White Supremacy Is Bad for the Jews. Let’s Be Bad for White Supremacy.
“…but is it good for the Jews?”
Practically a punchline in my generation, but it was still a question around the dinner table when we were growing up. (“We” being U.S. Ashkenazis, we descendants of the European Jewish survivors of the pogroms, the ghettos, or the Third Reich. Descendants of the ones who’d made it here in time. We who were all that was left. We remnants.) Underneath the laugh, maybe we meant it a little, or our parents did. Not as much as their parents did — their parents who more intimately knew themselves as Jewish and outsider here, politically and culturally — but there was still that edge of insecurity: How is this going to play out for our people? This political issue? This candidate? This policy? How will it impact our safety? Our survival? We kid, we kid: “the new citywide recycling program — is it good for the Jews?” but we don’t forget the question.
It is the anniversary of the day Anne Frank and her family were captured, and my seven-year-old’s teacher calls to talk about their class discussion of This Day in History. It’s a mixed-age class of first, second, and third-graders. They got a brief, age-appropriate preçis on bad things happening in wars, how people can act with hate in their hearts, and what happened during that war to people who believed differently or were seen as different. The teacher tells me my daughter was very curious (“camp? Like summer camp?”) and after an absorbing group discussion of diaries, the teacher quickly realized she wanted to develop materials and a longer lesson on this for another time. She says she’s letting me know in case my daughter mentions it at home, since she had so many questions in class. “Yeah, you’ll be surprised to hear this,” I tell the teacher — with whom I serve on the school’s Anti-Racism Anti-Bias Committee, who sees me when we are both out with our families at immigrants’ rights actions and other protests around town, who has invited me to speak to the class about Jewish holidays and traditions, who has heard our kid talk at school about boycotts and huelgas and Black Lives Matter — “but we haven’t actually told A. yet about the Holocaust.” The teacher had gathered as much. “We’ve watched Sound of Music a lot, though. So basically, so far she thinks that Nazis are people who didn’t like Austrians.”
Sometime in the week after the most recent U.S. presidential election, I tell my Chicana, non-Jewish partner that I wish we’d already taught our kid about the Holocaust. She asks me when I’d learned, how old I’d been. I don’t remember learning. I don’t remember not knowing. I remember knowing the word “Hitler” but not knowing what it meant. And I remember reading my mom’s book group copy of Elie Wiesel’s childhood concentration camp memoir Night when I was far too young for it, just because I was a voracious reader and it was small and approachable-looking on the table in the family room. But I don’t remember the conversation that must have happened between those two moments. I don’t remember when or how someone explained to me that the Purim story had a more modern and morbid analogue, in which someone tried to kill us all, and was pretty near successful. But I always knew that however I learned, there was a lot I didn’t want to teach our kid about the Holocaust. I didn’t want the Holocaust to be the foundation of her Jewish identity. I didn’t want to pass on the version of the story in which our people’s historical trauma is understood as a singular victimization that entitles a colonial land grab. And I didn’t want her to think of herself as a Jew just because she would have been counted as one under the Nuremberg Laws. I wanted her to build a positive connection to Jewish religious practice, to Jewish values, to her Ashkenazi and broader Jewish heritage, long before we even talked to her about Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
So. November 2016 and still she doesn’t know. “This is going to be so much harder now,” I tell my partner in that first week. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that however we tell her, we can’t tell her the part of the story I hadn’t imagined not telling her: it happened somewhere else, generations ago, and you are safe.
But it never has been safe here. Not for the Jews — who know that a place can look safe right up until it isn’t — and not at all. The United States has fundamentally not been a safe place. It is a nation made possible by theft and murder, the theft and murder of human beings, the theft of Indigenous and Brown and Black people’s lands and lives. It has never stopped being that same dangerous place. My Chicana child would not be safe here even if every neo-Nazi saw the light and became a peaceful, equality-loving Quaker tomorrow. And many, many, many other people’s children have never been safe here. Many, many generations of adults have had to parent children through that brutal, daily reality no matter who the president was. Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color in this country are at elevated risk of physical, financial, and emotional violence every day. It feels to me that it is truly impossible to not know this. Not anymore. Not without a will to not know it. Whatever heightened insecurity folks with skin like mine suddenly have in the current political climate — well, here we are, along with everyone else. Come on in, the water’s filthy. It’s filled with sharks and shipwrecks and toxic waste, oil slicks and flesh-eating bacteria and every kind of death. Keep swimming.
At bathtime tonight the kid asks me for no apparent reason: what happened in the fight with Austria?
I spent this morning trying not to react aloud to what I was reading about Friday night in Charlottesville. I spent this afternoon holding babies whose parents were in a community activist meeting on racial equity in our city’s budget. Because I was holding babies, I didn’t read most of my texts until this evening. Before I check on my kid in the tub, I see a news photo of people marching down the street this afternoon holding Confederate and Nazi flags. Another one of people holding torches last night, yelling, sieg-heiling. You’ve seen the ones I mean. And then my kid asks me who won the second World War.
Such a version of history I absorbed as a child of Boomers: the good guys won. (Shhh, don’t mention Vietnam.) Who won World War II? The Allies. Who won the American Revolution? The Revolutionaries, as my daughter well knows — thanks, Hamilton. Who won the American Civil War? The North. But of course, “war is the continuation of politics by other means” — and politics the continuation of war.
Who won? I am tempted to tell her it’s too soon to say.
We are reading The Pushcart War at bedtime. We are almost up to the Peace March chapter. The pushcart peddlers plan to put themselves in the path of the big bully trucks, forcing a bargain.
“Bargain with us,” said Harry the Hot Dog. “They would rather run us down — six, twelve, eighteen, forty pushcarts. What do they care how many they hit?”
“Ah,” said Mr. Jerusalem, “but if they do hit us, then everyone will see who is breaking the truce. Who could hit forty carts by accident? I say they will not dare.”
“But if they do — ?” said Harry the Hot Dog.
Mr. Jerusalem shrugged. “Then six, twelve, eighteen, forty pushcarts will be smashed,” he said. “Maybe we will all be killed. It is a war, isn’t it?”
It is a war, isn’t it? And it isn’t with Austria. Or with General Lee.
Later, after my girl is asleep, I learn the name of the young anti-racist woman who was run down dead by a white supremacist Nazi today. Her name is Heather Heyer. It takes longer to learn the name of Deandre Harris, the twenty year old Black man whom racists set upon in a parking garage and beat with metal pipes. Longer still to find the name of Marcus Martin, a Black man whose body I saw in the photos, flying though the air off the hood of a car. I cannot find the names of the Black women I saw in the photos, one sitting up on a stretcher, her hands covering her face, another being helped away, her body supported by a Black man walking with her whose name I also cannot find. I do not need to know their names to know that they have names. I do not need to know their names to know I am on their side. It is a war, isn’t it?
“Don’t read the comments,” everyone says. Maybe it seemed like wise advice until, as many have noted, the U.S. elected a walking Internet comment section to the presidency. And now I’m telling the Jews: read the comments. Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted a statement about Charlottesville in which he condemned racism, Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists. (That this is itself startling in 2017 is another startling fact about 2017.) The comments section reminded the senator that this was really about the liberal foreigner Jew George Soros paying someone to drive into the counter-protestors, just like he pays BLM. It’s all a vast Jewish conspiracy.
Pay attention. This administration is hell-bent on complete deregulation — unfettered access to money and resources for the corporations and their very rich top echelon, and to hell with all the rest of us. Crony capitalism plus demagoguery is a powerful brew, and anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness are both at work in the mix. Eric K. Ward’s excellent “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” spells this out. The more the economic elite are consolidating their wealth and power, the more heavily they rely on white supremacy to get the majority of non-rich Americans to go along, and the more use they make of Jews as foils to get away with their corporate robbery in plain sight, without being noticed. It’s possible that this is another useful role Jared Kushner and Steven Miller play as court Jews. (Honestly, though, Steven Miller? And people call me a self-hating Jew because I’m not a Zionist? Such a one! In the words of Rabbi Aaron Spiegel’s Yiddish curses for Republican Jews, may he be reunited in the world to come with his ancestors, who were all socialist garment workers.)
The comments section yells that the people to fear are Black and Brown people, Muslims, immigrants, and queers. The comments section acts like it’s revealing the evil Jewish mastermind behind it all, but that whole narrative actually functions as a desperate shout to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
When Trump, for example, can blow anti-semitic dog whistles about conspiracies of international bankers, he can distract the public from his own highly dubious financial deals (some of which actually have to do with international loans and some of which are under federal investigation right now).
Guess what? We Jews aren’t the ones owning and controlling everything. We Jews are not the man behind the curtain. We Jews are the curtain.
What difference does it make that the Charlottesville white power riot used symbols and slogans that attack Black folks, Jews, and queers? What does it mean that the white power rioters consider or least present themselves to be victims targeted for erasure by people who have less structural power and privilege than they do?
Longtime organizer and political researcher Scot Nakagawa has pointed out that this version of racism, which paints the powerful as the victim of the oppressed, takes European anti-semitism as its template. That’s how anti-semitism in Europe often functioned: make the Jews the public face of wealth, put the Jews between the masses and the rulers, and then when needed, trot out the Jews as the threat to “us” all — somehow creating a new “us” that binds together the rulers and the masses, letting the same old class domination keep going in the name of shared victimhood. In today’s U.S., the government’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of the Charlottesville white power rioters invoke the same false “we:” “We Americans” are threatened by immigrants. “We white men” are an endangered species. “We parents” have to keep trans kids out of public bathrooms. Nu, all of this is bad for the Jews.
Obviously, people of all faiths, skin colors, and cultural backgrounds should hate anti-Black racism because anti-Blackness is odious. And Jews of all skin colors and cultural backgrounds, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, Mizrahi or Ethiopian, should hate anti-Black racism because racism goes against Jewish values. For Jews who are white-passing, white-privileged, or white-adjacent, there are some additional reasons to hate anti-Black racism: it sets us up and it puts us in danger. A political culture like the one we are living with right now, from D.C. to Charlottesville, to my own town and yours, propagates the idea that the powerful are at risk when the oppressed insist on their rights to live unfettered human lives. Dig deep enough in the soil all around that seed, and you can hear the murmurs that the Jews are to blame.
The way to protect ourselves and each other is not to wrap the curtain as close as we can get it to the men and women grasping for the most money and power (Betsy DeVos, Erik Prince, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, etc.). It is not to hope that no one notices us and our difference so that we don’t get kicked out of the club. (Even if that weren’t despicable, the Nazis keep showing us it doesn’t work.) The way to protect ourselves and each other is to rip away the curtain, to refuse to stand beside the unjust and powerful to be used as their human shields, and to reject the bad bargain of whiteness.
The pledge in word and deed is this: We will not sell out our cultures and our comrades, the people whose experiences resonate in our own hearts and the ones we have to struggle to understand, in favor of the false sense of security that comes from temporary proximity to power. We align ourselves with our ancestors and our allies. We side with Black people and Black lives. We side with immigrants. We side with queers and outsiders. We side with Muslims and Sikhs. We side with people who have disabilities and chronic illnesses. We side with people who are poor. We wake up every morning and go out from our homes with the words of Rabbi Hillel on our lips and on our fingers: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then who am I? And if not now, when?”