we as white Jews get to chose alignment with whiteness or with People of Color. And what’s even crazier this time is that it feels like it’s our Jewishness that is at stake. It’s even crazier because it feels like this is anti Semitism. Again, being anti Israeli policy and anti US government policy is NOT the same thing as being anti Semitic. Historically, we’ve chosen the perceived safety of whiteness. Our ability to become fully White was due to governmental policy, the GI bill plus redlining which gave us our whiteness while excluding Blacks and Latinos who such a short time earlier had been our partners and friends. But they couldn’t access it in the same way as we could due to racism.. Yes, many of us were in the civil rights movement. Yes, many of us marched side by side. But we let ourselves get coopted so soon after. We chose whiteness because it got us out of the ghetto (named because of us by the way!). It was our literal ghetto pass. We need to understand that we left our brothers and sisters behind.
What are the costs of choosing Whiteness over Jewishness? One of the costs of our comfort and our privilege is Black and Brown lives. As long as we align ourselves with whiteness we contribute to the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of institutions. Their deaths are part of the the cost of our comfort, safety and privilege. The other loss is the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. That it means to not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. That it means true Tikun Olam. We are at such a(nother) crucial time of choice. Let’s choose our Jewishness over Whiteness this time. Let’s choose life.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo by Chris Wieland/Flickr