Tamika Mallory, Louis Farrakhan, and an UPDATE!

Intersectionality is hard to understand. New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Ijeoma Oluo, explained it beautifully in one of her many poetic Facebook posts:

“Intersectionality is not a call to make all groups or all efforts serve all people. It is a call to ask groups to fully understand, appreciate, include, and assist the entire population it claims to serve and to understand the different privileges and oppressions that people within these groups have.”

One of its most important tenets, though, is that only people within an oppressed group can define their experiences. Black people and other NBPOC define racism, LGBQT people define homophobia and transphobia, Immigrants define xenophobia, Women* define sexism. It’s hard enough to convince cis-gender white Christian men of this, but even subgroups on the left struggle with absorbing the concept. What seems to be perpetually up for debate among ALL groups, however, is whether Jews get to do the same thing. There are understandable reasons this question exists. Ultimately, though, for intersectionality to succeed, we must accept and operate under the premise that people who are not Jewish do not get to define what constitutes anti-Semitism, what feels like oppression, what triggers generational trauma, or what the warning signs of a real threat to Jews look like.

Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour (3/4 of the Women’s March leadership team) embrace Louis Farrakhan. Through intersectionality’s lens, I cannot imagine Jews of Color, Black queer and trans folks, or even many Black liberal-leaning women feel uplifted by him, but I understand he speaks truth about racism in a way that resonates.

Most Jews in the United States, on the other hand, enjoy White Privilege, and benefit from it. We do not suffer from systemic oppression, racism, legal oppression woven into the fabric of our society like Black people in the U.S. do. Anti-Semitism was not written into our constitution, we were allowed to sit on buses, and we weren’t denied quality educations, homes, wealth, and personal safety the way Black people were and are. We must admit that segments of our Jewish community have harmed Black communities in many parts of our country. We were part of redlining, white flight, and Jews of Color are mistaken for the cleaning crew in our synagogues. Jews who cannot own up to this, who refuse to do our part in challenging racism within the Jewish community — to do our part in Tikkun Olam (healing the world) — are on shakier ground when we complain about POC embracing Farrakhan, with or without his anti-Semitism.

Don’t delude yourself about his anti-Semitism, though: IT EXISTS, it is real, and it is dangerous. If you excuse it by asking it be considered in context, I gently ask you examine your position with a bit more care and compassion. I am loath to criticize any Black person — not because I’m afraid to be called a racist, but because I know racism lives in all white people, including me. I do not trust most white people to use my words and opinions responsibly. Most are still too defensive, too steeped in privilege, too reluctant to release their stranglehold on even the tiniest bit of power to be trusted with interpreting my troubled feelings regarding the action of a Black compatriot.

Yes, Jews have been treated poorly here, from the “Voyage of the Damned” to our own segregation to Charlottesville. For most Black people in our country, though, a decent night’s sleep is a victory. According to myriad Black women writers, they are consumed with simply making it through the day, raising their children, keeping their jobs, wading through microagressions, systematic racism, and cop bullets. When would they have had time to immerse themselves in the nuances of the Jewish experience? This is the fault of oppressive systems built and enjoyed by white people, including many Jews.

And yet… it is not mutually exclusive or contradictory for the leaders of the Women’s March, who have a history of questionable inclusivity, as it is, to receive pushback for their support of Farrakhan, who espouses ideologies that put us Jews into ovens in the first place.

Jews were never oppressed by Black people. Do we have to have been for Farrakhan’s rhetoric to be unacceptable to you? Does he have to have been speaking literal lies for you to zoom out and see the damage and implications of what he is saying and sowing? Does the good he has done for the part of the Black community outweigh the deep and searing pain he is inflicting on another traumatized people, Jews, which (I should not have to keep saying) includes Black people and NBPOC? If so, it doesn’t make me angry…just very sad, and more resolute that we as white people and Jews have more work to do. That work that is more difficult through pain of anti-Semitism, but not impossible. Nothing is impossible.

UPDATE: (3/21/18)

I wrote the above op-ed two weeks ago and submitted it to four different publications, all of whom either turned it down or did not answer. “What do I do now with this?” I asked myself. “It’s not relevant or timely anymore. Why bother publishing it?” Then, with great wisdom, as I do, I consulted myself and told myself, “Wait. Another Jew will say something racist, or another Black person will say something anti-Semitic. It will be relevant again. Patience, my child.”

And LOOK! D.C. Councilman Trayon White, Sr. blew the anti-Semitic dog-whistle of the Rothschilds controlling the weather. Meanwhile, over there Israel, where every Passover Jews pray to reunite the following year, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called black people “monkeys” during his weekly sermon. Let’s just stipulate that there is anti-semitism in the Black community and racism in the Jewish community, shall we? Can we please get those facts established in and by BOTH of these communities and admitted into evidence without objection? We are all a MESS.

I cannot keep up, people. And frankly, I don’t have the energy. I need to stop working for free. My middle kid is home from college. It’s finally snowing in Maryland and my husband is working from home and I want to have at least a little bit of fun today. It’s 1 p.m. and I have not had breakfast. I do not have time to adapt the I wrote above with care and precision and turn it into something that works better for today rather than two weeks ago, and since this is my blog, people, I get to do what I want. Here is the upshot of what I want to say.

If you are a Black non-Jew, when confronted with charges of anti-Semitism, are you a Tamika Mallory, or a Trayvon White, Sr.? Not that you asked, but my hope is that your’e a Trayon White, Sr. Apologize immediately. Partner with solid Jewish groups who have a good track record of anti-racism work, who give you grace as they help you learn; who understand that here in the U.S., racism is still a much more dire and real threat to Black people than anti-Semitism is to Jews, while still valuing the dignity of Jews and respecting our own history of trauma and right to live free of fear and hatred. (Shout out to Jews United for Justice, in this instance.)I encourage everyone to read Ben Faulding’s piece in The Forward to help you understand the difference between Mallory’s and White, Sr.’s responses better. There is a reason to be at least cautiously optimistic with the Councilman’s words and actions in the wake of this episode.

If you are a white Jew who is outraged and triggered by anti-Semitism (understandable — I am one of them) ask yourself some questions.

  1. Are you angrier when it comes from a Black non-Jew than a white non-Jew?
  2. Do you have a solid history of anti-racism in your own life? I’m not talking about wishing Obama was still president. WE ALL WISH HE WAS STILL PRESIDENT. I mean:
  • Are you donating money or time to Black-led organizations?
  • If your’e asked to speak on a panel, do you notice if it’s all-white? If so, do you ask why there aren’t any minorities on the panel? Do you offer to give up your spot so that it can be filled with a minority?
  • I heard people lamenting that none of his colleagues spoke up at the D.C. Council meeting where White, Sr. was pushing that same Rothschild anti-Semitic trope. Well, before you condemn the other councilmembers, I hope to god that you challenge Cousin Hanna and Uncle Joe when racist shit comes out of their mouths right there at Grandma’s dinner table. Or when a fellow teacher says something racist in the teacher’s lounge. You do, right??? I am begging you…look inwards before you lash out.
  • Do you get defensive or pissed when someone suggests you benefit from White Privilege? Or do you consider it, and even (WHOA NELLIE) admit it and learn, and use your privilege to help the oppressed? Even if it causes you discomfort? (Discomfort and sacrifice is the POINT, friends.)

Blacks and Jews are two (but certainly not the only) traumatized people who live in this country. Lots of Jews are hella racist, don’t forget it. When anti-Semitic words come out of the mouths of another one of those traumatized peoples, we can hold them accountable, certainly. If we’re smart, though…if we’re kind…if we we’re good Jews, dare I say, we will do it with sensitivity, self-awareness, and grace.

Can I please go play in the snow, now? Here is a picture of it because it is pretty.

And here is a picture of my dog because she is cute.

*The original version of this post had the term “Wommen/Femmes.” A friend thoughtfully pointed me to the problematic nature of that term, and this Slate piece which taught me something new. I’ve changed it to read, simply, “Women,” since it includes transwomen, femmes and butch women as well as other gender non-conforming females.

This post first appeared on my blog, The Worthington Post, on March 21, 2018. That’s where most of my writing, and links to it, can be found. I hope you visit me over there!