I have a clear memory of the time when I was a kid and my classmates defaced my desk with carved swastikas and a mocking version of my very Hebrew name. As one of very few Jewish kids in a rural town that could be brutally intolerant, this was neither the first act of anti-Semitism launched in my direction, nor the last. Yet it stands out in my memory for the historical violence of it; the way the symbols the bullies used connected me to a bigger and older fight against people like me.
Two decades later, after the election of the man I refer to only as Number 45 (because it sounds like the title of the dystopian ruler I absolutely believe he is), a Brooklyn memorial to Jewish hip-hop legend Adam “MCA” Yauch was vandalized with swastikas during a rash of prejudice-motivated crimes, and I felt a familiar gutpunch. Everywhere, marginalized communities were living in fear of an administration that seemed to intend to give bigots free reign, and Jewish people were not the only targets or even the most affected, but acts of violence like this reminded us that anti-Semitism hadn’t gone anywhere.
The Jewish community carries a hurt that runs deep. No matter what part of the world our most recent ancestors come from, most of us have a story about how they were persecuted, hunted, or driven out. It’s in our cultural wiring to flinch when we see a potential threat. But in a time when the fight against racial and ethnic discrimination is at the forefront of many of our minds, it’s important for white-passing Jews like myself to be mindful of our place within these movements and the ways we can use the privileges we do have to support the voices of the most oppressed. Here are some ways that we can actively de-center ourselves in the anti-racist movement:
Be Aware of Own Privilege.
We may come from a legacy of ethnic cleansing and our own battles with discrimination, and there is still present and active hate against us in today’s climate. But at the end of the day, those of us who are not necessarily visually identifiable as ethnic minorities still have white-skin privilege, and need to take responsibility for it. Because of our appearance, we are able to get away with things that people of color aren’t, and we are automatically given advantages on site that they are not. This means that, despite our history, we need to do the same unpacking of privilege that other white people in America do in order to make sure we’re doing more help than harm. In fact, we need to …
Recognize That There Are Hierarchies Even Within Our Own Community.
As a kid I was always told that I “looked Jewish.” This meant that I had the appearance most people associate with Jewish people: prominent nose, light olive skin, dark wavy hair. It wasn’t until I reached young adulthood that I began to understand that Jewish people don’t necessarily look that way; that our people have spread all over the world, and this means there are African Jews, Asian Jews, Latin American Jews. The Jewish people who ended up in Europe and the Middle East are the ones people picture when they hear about Jewish people, but that’s all the more reason that we need to be intentional about making space for the voices of Jewish people who do not look that way.
The only way to fight for justice without creating further oppression is to let the most marginalized lead the conversation. What this means for us is that we need to wait, listen, and let them dictate the direction of any actions and in what ways, if any, we can help.
Use Our Privilege For Good.
The privilege that we have as people perceived as white and afforded the benefits of white supremacy means that some people will more readily pay attention to what we have to say. Rather than deny that privilege, we can use it as a tool in the fight. If there are people who will listen to us but not directly to POC in the movement, we can share and promote their words in hopes that they will reach more people. We can work with people in our own communities to undo the ingrained misconceptions and institutionalized prejudices – and for us Jews specifically, that means not giving passes to our older family members when they come out with a backward opinion. Yes, Bubbe has been through a lot, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need to unlearn the prejudices she’s internalized the same as everyone else, and it’s our job to teach these things, not the people already struggling hardest for survival.
Don’t Hide Behind Our Jewishness.
Because of the hateful acts many of us have directly experienced, as well as the stories we grew up with that spoke of far more horrible things that happened to the people who came before us in our families, it’s easy to jump to a defensive stance when we’re called out. Anti-Semitism is real! We’re marginalized, too! When confronted with unchecked privilege or a misstep we’ve made, it can be a knee-jerk response to come back with the ways that we, as individuals and as a people, have been made to suffer under this same system. But our suffering – whether personal or generational – doesn’t cancel out our systemic advantages or our ability to do damage. Being part of positive change means being willing to take responsibility for the ways that we, too, are part of this system and can, without careful self-examination, be complicit in the harm it causes.
More Radical Reads: On Bomb Threats, Privilege, and the Illusion of Safety
Bring Our Issues to the Table, but Don’t Talk Over Others
In this terrifying climate, there are real threats to Jewish people living in America – the defaced memorials, the burned synagogues, the hate crimes. It is important to bring these things into movements that fight against hate, but at the same time, part of listening and deferring to the most marginalized among us is being willing to weigh the urgency of our issues alongside others’. Insisting that our issues are the most pressing and important – or even acting like they are – directly harms people who face even more severe prejudice. It is possible to say “We need to talk about violence toward Jewish people” without making it seem like that needs to take precedence over the wider-spread violence that other groups face.
More Radical Reads: In the Age of Rising Anti-Semitism: What Being Jewish Means
Avoid Confusing Then with Now.
I opened this article talking about how anti-Semitism is a real and present threat, and it is. Those of us who’ve experienced it firsthand know that, despite lip service to anti-Jewish prejudice “making a comeback” under this administration, the truth is it never left. But at the same time, we can’t pretend we’re living in the same world that the older generations survived. Ignoring the ways that things have changed for Jews, especially those who read as white, since the days when our ancestors hid in fear is another way of deflecting privilege. The assimilation into mainstream American culture – particularly, white American culture – that has happened since then means we can often blend in with the very people who legislate oppression and perpetrate acts of violence against those they feel “don’t belong.” If we’re committed to doing this work, we need to place ourselves where we can do the least harm and the most good – and that, for us, is on the edges of the movement supporting those who need revolution the most, not at its center.
[Featured Image: A person with short dark hair, dark eye glasses, a moustache and beard is standing in a city street. They are wearing a dark jacket and a gray scarf. Behind them is a blue car and a city buildings. Source: pexels]