I decided to go into human resources and talent development because I enjoyed the idea of building and growing people and organizations, among other things.
I work to make diversity, equity, and inclusion an important component of what I do because the ethos of “Never Again” doesn’t apply to just one group.
Do we truly mean it?
Has the term “Never Again” been voiced so many times for political gain, that it’s been rendered moot?
Is there an inherent privilege to saying “Never Again” when various types of discrimination that led to the events of Holocaust are happening all around the world, but not to you?
I struggle with these questions on a daily basis. Yet, I feel I’m in a unique position to answer them. While I’m in the human resources space, and work on DEI initiatives in addition to other responsibilities, I have my own identity I grapple with.
I’m white. And I’m Jewish.
Note that being white and Jewish isn’t mutually exclusive and not indicative of all Jews. It isn’t even indicative of all American Jews. Not all Jews identify as white- around the world, Jews of Mizrachi (from the Middle East and Africa) and Sephardic (from Spain and Portugal) descent wouldn’t even PASS as white, let alone identify as that particular race.
Rather, it’s a uniquely American Jewish identity. Unique to my Ashkenazi (Jews who came from Europe) roots, where Jews were the other when they came to America- singled out just for being Jewish. I am part of a people who just wanted to be a part of society. And we weren’t, until our ancestors were able to seamlessly assimilate into society, paving the way for my parent’s generation and my own.
Our ability to assimilate was based on two things: One, our economic determination. The second, was our whiteness. Our whiteness was able to mask much of our minority stature and allow Ashkenazi Jews to truly integrate into society without much hubbub.
Growing up in Hebrew school, we were taught every year about the Holocaust. We learned about Anne Frank’s diary, watched various movies about camps, saw the tattooed six digit numbers and heard lived experiences from real-life Holocaust survivors.
In my public school English classes, we read “Night” while our teachers worked to explain a brief overview of the Holocaust that was required by the Texas State Board of Education. Lots of facts and figures, with some assignments to be completed. My Holocaust education continued in Hebrew School until the 12th grade.
We studied the Civil Rights Movement starting at an early age too. Mostly, we were taught the facts and famous names: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., sit-ins, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X (to a point), Selma (somewhat), Birmingham, Lorraine Motel, etc. Facts and figures. Sure, sometimes we read passages detailing what happened to give a bit of context, but still- it was a unit to be covered, an assignment to be completed.
And there’s where the privilege comes in. It’s just an assignment, until it happens to you.
As Jews, we are well aware of “it can happen to you”. The common theme of a holiday while sitting around a family dinner table is for many holidays “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
It’s funny and there’s always a sort of self-deprecation to it. Many of these holidays were born thousands of years ago, but the persecution still lingers in our minds, especially those of our grandparents, who were witness to the horrors of Nazi Germany just 75 years ago. That shared history spurred many Jews to partner with Civil Rights leaders during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, understanding that what African-Americans were going through then, Jews had a similar experience in Europe.
All with their fellow citizens standing by and doing nothing, or even aiding the enemy in the process.
It isn’t funny when it happens to you on a daily basis.
It isn’t funny when you’re denied service, simply because of the color of your skin.
It isn’t funny when you hide your name on a resume, or a picture of yourself on LinkedIn because you know a hiring manager might discriminate against you.
It isn’t funny when whole communities are reduced to stereotypes, denied opportunities, funding, and other important pillars that allow a community to thrive.
It isn’t funny when your businesses are rejected from payroll loans at a higher rate in the middle of a pandemic, or you’re afraid to wear a mask because someone might discriminate against you (especially law enforcement) just because of the color of your own skin.
It isn’t funny when you’re treated differently by police, and being murdered in broad daylight, simply for being Black.
It isn’t funny when Black people make up 6.5% percent of the population, yet a Black male born in 2001 has a 33% chance of ending up behind bars.
Sure, I’ve dealt with some dumb stereotypes in my day. But there’s a privilege in knowing “Never Again” probably won’t happen again to you, but it will to someone else.
If we as Jews do not live by that ethos “Black Lives Matter”, then “Never Again” will happen again.
As Jews, we understand the lived experiences that our ancestors went through. We understand the pogroms, the persecutions, the restrictions in occupations. We’ve seen the gold star identifiers, and the cartoons with grotesque depictions. And, in fact, there are still parts of the world (including ours) where anti-semitism is on the rise.
But we see it now standing from a place of privilege. This privilege leaves us unable to comprehend the “never again”. Sometimes, we only see the top of the “Pyramid of Hate”, genocide, without seeing everything leading up to it.
It starts with bias- propaganda, misinformation, exclusion and stereotypes. Bullying, social avoidance (a more sinister kind of social distancing) follow. When those in power know these forms of hate are socially acceptable, they move to economic, political and educational discrimination, isolating those groups even more. That’s when violence becomes acceptable.
And now is as good a time as ever for Jews like myself to understand our past, and our privilege in society.
The Civil Rights Movement isn’t just a piece of history. When bias, discrimination, and racially motivated crimes against African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, and those encompassing the LGBTQA+ and disabled communities continue to rise, stoked by acceptance of norms amongst those for which “it isn’t happening to them,” the Civil Rights Movement becomes an everyday, lived experience.
Not only that, but just as Jewish discrimination didn’t start with the Holocaust, the prejudice against, unlawful killing, and economic deprivation of the Black community didn’t start with the Civil Rights Movement.
Genocide doesn’t start with systematic extermination. It starts with acceptance.
As a Jew, I call not on “Never Again”, but the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam”, meaning to repair the world. It’s a concept that requires those not only to be cognizant of their own spiritual and moral welfare, but that of others.
Tikkun: to rectify. How do we fix the world? How do I, a white Jewish male, use my privilege, and my understanding to fix problems?
Olam- the world. It’s a privilege to be able to be in a bubble. How do I step out of that bubble, and understand what a Black woman goes through on a daily basis? How do I use my privilege to tell a Jew in France that if a mask is to be worn, then why is a hijab banned?
When we behave constructively and beneficially to help repair the world, we elevate others; it’s the essence of Tikkun Olam.
When we make space for people of diverse cultures, we better the world. When we provide inclusive environments for marginalized groups to speak up and thrive, we better the world. When we understand equity isn’t an assignment to be completed, but to truly understand root causes stemming from unjust systems and institutions, unfair distribution of resources, we elevate others and better the world.
My identity bears roots from the lived experiences of my ancestors. My privilege comes from sharing characteristics of a majority race. My future success in life and my career will come from how I use my identity and my privilege to help others identify their own privilege, while using the principles of Tikkun Olam to better create spaces for those who do not have that inherent privilege.
When we recognize the power our own privilege creates and truly act upon that, rather than from a “savior” mentality, it is then and only then that we can say “Never Again” for everyone.