Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement
By Yotam Marom
A Brief Note to the Reader: I’ve been writing this piece for a year and a half. I’ve thought a lot about how complicated it is to share something like this in a time of such upheaval — in a country where an unarmed Black person is murdered by cops practically every day, at a time when our movement is in a period of intense grieving and fierce uprising around this and so many other life and death struggles. What I didn’t expect, however, was that folks would be actively talking about anti-Semitism in the movement at exactly the time I wanted to publish this. The brilliant and powerful Vision for Black Lives and the responses to it from a dozen different directions have put debate about anti-Semitism back on the Facebook feeds of many of my movement partners and friends. It’s important to me to be clear that this piece is not a response to those events or statements. This has nothing to do with that. And yet, in another way, it has everything to do with it. This piece is a deep reflection on anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation in the movement. It is a glimpse at how those things hurt Jews and the movement as a whole, an invitation to hard but compassionate discussion, and a call to arms for all of us, but above all, to Jews in the movement. I imagine it not as the answer, but as a beginning, alongside many other beginnings that have come before. I invite you, then, into that beginning with me, and to the long road ahead toward collective liberation — toward the world we all deserve.
I’m in my Savta’s breezy kitchen in Haifa. The balcony is open, bringing in gusts of warm wind from the Carmel Mountains. The tiled floor keeps my bare feet cool, tucked under my grandma’s tiny kitchen table. She feeds me chicken with onions, white rice, and her famous pickled eggplants that she makes especially when she knows I’m coming over. She keeps bringing more food, as if she is trying to empty the fridge before a big trip. I tell her I can’t possibly eat it all, but, like any good grandma, she ignores me. Finally Savta sits. She waves away my compliments, folds her hands neatly, and smiles, bashfully even, as she watches me enjoy her cooking.
Nine times out of ten, we talk about the Holocaust. When I think about it later, I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it’s because I’m acutely aware of how much history will be lost when her generation is gone — feel guilty that I was more interested in playing soccer with the neighborhood kids than listening to my Sabba’s stories while he was still alive — my grandpa who shouted in Yiddish at the TV, whose eyes twinkled when he laughed with me, who brought our leftover chicken bones down to the neighborhood cats every night. Or maybe, to me, part of my Savta is still stuck back there, like an artifact, an ambassador from another time. Maybe she is stuck there to herself too. This is, after all, how unhealed trauma works; we dance the same dance again and again, as if there were no other songs we could choose to dance to.
This is, after all, how unhealed trauma works; we dance the same dance again and again, as if there were no other songs we could choose to dance to.
Savta tells me about the German occupation of her shtetl in Poland, and the day they started shooting. She talks about seeing her father shot, when her neighbor pointed him out to the soldiers as a Jew. She tells me about the next few days of hiding, and how she joined up with the Jewish partisans, leaving the woods where many of the Jews were hiding — her mother and sisters and grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins and friends, and on and on. They were all murdered there soon after, when their Polish neighbors led the SS to their hiding spot. Just like that, a whole tribe disappears. It startles me to think of how quiet the woods must have been just after.
Savta tells me of her journey to Russia to find her little brother, her travels back through Europe after the war. She tells me about meeting my Sabba at a refugee camp in Italy, and getting on a rickety ship to Palestine. She tells it matter-of-factly, without ideology or pomp, as if this were the only rational thing to do. Savta talks about the kibbutz she lived on, and then their first apartment in Haifa. It had dirt floors and broken windows, and had belonged to a Palestinian family, gone before they arrived. She says it with a genuine sadness, but not guilt, as if to say that the world is tragic one way or another and we all just do what we have to in order to survive. Somewhere out there, perhaps, a Palestinian family still hangs the key to that home on their wall. Perhaps a young man and grandma sit, like we do, in Nablus or Amman or down the block from me in Brooklyn, and discuss the Nakba, the ruins of a much fresher tragedy lying on top of ruins from the tragedy before, and the one before that.
I have heard this story a hundred times, and Savta always tells it the same way. It’s almost like she is reading from cue cards, like she is a bystander in the story and not its main character. The words seem to be held at arm’s length, as if they are separate from her — separate from these legs that carried her through Europe, these arms that held family members living and dead, these hands that pickle eggplants, these eyes that look away bashfully as I eat them. In the end, it seems very sensible that my Savta doesn’t cry, doesn’t live her story again each time she tells it, doesn’t acknowledge her trauma. After all, people do what they must to carry on; if she had to actually feel what she was describing, I doubt she would have survived.
As I wash the dishes it occurs to me that her stories are so powerful, her scars so deep, that they have left their imprints on me as well, two generations later and a world away. I think about the way I mistrust people for fear of being betrayed and abandoned, the anxiety I’ve carried with me everywhere I’ve gone as if the worst is still to come, the tendency I have to control things for fear that otherwise their design will not protect me, the way I’ve always tried to be the best at everything so that people would want me around, and more. I think about the guilt that drives so much of my behavior, guilt, I suppose, for not having had to live my Savta’s life. It occurs to me that even my Savta seems to feel guilty; after all, she survived. I don’t yet know the term ancestral Jewish trauma as I dry my hands on Savta’s dish towel, but I do begin to realize that these traits were handed down to me by ancestors both living and dead so that I would survive, and it’s the first time I think to forgive myself for them, even if just a little.
This is Your Life
A couple years later, I was in a discussion about ancestral Jewish trauma hosted by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and facilitated by Cherie Brown, who writes and speaks on the subject. She told us about an episode of This Is Your Life, an old American TV show where an audience member would be plucked from the crowd to become the subject of the show. The audience is carried through the story of the person’s life as a cast of characters from their past are called up for them to reunite with.
In 1953, (as Brown has written about as well), This is Your Life did an episode on Hanna Bloch Kohner, a young, beautiful wife of a Hollywood executive. Hanna was a Holocaust survivor — the first to appear on national TV.
I watched the episode on YouTube and I don’t think I can quite describe how jarring it was. Only eight years earlier, this woman had barely survived a genocide that claimed her parents, fiancé, an unborn child, and so much more, and now she was propped on stage to re-enact that experience for a national audience. I can still hear the host’s booming voice say something like: Do you recognize that voice, Hanna? It’s Eva, your best friend from Auschwitz! Come out here and give Hanna a big hug, Eva. And yes, yes, your whole family died in the Nazi gas chambers, so very tragic…but do you remember this next voice? That’s right, it’s the American soldier who saved you! Come on out here Harold! Isn’t this just swell?!
In 1945, many Jews were being freed from concentration camps only to be murdered by their neighbors upon returning home. In the aftermath, many of them were still trapped all over Europe, unsure of their futures. And at the same time, the American “liberators” were systematically liquidating the resistance groups that had fought the Nazis in France, Italy, and elsewhere, and putting fascists back into government all across the continent, from West Germany to Greece. McCarthyism was just kicking into gear in the US, with Jews disproportionately targeted. And as Brown reminds us in her own account, the same year that Hanna Bloch Kohner appeared on TV, thousands of Jews, wondering if they were still in the midst of the genocide many of them had barely escaped, gathered outside Madison Square Garden in breathless silence as the state executed the Rosenbergs for treason.
Of course the survivors had not yet healed — in many ways, the war wasn’t even over yet. But This Is Your Life willed it all away with a magic wand, and its message was the perfect encapsulation of the American response to Jewish trauma: That awful thing happened, but we saved you. Now look how pretty you are — a Hollywood star! No need to thank us: just move on and be good, upstanding citizens. Just assimilate.
In many ways, we did assimilate, as Jews have been attempting to do on multiple continents since long before the Holocaust — and as many other oppressed peoples have attempted in the face of an imminent threat. But here lies an important difference between anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression. As Aurora Levins Morales writes: “The whole point of anti-Semitism has been to create a vulnerable buffer group that can be bribed with some privileges into managing the exploitation of others, and then, when social pressure builds, be blamed and scapegoated, distracting those at the bottom from the crimes of those at the top.” The ruling class never meant for us to disappear entirely; it meant for us to be tamed, and put at the service of the ruling class.
The ruling class never meant for us to disappear entirely; it meant for us to be tamed, and put at the service of the ruling class.
So we brought the Christmas trees into our living rooms, gave up a bustling Yiddish-speaking Flatbush Avenue for the manicured suburbs of New Jersey, replaced a vibrant cultural and ethnic identity with a sanitized religious denomination modeled after Protestantism, more palatable (as April Rosenblum writes about) to the guardians of Christian Hegemony. Some elements of Jewish culture entered the mainstream, because the Jewish community fought to be included, and because the system is happy to appropriate that which its elites find exotic, controllable, and aesthetically pleasing — the bagels and lox, the Seinfelds, the quaint Yiddishisms like putz and shmuck. Some Jews became middle managers for the Empire and benefited greatly from it, the way some of our ancestors had been the tax collectors for the feudal lords of the centuries before. Mostly, as Karen Brodkin writes about in How Jews Became White Folks, we just tried to blend in. The mainstream Jewish community traded in its peoplehood for Whiteness, upward mobility, and a strong Israel — an arrangement that was based on the oppression of the Palestinians and the denial of that very same American Dream to people of color in this country, including many Jews of color.
I realized somewhere along the way that, even with Israeli parents and various entry-points into Jewish community, I had also, in a way, assimilated — repressed historical traumas, muted parts of myself, sectioned off different pieces of my identity, and separated my worlds for the sake of blending in. Only I, like so many of the other young Jews I know, didn’t assimilate into the mainstream; we assimilated into the social justice movement.
Anti-Semitism on the Left
It is a bright, warm, summer day in July 2014. I’m in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by thousands of people, protesting the Israeli assault on Gaza, which began a week ago.
At first, I feel small in the face of the big, shiny skyscrapers that ignore us with their cold glass, structures that were built so tall as if intentionally to remind us how tiny we are. It drives me a little crazy to know that one person can march on 5th Avenue in a sea of thousands of people protesting the war, while another person can eat a hot dog on 6th avenue and not even know that war is taking place.
But this march is alive — people weaving in and out of the police barricades, folks dancing and singing, banners waving in the Midtown wind tunnels. It’s led by young people, but I notice, to my surprise, that it is also full of families — mothers in hijabs pushing strollers, kids waving Palestinian flags, teenagers climbing trash cans on the way downtown. There is a palpable feeling of warmth and hope and resilience, even despite the heartbreak and mourning and fury. I’m glad I’m here, with these people.
Then I see a poster that shows the Jewish Star of David, with an equal sign next to a Nazi swastika. I see the Neturei Karta (an Orthodox Jewish sect) in their black coats and hats and beards, paraded at the front of the demonstrations — as if to say, look, even the Jews hate Israel — even though they are right wingers who are anti-Zionists merely because they believe the land of Israel should be settled only after the Messiah comes. Another sign says “Good job Israel, Hitler would be proud,” and a poster shows Israeli soldiers alongside black and white photos of the SS. No one says anything about it.
I don’t immediately identify these signals as proof that the movement is anti-Semitic. After all, I know that claims of anti-Semitism are constantly used as a ploy by the Right to defend the worst of Israel and smear the Left. I remember that I too have been called a self-hating Jew for criticizing Israel. I know that the discomfort of Jews going to rallies in New York cannot even begin to compare to the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, or the Black folks being shot down in the streets in this country, or any number of other oppressed groups — that many Jews in this country have achieved an unprecedented level of security and prosperity. I know it is a good thing that the movement pays attention to the struggle for a free Palestine, that the Black movement today is seeing the links between occupation abroad and at home. And I know that, no matter what, there’s never an excuse for occupation — for the death and torture and detention and separation that come along with it — and so there is also never an excuse for those of us in whose name these injustices are carried out to sit on the sidelines.
Nonetheless, I feel sick to my stomach, a kind of sinking knot of betrayal. I think back to the dozens of other things like these that I’ve seen in the past week — posts my friends have written on Facebook, articles they’ve shared, things they’ve said to me — and it hits me like an anvil: Yes, there is anti-Semitism on the Left. And it is a threat to me, to the movement, to all of us.
Yes, there is anti-Semitism on the Left. And it is a threat to me, to the movement, to all of us.
As I march, it dawns on me that this anti-Semitism I’ve been brushing under carpets my whole life sits not only in the far reaches of the movement, where folks peddle conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media and the banks (these are as old as Christianity, and still alive and well, as Chip Berlet writes about). And no, anti-Semitism doesn’t only creep up late at night at the end of the housing justice meeting, when folks blame their “Jew Landlords” for gentrification in hushed tones. It does not appear merely in the form of improprieties we might turn a blind eye to — like the participant who called my friend a “Jew Lawyer” at the Know-Your-Rights training he led last week. No, it is not only in these quiet corners we can forgive or ignore, but here, in the open, among my friends.
My knot turns into a hot anger. Why doesn’t anyone say anything about this? And then it occurs to me that, I, too, have said nothing.
I said nothing when my friends blamed the Israel Lobby for US support of the war on Gaza and shared articles about how the US was tricked by Jews into supporting Israel in the first place, as if a lobby is actually what’s responsible for US elites deciding that it is in their interests to support a colonial Israel, as if even an organ as powerful as AIPAC can be held responsible for centuries of US imperialist foreign policy, as if it is always the all-powerful Jews behind the scenes pulling the strings.
I said nothing as friends of mine rejoiced at the deaths of Israeli soldiers with a glee I’d never seen toward any other soldiers, as if to root for the underdog also meant relishing the death of the opponent, as if the dead soldiers were not 18 year old kids raised on war and drafted by law into it by their leaders but somehow patently evil in their blood and their bones, as if slogans we used during the Iraq war like “Bring the troops home,” were too generous for them.
I said nothing when friends pumped out articles about how Israelis had trained the American police officers that Black communities were now resisting — on one hand bringing to light important connections, but at the same time obscuring important power dynamics — as if we should take the connections to mean that Israel is so powerful that even the US war machine takes its direction from there, as if these police trainings or even Israel itself could exist without US imperialism, as if the Jews in Israel are the Americans’ puppet-masters and not the other way around.
I said nothing when Qassam rockets were celebrated as they flew toward civilians in Sderot, as if questioning a strategy that targeted innocents was somehow giving cover to the brutality of the Israeli military — as if the Palestinian resistance is one homogenous blob, as if all strategies are equal, as if we are unable to hold both horror at the assault on Gaza and a critique of some forms of resistance to it.
I said nothing about the massacres of civilians in Syria that took place at the same time, just as most of my friends said nothing about it, as if the only reason to do so would be to distract from the war on Gaza, as if the Syrians must be forgotten so that the Jews can be held accountable.
I said nothing about the deafening silence of my friends about the children murdered at the Jewish day school in France, the shootings at Jewish community centers in Kansas City and Seattle, the Bat Mitzvah shot up in Denmark, the Jewish stores destroyed in Brussels, the synagogues firebombed in Germany, the Jewish graves defaced in Toronto — as if the only purpose of grieving Jewish death would be to justify Israeli militarism or American Islamophobia, as if mentioning these tragedies was to equate them with the oppression of other peoples, as if Jews today are too powerful to have compassion for.
I said nothing when, after helping lead a sit-in as part of If Not Now (a new group organizing young American Jews to end the Jewish community’s support for the occupation), a friend implied that I needed to do more not because the struggle was still ongoing, and not because we all needed to throw down to stop it, but because I had a debt to pay — as if I needed to prove to the white non-Jewish leftists around me the that I was a Good Jew, the way Jews swore loyalty oaths to the US and European countries even as late as the 50s.
And I said nothing when, over and over and over again, my friends posted on Facebook that Israel is the leading cause of anti-Semitism today and that therefore we Jews are at fault for other people’s hatred of us, as if we deserve to be hated because of the actions of elites who claim to represent us, as if a minority group could ever be held responsible for other people’s categorical hatred of that entire group, as if any of my friends in the movement would tolerate that kind of talk about Black folks or Muslims or anyone else.
I said nothing about the silence about all of this, and the silence, I think, is what broke my heart the most.
My Friends are Anti-Semitic
I wonder whether my silence about anti-Semitism has been warranted. I wonder if my movement partners truly will abandon me if I challenge them in this, or find the weakest examples and pick them apart in order to argue that the pattern itself does not exist. I wonder if they’ll reject me as an apologist for Israeli violence, discredit my movement credentials with the news that some years ago I was a leader in a Socialist-Zionist youth movement (I confess! And I’m proud of that time in my life, though I no longer identify as a Zionist — perhaps the subject for another piece). Or maybe my fear is just paranoia, an outdated defense mechanism handed down from my Savta, a fear and vigilance learned by Jewish bodies over literally thousands of years to protect us from the next crusade or pogrom or gulag or blacklist or cattle-car that we assume is surely just around the corner.
Alongside the fear, I find myself hesitating to speak out about these issues amidst such grief, mourning and resistance — a moment of such heightened crisis for so many people and groups. And at the same time, this is the world we live in, so there will never be a good time, and I will have to trust my friends to see that this is meant not to take away, but to make us stronger and more connected.
And then, alongside that, there is a deep resentment that we Jews, whose ancestors have been forcibly converted, raped, tortured, slaughtered, and chased across the globe for literally thousands of years, still have to prove that people hate us and that there are systems in place to ensure it. But my friends are worth convincing, and capable of transforming, and we need each other.
Throughout the dozen earlier drafts of this piece, I wrote: “My friends are not anti-Semitic, but…” I know my friends don’t believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I know they think anti-Semitism is wrong. And I know with every fiber of my being that they would defend me and my family if they believed anti-Semitism was a real threat. But I know, too, that their disbelief is part of the very fabric of anti-Semitism. I know that, in another time and place not far from here, it was a similar disbelief that made possible the wiping away of my tribe, the orphaning of my Savta, the chopping down of my family tree. Silence, perhaps more than the careless repetition of ignorant ideas, is fundamental to this system, perhaps to every system of oppression.
Being ignored or dismissed is not an experience unique to Jews; women, queer folks, people of color, working class folks, and other marginalized groups are always disbelieved, always have to fight like hell to be heard, understood, and supported. I know this to be true because I have been, many times in my life, the one unwilling to do the listening and transforming. And so it occurs to me finally that of course my friends are anti-Semitic. Not in any vulgar or intentional way, merely in the way that we are all shaped by the systems around us until we do the work of uprooting them — in the same way that I carried racism and sexism in my every mannerism until folks helped me practice something different instead (or in the way that I still do carry those values around with me, because such things are burrowed deep into our bodies and the work of unlearning them is perhaps as long as our lives).
And so it occurs to me finally that of course my friends are anti-Semitic.
Yes, my friends are anti-Semitic. Now the challenge: To convince them that anti-Semitism even still exists, that it is hurting all of us, and that it can be undone.
Anti-Semitism is Killing Us
The measure of anti-Semitism in a society isn’t the number of synagogues being burned to the ground at any given moment. Anti-Semitism is cyclical.
As April Rosenblum writes in her groundbreaking pamphlet: “Attacks come in waves; but each time things calm down and Jews are able to blend in or succeed in society again, it gives the appearance that antisemitism is ‘over.’ In some of the most famous examples of anti-Jewish expulsion and mass murder (i.e., medieval Spain or modern Germany), just prior to the attacks, Jews appeared to be one of society’s most successful, comfortable, well-integrated minorities.” August Bebel, a prominent non-Jewish German socialist known for being vocal against anti-Semitism as a distraction from the real source of oppression (he famously called it “the socialism of fools,”) wrote that anti-Semitism had: “…No prospect of ever exercising a decisive influence on political and social life in Germany.” That was in 1906, less than thirty years before the Nazis took power.
I’m reminded that in that workshop with JFREJ and Cherie Brown, she mentioned that Harvey Jackins, founder of Co-Counseling, once drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Perhaps the Jews in the US are safe for good. Or perhaps now is a time of loose nooses for us. Or maybe, they’re not so loose after all. Perhaps the political crisis in which we find ourselves now — the rise of a Trump candidacy, the fascist grassroots he has awakened from its slumber, the openly anti-Semitic things he has said, the twitter trolls that have sprouted like weeds, the fascist politicians winning elections across Europe, the rise of hate groups around the country and the world, the rise of recorded hate crimes against Jews — can be seen as a tightening of that noose.
Even when Jews aren’t being rounded onto cattle cars, anti-Semitism plays its part. The Israeli state uses it to justify its aggression, and the Right wing around the world uses it to justify its fascism. As Naomi Klein wrote in 2006, during the openly fascistic Jean-Marie Le Pen’s rise to prominence in France and the Right wing Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s consolidation of power: “…Anyone interested in fighting Le Pen-style fascism or Sharon-style brutality has to deal with the reality of anti-Semitism head-on. The hatred of Jews is a potent political tool in the hands of both the right in Europe and in Israel. For Le Pen, anti-Semitism is a windfall, helping spike his support from 10 percent to 17 percent in a week. For Ariel Sharon, it is the fear of anti-Semitism, both real and imagined, that is the weapon.” The very real anti-Semitism in the world, the unhealed trauma generationally passed down, and the silence around both in the movement are precisely the things the Right uses to support its claim that Jews need an Israel that is armed to the teeth and aligned with the Empire in order to survive.
And so, anti-Semitism is still playing its part today, taking the heat off the systems we’re facing and the groups that control them, putting the Jews in the middle to obscure the bigger picture. As Levins-Morales writes: “Peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields. This was the role of Jews in Europe. This has been the role of Jews in the United States, and this is the role of Jews in the Middle East.” Israel is powerful, and deserves to be held accountable. And yet, how absurd it is to watch Anglo-European elites, sitting on piles of gold brutally plundered from the rest of the world in what must be the bloodiest transfer of wealth in human history, self-righteously scolding the naughty Jews in Israel. Let’s not forget who drew those borders in the first place, and who funds their policing today. As James Baldwin wrote: “The crisis taking place in the world, and in the minds and hearts of black men everywhere, is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross on which Christendom’s most celebrated Jew was murdered. And not by Jews.”
Of course, This is Your Life tells us that the Jews are safe and sound, that anti-Semitism went down into the rubble with Hitler’s bunker. Of course, the hangman wants us to believe the noose does not exist, that he has adopted the Jews as his children. But we should know better. The Empire’s anointment of a people’s struggle has never led to freedom. No, anti-Semitism is alive and well because it is in the interests of the ruling class. To quote Sartre from Anti-Semite and Jew: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” Anti-Semitism is a system, part of Christian hegemony, tied to white supremacy and capitalism, fulfilling a function of protecting the ruling elite; it won’t wither away on its own. And if that is the case, it shouldn’t be so surprising that anti-Semitism finds its way into our movements too, just like the values of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism do. It must, like any other system, be confronted at its roots and replaced by something else.
The Empire’s anointment of a people’s struggle has never led to freedom.
Until we do this work, we will continue fighting in a way that strengthens our enemies. Until we face anti-Semitism, Jews will always be at risk of being targeted by the ruling class when it becomes politically useful. Until we face anti-Semitism, the fascist Right will continue to use it as a recruitment strategy, and Jews will continue to cling to a militarized Israel for protection. Until we face anti-Semitism, many Jews will continue to play the middleman role prescribed to us by the system, causing harm to other oppressed communities. Until we face anti-Semitism, the Jews in the movement will never address our trauma, never be able to bring our most powerful selves to the many struggles in which we are disproportionately active. And as I’ve written about before, becoming our powerful selves is not only a pre-requisite for winning the world we deserve, but a pre-requisite for survival.
Anti-Semitism, like any other system, can be undone. And people — including those of us who keep anti-Semitism alive whether intentionally or not — can transform. It is time, then, for Jews to step forward and lead this transformation.
A Note to Rebellious Jews
It’s two days after the Palestine rally in Midtown. I’m on the back patio of an apartment in Clinton Hill with a mentor of mine. It is warm and still. Bars of sunlight crack through the trees, and the singing of flirtatious birds is interrupted from time to time by the pounding of construction two doors over. She tells me to feel my shirt on my back, and remember what is behind me — where I’ve been, my ancestors, my people. I’ve been given this prompt before, but it’s never meant much to me. Today, maybe because of what is happening in the world around me, maybe because of what is happening in my body, I think of my Sabba and Savta. I think of their families in Poland, the Jewish partisans who helped them escape, the Jewish ghetto fighters who died defending their people, the Jewish revolutionaries across a dozen borders who struggled to topple the social orders that have brought the world such misery.
How strange, I think to myself, that in the fifteen years I’ve spent doing political work, I’ve always thought of myself as being in the movement despite my people — my people being white, class-privileged, straight men. I had always, it now occurs to me, thought of myself as a traitor, and even been proud of it. It is only now, as my mind scans the faces of the fighters and dreamers and martyrs and prophets behind me that I realize that it’s not in spite of my people that I am here, but because of them. We all, I remember now, choose our origin stories. It is the first time my back has felt straight and broad, my chest open and powerful.
It is only now, as my mind scans the faces of the fighters and dreamers and martyrs and prophets behind me that I realize that it’s not in spite of my people that I am here, but because of them.
Our inability, as young Jews in the movement today, to talk about anti-Semitism is a product of internalized anti-Semitism itself, and it is killing us. It puts us and our families at risk, weakens the political struggles of which we are a part, denies us our full agency, and makes it impossible for us to ask for help from our would-be allies.
So often, we collaborate with the silence around anti-Semitism, erase our own stakes in the struggles of which we’re a part, do everything we can to impress the non-Jews in the movement so they’ll keep us around. We perform our Jewishness for gentiles — tattooing our bodies with Jewish slogans about justice and making claims about how our ancestors wouldn’t stand for this sort of oppression — but put so little of ourselves in actual Jewish community. We spend our time surrounded by one another, because so many of us are drawn to the struggle for freedom and justice for all peoples, but we so rarely speak to each other as Jews, so rarely look each other in the eye — like scared high school sweethearts who put their heads down as they pass one another in the hall. When the movement asks us to prove we are Good Jews by taking personal responsibility for everything Israel does, we oblige, and wear our Jewishness full to the brim with shame. We even, when we are asked to, compare ourselves to the people who murdered our families in Europe.
Have we forgotten where we come from? We have risen up against some of the most violent conquering armies ever assembled, played meaningful roles in revolutions throughout history, have been part of countless undergrounds, organized labor struggles, fought for civil rights, led student movements, stood up to Apartheid, and more. We are survivors of never-ending attempts to wipe out our people. We are famous for carrying humor, intelligence, and a commitment to truth as forms of resilience and resistance. I even read somewhere that the Romans used to think of us as innately rebellious.
We must become, once again, that rebellious tribe the Romans feared. We must acknowledge generational trauma so we can move past it, break open the ways we have internalized anti-Semitism so we can develop new practices instead. We must tell a different story about ourselves and invite the people around us be our allies in that reclamation. We must fight against anti-Semitism and demand that all our movements take responsibility for this alongside us. We must reclaim our identity.
We must become, once again, that rebellious tribe the Romans feared.
Identity is not merely about recognition, or acceptance, or representation; it is about becoming a people again, about finding our potential within that, about power. We must acknowledge the advantages we’ve been given by this system so we can use them as weapons to destroy it. But we must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people — not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down — but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us. It is the only way we will ever genuinely stand in solidarity with others, the only way we will truly become our most powerful selves, the only way we will become whole again.
And as we become whole, we can play an even more grounded role as partners in the struggle for a free Palestine by refusing to allow Israel and the US to shed blood in our name. We can show up in this moment for Black Lives as true partners, as we are being called upon to do. Those of us who are white can disrupt white supremacy by using the benefits it gives us as tools to destroy it, sabotage it by reclaiming our Jewishness and refusing to do its dirty work. We can make all the movements of which we are a part stronger, smarter, fiercer, kinder, and funnier. And we can reclaim the peoplehood that is at our fingertips, protect our people — love our people. We can even, perhaps, give ourselves permission to grieve — for ourselves and our children, but also for our Savtas and Sabbas who never got the chance.
Imagine how the entire movement would benefit from this, how much better off we’d all be if we fought from a place of wisdom, pride, and love, instead of guilt, shame, and fear. Imagine how much closer we’d be to winning freedom for all people. And this is where the lesson transcends the question of Jewishness and anti-Semitism and goes hand in hand with the most essential questions the movement must ask itself today: What do we — each and every one of us — have to do to become our most powerful selves? We had better have a good answer, because becoming our most powerful selves is the only chance we have at winning the world we all deserve.
What a humbling challenge, then: to become whole again.
Special thanks to the many people who supported me in this journey, debated ideas, taught me, read drafts, and pushed me. This time, there were too many of you to list one by one, but that’s all the more proof that we are in a time of enormous potential, that there is a radical Jewish renaissance underway, and that we do, truly, have allies.