Jewish American White Women: We Have to Talk
Part 1: We are White so we are responsible.
If you are a White person with a pulse, hopefully the recent succession of killings of Black people by police (including George Floyd, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, Breonna Taylor) and the disproportionate number of Black people dying from Covid-19), have you examining your privilege and purpose.
And while the current state of America continues to be a dumpster fire on seemingly every front, we must focus. We must address racism head-on as it intersects or worsens all other social justice issues and because Black people are dying.
White Jewish Americans think we can identify with Black Americans, but our experience is NOT the Black American ex`perience.
“American Jews were able to rapidly move up into middle-class while African Americans come from a legacy of white supremacy and slavery.”–Mark Dollinger
It might be hard for White Jews, who are a minority, to understand and accept that we benefit from White Supremacy in America.
White Women must support Black Women in particular and amplify their stories and struggles, as well as their brilliant ideas and successes.
While we fear conservatives and right-wing extremists, we are not the main targets. The Police and GOP have their sights on Black Americans. It is up to White people to shield them from gunfire and racist attacks.
As White Jewish Women, we owe it to Black Women to change racist policies and challenge racist beliefs that would end the atrocities carried out by the Police and other White Supremacist groups.
Together, with many other White people, I continue to educate myself on race and the history of slavery. I do my research. I intend to be a good ally. I try to use correct terms and stay updated on the latest terminology. How can I wield the power of my privilege to help others? What do I say to colleagues?
It took me years to really get it. That doesn’t give me nachas. I don’t pat myself on the back for reaching some understanding of race and privilege. There are no awards and no gold stars for not being racist.
But what if you don’t know about or recognize the impacts of racism? What if you still don’t understand the privilege of being white?
To dismantle a racist society, it starts with us learning about the privilege (benefits) we experience by being White.
Our skin color allows us to be seen and treated better than our Black peers; we can come and go at will.
We are the sum of your experiences. Let’s examine ourselves and how we move through this world as White Women. What prejudices do you have lurking? Seen with this lens we may discover the opportunities we had, that others did not, were in part, thanks to our skin color.
The rest will follow.
. . .
Why we relate.
As a Jewish Woman, I have always feared White Supremacy. It’s in my bones. As unrest in our White Supremacist country rises, so does our fear. Jewish and Black Americans see the writing on the wall.
As Jews who are White, we must resist trying to be an ally by comparing our struggles. In moments when talking about race with Black Americans we must focus on their struggles. We can still acknowledge them, however, in our circles as a way to build bridges of understanding.
Do NOT participate for the gold medal in the “Oppression Olympics” (you don’t need to compare how your struggle is just as bad).–The Guide to Allyship
Some scholars feel our stories of “shared narrative of oppression are false” and it is indeed possible this is another form of whitewashing American history. I can only speak from my point of view as a Jewish woman and the similarities are frightening.
On the brink of financial collapse, the Nazis continued to reign terror on Jews using the economy as an excuse, before arresting Jews and killing them. Trump keeps using the economy as an excuse to open the country, which will kill more American-Black lives (the majority of deaths).
Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass comes to mind every time I watch Twitter or see an armband on a vandal posing as a Black Lives Matter protester breaking a window. Black Americans continue to be arrested and pepper-sprayed for damage they did not cause.
Empathy for Black Americans from White Jewish Americans comes from an earnest place.
My ancestors were also kidnapped, put on cattle cars (not ships), starved, beaten, stripped naked, pulled from their children, died of diseases, and put to work in grueling conditions. Millions died.
While we didn’t come to America by forced transport, to avoid forced transport, we were exiled. My grandparents were forced to flee from their homeland and come to an unwelcoming place.
. . .
Compare present-day racism and antisemitism
Trump referred to Israel as our Jewish homeland, believing we are Israelis, not Americans. (He has a pattern of telling Americans to go back where they came from.)
While this should cause anger, worry, and fear, in this moment people of color, and specifically Black Americans are the target of White Supremacy.
While Trump did recently label Jews an ethnic-racial group by executive order in December 2019, our physical safety remains mostly intact. (He did so claiming to protect us from further hate crimes which are on the rise.) Black men, women and children do have an imminent threat.
American anti-semitism continues to be covert (blame George Soros, “big banks”) and the American racism overt (the Covid-19 death toll, kneel on a man’s neck till he stops breathing).
As a Jewish woman, it’s likely you remember a time someone looked at you as if you had horns or maybe a slur. (Don’t Jew me out was a fun phrase I learned moving from NYC to the West Coast).
I can recall every anti-semitic experience that touched me or my circle personally. In my entire life, only two were at the hands of those I would say was from by Nazi White Supremacists.
Black American women cannot count their personal experiences with racism in one day on both hands. They experience racism daily, if not hourly.
. . .
Our experiences with slavery are not the same.
Most Jews in America don’t have deep, intimate knowledge about the African-American Slave trade or Black American History except the whitewashed version taught in schools. (Innocuous ship routes drawn as a triangle on a map come to mind). Some are just now learning the complex, factual stories of documented American Slavery and its continued impact.
One of the most important Jewish holidays, Passover, celebrates Jewish deliverance from bondage. Yet when we say “our people were slaves In the land of Egypt” we do not have current imagery, family stories or ties to this beyond the Torah (a 6000-year-old document).
To celebrate freedom, Jews drink and “recline”. We perform rituals to remember the pain and sorrow of Slavery. We end the service with wishes to return to the promised land the following year, even though we are in the diaspora.
Yes, Jews experienced genocide. 6 million were murdered in the latest attempt to snuff us out.
As if the Black community wasn’t already harmed enough, any push to open U.S. economy puts our most vulnerable in more harms way. “From Minneapolis to broken streets of Philly, the ‘human capital stock’ has finally had enough.” #blm https://t.co/9cpHASVek7 @phillyinquirer
— coFLOWco (@coFLOWco) June 4, 2020
In contrast, the number of lives trafficked in the slave trade that went on for 400 years was double those lost to camps. 1.8 million died on the journey over and 10.6 million people who survived the trip were sold as capital.
Author Marcus Rediker, recalling the same language Jews use: “Black community should never forget.” In his book ‘The Slave Ship: A Human History,’ he calls the ships ‘floating concentration camps’.
“So much of the experience of race in America has been the experience of terror. The punishments and hangings and mutilations, but also the lynching, survival in the face of police violence…”–Rediker
Black American history is in fact repeating itself, playing on a loop 400 years, and counting. And Black men, women and children are afraid they may not live another day.
The effects continue to harm Black Americans.
Black people live in constant fear.
Jews had some closure. We had the Nuremburg Trials, reparations, and the creation of Israel. There have been no reparations; no trial; no government apology has been issued for American Slavery.
. . .
Our suffering is not the same.
Jews love to talk about our suffering. We still complain about wandering the hot desert hungry with crappy food, 6000 years later.
We speak about the Holocaust as a way to ensure history does NOT repeat itself. Jewish communities raise their kids with Holocaust stories shared on all occasions, both celebratory and somber (and for me even at my Jewish friend’s on Thanksgiving).
Our fear of armbands and supremacist symbols is visceral. It’s epigenetics; we fear White Supremacy in our DNA.
As a result “neurotic” Jews have high anxiety and a fear past atrocities will repeat. But Jewish Americans are not presently experiencing the daily traumas our grandparents witnessed.
Trump may cause us lots of shpilkes but heartburn is not the same.
The thing is, (knock wood) being a Jewish White Woman in America, for the moment, is pretty damn safe. But being Black in America is a health hazard.
Due to the color of our skin, we are not in crisis. We are not in danger of losing our sons or daughters to police brutality. Black mothers are.
While antisemitism may be on the rise globally, being Jewish and White in America is not a hazard to your health. In Ohio, Racism has been declared a public health crisis.
We don’t have to worry about our safety and health every waking (and sleeping) minute the way Black people do. Breonna Taylor was not the first to die in her home while sleeping, at the hands of police.
Black people still suffer from subjugation, still get killed for the color of their skin by poverty, mass incarceration, lack of healthcare and police brutality.
Our problems from Police as American Jews is nonexistent. If we get pulled over for speeding, we won’t be arrested. We won’t be questioned as a criminal if we are punched in the face and have a black eye.
Yes, we still get discriminated against and experience hate crimes, but on the whole, we are not ostracized, rejected, deported, targeted, bullied, killed by the Police–all thanks to our white skin.
. . .
We were taught how to be racist.
What racist ideas were you taught?
Even if we marched or donated, or checked in on a colleagues, we likely have not spent a lifetime being anti-racist (actively, consciously doing the opposite of being racist).
White Supremacy in America still exists because White Women, including Jewish democrats continue to be oblivious to the ways in which we benefit from our Whiteness. We, like all White people, have benefited from an American society founded on stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen families.
We learn from parents, peers, media, politicians, police and teachers, administrators, bosses, grocery clerks, bank tellers, and every person we interact with, how to talk to and treat others, as they learned from their parents and peers.
In order to understand the impacts of our unconscious and conscious bias, we have to question what we learned growing up. What led us to act or feel superior to others?
Uncovering all the racist messages we’ve picked up takes time to unpack.
We will start to see all the choices and opportunities that were laid before us, (as I have). Reflect on our opportunities as a White Jewish women who can “pass”. Being born White gave us a big edge. What extent has our privilege served us?
What were you taught about opportunity?
Many Jewish adults in 2020 were raised to believe in the myth of bootstrap success. We heard stories of our parents working hard for their positions; they had determination and grit. We were told our grandparents had to rebuild what they lost after they arrived here with nothing.
We were taught our ancestors that went through Ellis Island “pulled themselves up,” moving from Lower East Side tenements to Upper West Side apartments or the suburbs within one or two generations.
We were also taught subtly that when we landed on these shores (in the 20th century with next to nothing), we were still better than the White people who arrived (in the 17th to 19th centuries). We didn’t steal this land; we were forced from our homeland. We didn’t own slaves.
Jews landed on this shore, fleeing persecution, or seeking opportunity with one big advantage: our skin color.
What were you taught to value?
As White women who are Jews, we were subtly taught many racist ideas, even by progressive parents. They perpetuated racism learned from their parents, friends, and community. I don’t pretend to understand their struggles or compare them to mine. Our parents did the best they could and wanted to give their kids the best life. But now, we are called to do better.
We were taught to admire expensive things and fancy education. We were taught to seek partners with White Collar jobs. We were raised to hear that the new Black parent (of a kid in our mostly white class) was a Doctor, with an undertone of “so, that family is ok”.
“You can’t filter out biases unless you’re aware of them.”–How to be anti-racist: Speak out in your own circles
We were raised by Jewish parents to believe Jews get advanced degrees (as if other parents don’t?!) We “favored” the best schools (my top High School in a New York suburb was 30% Jewish). We were erroneously fed that our privilege to good education was because our parents placed a higher value on learning. Our parents did not acknowledge the head start we had via money and privilege to access these schools.
We were taught we need someone to save us.
“Our White tears garner sympathy and prayers. If we play victim to assert power, others come to our defense. If we are victims who actually get into real trouble or harm, strangers will rush to our aid.
“In English, chutzpah often connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment. [It means] nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption.”
Jewish American Women were raised to view chutzpah as a compliment. Be loud and opinionated. Be like Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl: be bold, don’t shrink. Our parents had moved beyond surviving, so we learned lessons for thriving. And when our loud views and culture clashed with non-Jews at work, we (unlike Black Women) were not put on corrective action, pushed out, or fired.
Just as Black parents want to keep their kids safe, and give them the best chances in life, so did our parents. The messages Black parents teach are for survival. They teach their children how to shrink and how to be strong yet invisible; brave yet compliant.
The irony unfortunately is Jewish White Women, normally so outspoken, don’t always speak up about our mistakes or to help. Many are too afraid of being wrong. The patriarchy teaches women to value perfection. Our ignorance or pride prevents us from changing.
. . .
It’s a shanda.
A shanda (scandal, embarrassment) is actually the perfect yiddish for the way Jews have been, and can be, racist. Remembering the way we treated other marginalized people can be shameful.
#1 lesson of the Shoa Jews were taught: Never Forget. One would think this would make all Jews super loving and inclusive. Yet many of our grandparents were racist.
While Bernie Sanders’ solidarity with the Black community is awesome, most of us know the trope of older racist Jews came from somewhere and it definitely had an impact on Jews today.
At 16, I remember leaving the room in abject horror when an elderly Jew made a racist comment. What was wrong with her?
Yet, I have been racist towards several Black Women in my life.
At 17, I judged one of only a few Black girls in my school when she got into Harvard, she only got in because of her skin color.
When thinking about how I acted towards my first college roommate at18, and one former coworker at 26, I am completely horrified.
As a White woman with power, I also recognize now their efforts to be as accommodating and compliant as possible. Their responses in language, tone, and actions towards mine were so polite. What an asshole I was!
I don’t try to contact women to apologize who are no longer in my life. They don’t need my White guilt. That doesn’t save lives. I do hope that my actions and ignorance did not leave marks or trauma, (the true evidence of my privilege that what I say and do can have a lasting effect on the lives of others).
But reviewing my past and present thoughts, words, and deeds with the lens that all races, all people, are equal is how I began to be antiracist.
White shame is not something we should ever put on the shoulders of Black people (who are already suffering). Let’s instead use it to act with purpose and in opposition to our biases.
Guilt can drive people to do big things outside of their own self-interest.
Just ask Jewish mothers; we are experts in using guilt to create a change in behavior.
Admit mistakes. Admit when you misjudged someone. Admit you were a schmuck.
Admitting we are racist is nothing compared to being a Black Woman on the receiving end of a privileged White Woman all the time.
It’s the least we can do.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Emily O. Weltman