An Open Letter To Tamika Mallory

Image description: A seder plate with an egg, a shank bone, charoset, celery, olives, horseradish and an orange. There are two toy frogs sitting on the table next to the plate. (image credit: Google images)

Dear Tamika Mallory:

Enemies of Jesus.

I stare at the words wavering on the screen, blood pounding in my ears, a terrible sickness settling in my stomach.

Enemies of Jesus.

I have been able to think of little else for days now. After I first read that tweet I was so angry, I clenched my teeth so hard in my sleep that my jaw still aches.

I am no stranger to anti-Semitism on the left. Or the right. And the center. Up, down, in all manner of public and private settings, at work and at school. Living in a society dominated by white supremacy and Christian hegemony, I am accustomed to the sting, but there are always new lines to cross.

“Enemies of Jesus” is one of those lines.

I very much want to give you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you used those words in ignorance.

Perhaps you truly do not know that the phrase “enemies of Jesus” is an anti-Semitic dog whistle that goes back to when the Romans converted to Christianity and they needed a religious narrative that would suit the political demands of the empire. Perhaps you truly do not know how my people have come to fear those words, as they are so often the words that precede the slaughter. Perhaps you truly do not know how often those words have been deployed, by kings and priests and popes and magistrates and senators, to turn our neighbors against us. Perhaps you truly do not know how effective those words have been as weapons, how many lives have been lost. Perhaps you do not know how widely these beliefs are held, how often these beliefs are translated into physical violence, especially when encouraged by a leader.

There are other things that you do not, cannot, know. You do not know the look in a boy’s eye when he screams, his face red and contorted with hate, “You killed Jesus!” You do not know the cold dread that comes when a stranger turns to you and asks softly, “Why do you people hate Jesus?”

When you read the words “enemies of Jesus” you do not hear the terrified screams of thousands upon thousands of ancestors who fought and fled and hid and survived so that I could live, their ghosts lingering deep in my DNA.

Privilege maintains oppression by blinding its beneficiaries to the injuries inflicted on its victims. Just as I know that my white-skinned privilege blinds me to some manifestations of racism and my cis-gendered privilege blinds me to some manifestations of transphobia and gender discrimination, I know that your privilege as a Christian in America (and yes, there is a lot of privilege that comes with being Christian in America) blinds you to some of the manifestations of my oppression. I trust my comrades to remind me of my blind spots and hold me accountable. I can only hope that my comrades will listen when I do the same.

Tamika Mallory, I do not care about Louis Farrakhan. I know too many angry old leftists to be disturbed by their tired bigotry. I understand how seductive nationalism is for persecuted communities. My objection to Farrakhan extends no further than my objection to bigotry and nationalism in general, the same principal on which I base my objection to modern Zionism.

Hannah Arendt, another radical secular Jewish woman like myself, believed that violence was not power, because if you have to force someone to do what you want them to do through violence then you do not really have power over them. If you did, they would not need to be forced. Nationalism rules by force, not by power. Seductive as it is, I believe it has no future worth realizing. On this matter, I can be rational, reasoned, nuanced and open-minded. I can have my own objections to nationalism and nationalists of all stripes, and I can understand why others are more open to that philosophy than I am.

But you said “enemies of Jesus.” How can I be rational, reasoned, nuanced or open-minded. How can I be anything but hurt.

Let me be very clear: I am not hurt because you are a black woman who is tweeting these words. At no point since reading your tweets have I turned away from my responsibility as a white Jew to confront racism in the Jewish community and in the general public. At no point have I forgotten that the history mentioned here is a primarily Ashkenazi narrative and does not encapsulate the history of all Jews, including black Jews.

I am hurt because you are a leader who is tweeting these words. You have influence. You have visibility. You do not force anyone involved in the Women’s March to follow you. People follow you because you have power.

Because you have power, your words have the power to hurt.

Image description: A tweet that reads: “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader! Study the Bible and u will find the similarities. Ostracizing, ridicule and rejection is a painful part of the process…but faith is the substance of things!”

Perhaps when you tweeted: “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader! Study the Bible and u will find the similarities” you did so in complete and total ignorance of the violent history and connotations of that language.

When people brought those associations to your attention, you accused us of deliberately misinterpreting your words and implied that our concerns were motivated by some kind of larger conspiracy by adding: “What I know is these latest attacks are not just abt my views & beliefs. It’s bigger than what many even understand +”

Image Description: A tweet that reads: “Because we word so hard on behalf of ALL people. Because we have done intersectional work for 20+ years, we believe it is clear who we are. And it is clear. What I know is these latest attacks are not just abt my views & beliefs. It’s bigger than what many even understand +”

Suddenly, no matter how much I want to, it is much harder to give you the benefit of the doubt. I am aware that this controversy is being fanned by the right-wing media and by others who have often expressed opposition to you and your work, opposition I do not share. But like I said, I don’t care about Farrakhan. I care about you using the words “enemies of Jesus.” I care about you implying that accusations of anti-Semitism are part of a conspiracy. Both of these things are, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic. These are your words, your tweets, and you are responsible for them.

Modern racism is at least partially built on a bedrock of systemized Christian supremacy that emerged from the chaos of the Dark Ages. It is critical that everyone fighting white supremacy understands that history, how that history continues in the current day as Christian hegemony, and is able to identify how anti-Semitism is a manifestation of white supremacy.

You tweeted again today. You did not apologize nor acknowledge that you had used the language of pogroms and Inquisitors in connection with me and my people, a connection that exists regardless of whether your intentions were as benign as you later claimed. You defended your work, which is admirable. You mentioned your faith, which is understandable. You said you were willing to learn and to listen.

Image description: A tweet that reads: “Contrary to others, I listen. I have been in deep reflection and trying to be as thoughtful as possible. I want my own work to speak for itself but I will reiterate my commitment to building this movement. I won’t go back, I won’t redraw the lines of division. I want a new way.”

Maybe you will listen to this:

I am currently taking a Yiddish folk song class. I do not speak Yiddish but I am beginning to explore it as part of interrogating my assimilation to whiteness and my questioning of what it means to be Diaspora. A few days ago, in a classroom a few floors below mine, someone drew two swastikas on a chalkboard.

Swastikas, in the same building where I sit singing Yiddish love songs. Hitler is gone, McCarthy is gone, the Inquisition is ended, the Crusades are over and the Roman Empire has fallen, but this thing still lingers. This monster which causes people to hate me and mine, which causes them to call me enemy and killer even though I am none of these things. This monster, which exists in the air and the water and in ourselves, yes, even in our Jewish selves because we are no more immune than anyone else.

Sometimes the monster hides in the shadows, but it always comes back. It is coming back now. When my grandmother was a little girl, the world was forced to acknowledge the monster as never before, but only after it swallowed a third of our people. When I was a little girl, I was taught that the monster could not come back again because now people knew how to recognize it. The last few years have taught me that was just wishful thinking, that forced acknowledgement is not powerful enough to change the world forever.

I can see the monster now. I need you to be able to see it too, or it will swallow me whole. I need you to know this history. I need you to understand why your words hurt. I need you to not repeat the same mistakes that have been made by so many others. I assume you need the same things from me.

I can’t force anyone to learn or listen. I can only ask it of the world, and myself.

Are you still listening?

Can you see the monster yet?

Sincerely,

A Jewish Activist Who Is Still Committed To Building This Movement With You

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A Note For My Jewish Kindred:

We need to do a better job. This entire affair has convinced me all over again that we need to argue more with our elders about the white-washing of Jewish identity. We need to make damn sure our communal spaces are accessible to people of color. We need to make damn sure that whenever we (or anyone else) talks about Jewish people as a whole, black Jews are front and center. The last Jewish history professor I argued with about this told me that while black Jews certainly exist, they are such a minority that we did not have time for them (them meaning our own people) in our curriculum.

Fuck that. We need to do better.

And part of doing better is speaking up about anti-Semitism so that our allies are better able to identify it when it pops into their heads.

I don’t want to see any more racist attacks whenever black Jewish folk have a piece on The Forward. I don’t want to see any more anti-Semitic incidents on the left that are only acknowledged by a gloating right-wing blogosphere. We need to put a stop to this.

Resources:

Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Supremacy (2017) Eric K. Ward

Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering To Our Movement (2017) Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ)

Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White (1967) James Baldwin