Dear White Jews: Everyone’s Talking about White Supremacists; Let’s Talk about White Supremacy

I was eleven or twelve the first time I heard my parents’ friend David tell the story of how he accidentally wound up at a Klan event. He tells it with shocking regularity, year after year, over Rosh Hashanah lunch, after a little wine, reminiscing of his teenage years in Atlanta, when he and his friends from Grady High School would go joyriding around the Varsity in what I imagine like a scene from Remember the Titans: white boys in crisp polo shirts cruising through these darkened southern streets, arms dangling cigarettes out the tops of Chevy convertibles in technicolor greens and yellows. At the Varsity, they’d flirt with blonde girls in too tight sweaters, these Jewish boys, the first generation with time and money to spare, the first generation of “boys who’ll be boys.” That night, David sweet talked a pretty girl so good he got a date with her for the following weekend. A family gathering. A picnic.

Despite the passing of nearly forty years, the raising of two kids and three grandkids, and a receding hairline, it’s easy to imagine David as a boisterous lady’s man at 18. He is a storyteller, and at this point the story climaxes with great effect, though the details vary with each retelling. I imagine him approaching the family carrying a pie, or holding the hand of the pretty blonde, slowly realizing that the perfect family of the perfect girl was in fact the Klan, that all the guests, except David, were Klan families. I imagine him checking his neckline like a nervous twitch, making sure his silver mezuzah necklace couldn’t be seen. I imagine him backing away slowly, coming up with a wild excuse, flooring it out of the park, tires squealing dramatically.

To David, ending up at a Klan picnic — and getting out of it unscathed — is the punchline of an old, familiar joke. Can you imagine…? he asks, laughing a deep belly laugh, at his naiveté, at his fear, at their power.

I heard this story, and others like it, in the mid 90s. I was attending public school in a district that had a large opt-in racial integration program. By late elementary school, I was used to being among a very few Jewish kids in a school that was roughly 40% white, 40% Black, and 20% immigrants and refugees from every corner of the world. I knew I was white, because the kids at school told me so, because my parents didn’t have to wait in line all night at the school district office to get me into that integrated school, and because stories like David’s seemed to offer conclusive evidence: had David not been white, he wouldn’t have been invited to that Klan pot-luck in the first place.

In the days since white supremacists took to the streets in Charlottesville in a show of force unprecedented in my generation, I have witnessed deep fear, anger, and confusion from my fellow white Jews. While so many of us have a strong sense of personal identity, our position relative to privilege, whiteness, and white supremacy seems for many, knocked off kilter by the anti-Jewish anti-Semitism in the upper echelons of the Trump administration, and by the emboldened acts of white supremacists reported throughout the last seven months.

Conversations with progressive Jewish friends this summer have included listening to many self-conscious statements along the lines of Yes, I am white, but I don’t feel white.

I can empathize. I too have felt this way, and sometimes still feel distinctly non-white, like when there’s a concept I don’t know how to describe in English, or when a stranger initiates an interrogation about my racial/ethnic background, but my feet are solidly rooted in a southern Jewish childhood that taught me that asking Are Jews (of European descent) really white? is a self-indulgent question, and a distraction from the work of justice building.

Yet because it seems to be so present in the minds of so many of my friends these days, I feel it might be worth it to break this down a little, and to elaborate on how I came to this conclusion.

In college in the early 2000s I first heard folks talking, teaching, and studying white privilege, and I found myself in conflict with those most passionate about raising white students’ consciousness around issues of white privilege. I tried to engage and think critically, I read “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and essays by Tim Wise, but I kept encountering places where the privileges of whiteness as described by the authors and by my peers didn’t resonate with my experiences as a white Jew in a large southern city. I struggled. I wanted to engage politically, but these conversations about white privilege seemed to exclude me. Now, as I watch Jews of European descent react defensively to notions of white privilege, raise accusations of anti-Semitism on the left, question the legitimacy of black female scholarship around intersectionality, and prioritize our own fear over building multi-racial solidarity, I regret not talking more openly about how I transitioned from thinking If this is what it means to be white, maybe I’m not white after all to understanding that my experience of feeling unwelcome in conversations of white privilege doesn’t mean I don’t experience these privileges. It just indicates an unsurprising failure of white people to acknowledge the diversity in their midst.

Growing up, we southern Jews were spoon-fed expectations of academic and financial success along with lessons about how, where, and when to make oneself look less Jewish. The violence in Charlottesville was absolutely white supremacist terror, and along with many people of color, I’ve heard Jewish friends echoing a sick kind of I told you so to all those asking How could this happen here? We have not forgotten our fear of white supremacists.

Despite that, we reap many of the benefits of white supremacy. We participate in gentrification, send our children to private and charter schools, get into prestigious colleges through legacy admission policies, trust the police to protect us, and support police exchange programs between our city and the state of Israel, where officers learn tactics they disproportionately employ against Black, Latinx, and poor Americans.

Instead of arguing about the conditional nature of Jewish whiteness, or instead of centering anti-Semitism to the detriment of anti-racist coalition building, we could be reaching out — not to remind others of our oppression — but to get to work — because my liberation is bound up with yours. Nothing should make this more obvious than Charlottesville.

I believe in the power of coming together as Jewish activists who call on our cultural and religious values in an effort to repair this broken world. But I also believe that we white Jews need to engage, as white people, in anti-racist work inside our all-too-frequently homogenous synagogues and in the streets of our communities. When we do so, we bring our Jewish values, our Jewish experiences of fear and oppression, and a commitment to dismantling the white supremacy we have been granted access to.

If you’re still not convinced, I offer a final story from the high holiday tables of my childhood, from a Jewish woman a generation older than David, also born and raised in Atlanta.

Sylvia grew up in the long-ago-demolished neighborhood of shotgun houses where Turner Field now stands, where Jews and Blacks lived in close proximity, though in many ways worlds apart.

As dinner winded down and coffee was poured, Sylvia recalled walking home from school on hot afternoons in what must have been the mid-thirties. I imagine her in a short ruffled dress with bare mosquito-bitten legs, wearing shoes far too formal for walking through the dusty red clay.

In my mind’s eye her story appears in black and white and grey, like an old movie, flickering around the edges. She describes herself among a group of little children stopping for a drink from a neighbor’s backyard well. It’s hard enough to imagine a well in a Peoplestown backyard, much less, as Sylvia describes, the two dippers, hanging on two hooks: one for the whites and one for the “colored.” Her tone is factual, historical, distant: Of course we drank from the white dipper.

The lines that have been drawn existed before we arrived, before we were born, before we knew better. The only ambiguity that remains, fellow white Jews, is whose side we are on.