Jews: All of Us Need to Join the Fight
“[The Torah] is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all it paths are peace.”
— Proverbs 3:17–18
To the eleven people who lost their lives in The Tree of Life Synagogue, may their memory be a blessing. ז״ל
Today as a Jew, I am saddened and angry.
I am saddened because a gunman walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue shouting anti-Semitic words of hate as he opened fire.
I am saddened because he murdered eleven people.
I am saddened because mass shootings in America have become commonplace. The outrage will last a few days, then slowly fade — until the next one.
I am angry because the fires of hate are burning brightly in America today.
I am angry because the president refuses to condemn white supremacy.
A sitting president refusing to condemn hatred emboldens the hateful.
I am also angry with us, American Jews.
I am angry because many of us have stayed silent these past two years.
I am angry because it shouldn’t take the mass murder of Jews for us to feel threatened or for us to speak up.
An attack against any vulnerable American is an attack on us all.
I know that lots of Jewish individuals and Jewish groups have been fierce activists. I am grateful to all of them, especially those who saw the warning signs in Trump’s campaign and mobilized before his election.
This message is for everyone else, most of all the silent leadership.
There are almost seven million American Jews. Most remain quiet.
Many still feel comfortable and secure in our nation. Life hasn’t personally changed much for them, so they don’t worry.
It’s a false sense of security.
Have we not been paying attention throughout history? Do we not remember that we are the perpetual scapegoats? Even when another group is targeted first, we always end up being targeted as well.
I am angry that more American Jews don’t speak up for other marginalized groups.
For immigrants, including those legally seeking asylum who are locked away in ICE detention.
We were refugees once. I am alive because a non-Jewish man showed kindness to my grandmother’s family as they escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
Many modern-day Jewish Americans aren’t repaying our ancestors’ debts to the world.
We’ve grown complacent.
I am angry because many American Jews don’t know what “white privilege” or “intersectionality” mean, yet we benefit from one while eschewing the other.
White privilege is a term that encompasses the oftentimes invisible benefits of having white skin in American society. It can frequently refer to the racist issues we do not have to face based on the color of our skin — large-scale problems like discrimination and police brutality, and microaggressions like being followed around in a store or having someone cross to the other side of the street when they see you.
Make no mistake, Jews are discriminated against and we are also the target of hate crimes.
Yet, the majority of the time, we move through society undetected — or rather, not judged based on our Jewishness but our whiteness.
There are Jews of Color, but most of us are white. Without traditional Orthodox garb, we look like regular white people.
Many Jews, myself included, have last names that aren’t characteristically Jewish.
It’s why Stephen Miller can be a darling of the alt-right, as I suspect many don’t realize that he’s Jewish, or perhaps he’s endeared himself as ‘the racist Jew.’ His maternal grandparents were persecuted for being Jewish and escaped pogroms in Belarus, yet his policies have led to the brutal persecution of refugees.
Jews like Miller can also be self-loathing and anti-Semitic, but that’s a piece for another day.
The point I’m making is that many American Jews benefit from white privilege without realizing it. It’s easier for us to climb the socioeconomic ladder because we don’t face many of the outward persecutions of black and brown Americans.
Worse, instead of recognizing that we are the beneficiaries of white privilege, some Jews believe our success is due to an inherent superiority.
It’s tragic that Jews can subscribe to a similar genetic fallacy as the one that led to the mass murder of six million of us.
If Jews are going to move forward and join hands with other marginalized groups, we must also confront racism within our community.
We need to have a few difficult conversations.
Conversations like, “What should we do about the oftentimes casual racism that exists amongst Jews?”
Growing up Jewish, I got used to people, especially older ones, speaking negatively about non-Jews, such as “schvartzes.” Schvartz is the Yiddish word for “black,” and it’s a derisive term for African Americans.
My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who preached tolerance, espoused a quiet racism towards African Americans. In public, he was friendly and welcoming. In private, he held fast to deeply racist beliefs.
It’s a dual life that many American Jews live. I know Jews who would take offense to being called a racist, yet will also tell you they avoid certain parts of town that are “ghetto.”
The sad irony of their use of that word is lost on them.
Some of these Jews will tell you there are good reasons behind their beliefs, while refusing to acknowledge they are racist in origin.
“I want to protect my daughter,” a friend said when explaining why she didn’t patronize a supermarket that had visibly more minority staffers and shoppers.
My grandfather had his reasons, too.
Working in the meat business in the 1950s and 60s, he spent a lot of time interacting with employees of food wholesalers in cities like Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. Most were poor black men who hadn’t made it through high school, and they came to define my grandfather’s overall perception of an entire race.
When the riots happened in Newark in 1967, my grandfather didn’t see marginalized humans pushing back against the injustices of society. He saw vilde chayas, Yiddish for “wild animals,” destroying the world around them.
My grandfather was blind to the parallels between the systemic obstacles faced by Polish Jews before World War II and black Americans.
He told me about his brother who wanted to become a doctor but wasn’t allowed by law to get the kind of university education he needed.
Jews in prewar Poland were relegated to the merchant class, one of the only types of job they were allowed.
“Can you blame them,” he would ask, “for trying to screw over the Pollacks when they could? The Jews were angry because life was unfair for them!”
To help my grandfather see the parallels to today, I tried and tried over the years to connect this to the oppression African Americans faced and still face. I patiently explained Jim Crow laws, redlining, harsh drug policies that disproportionately affect communities of color, the wealth gap, mass incarceration, and police brutality.
I wanted him to understand why the rioters he saw in 1967 Newark were not wild animals, but humans like the Jews who were reacting to unspeakable oppression.
About a year ago, my grandfather said something I’d heard him say before.
“Black people have been given every single opportunity to make it in this country, and they wasted them all.”
My heart sank. I took a breath before launching into my umpteenth explanation of why he was wrong, and in fact, the opposite was true.
Once more, I attempted to make my grandfather see how he’d been a beneficiary of white privilege in America and explain the obstacles that exist for African Americans that didn’t exist for him.
It was futile.
My grandfather was set in his ways. He had a third-grade education, never read a book in his life, and wasn’t a deep thinker. He held fast to certain racist notions because they made sense to him.
What makes me angry, however, is how many educated Jews I’ve encountered who hold fast to similar racist beliefs.
They are the exception not the rule, but their existence alone is infuriating. We must confront them and call them out within our families and communities.
The larger issue — the problem that’s widespread amongst American Jews — is indifference.
Many American Jews fail to see how the issues that affect us — like the lack of gun control and anti-immigrant sentiment that prompted the Pittsburgh shooter — are connected to issues faced by countless other Americans.
Too few of us understand intersectionality, but it’s imperative that we learn.
Intersectionality, a term popularized by scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the interconnectedness of systems of oppression. Marginalization comes in many forms, and they often intersect with each other.
Race. Gender. Class. Religion. Sexual orientation. Ability. Age. Citizenship.
A person can be discriminated based on any one of these factors. Oftentimes, they are discriminated by more than one.
Women of color were the first to bring this notion to the forefront.
Kimberlé Crenshaw noted that her blackness and womanhood were inextricable. She couldn’t fight against racial issues without acknowledging how being a woman factored into that. She couldn’t fight for feminist progress without considering how being black shaped her experience.
Intersectionality is a vital concept for social change. Only when we realize how systems of oppression are interconnected can we address the totality of injustice.
When fighting for justice, it is crucial to recognize every group being oppressed, especially those at the margins affected by multiple factors. It’s a way to prevent a majority group from becoming the loudest and most important voice in a movement. In fact, it is the responsibility of those in the majority to advocate for those in the minorities so their voices don’t get lost.
Movements for change are only sustainable and successful when we recognize and help every single person affected.
For example, a feminist movement that is not inclusive of all religions will exclude many women. It’s why it was problematic when a leader of the Women’s March was found to have attended a speech by Louis Farrakhan.
As Jews, we must continually assert our right to exist as Americans. The synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh reveals the hatred that so many of us know exists in our nation.
We need allies in our fight, but we also need to be better allies to others.
It’s incumbent upon American Jews to understand intersectionality. Joining forces with others and supporting crucial social justice movements — like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and reproductive rights — is vital in the fight against white supremacy and white nationalism.
We must fight for all marginalized Americans as we fight for ourselves.
It’s taken some time, but many of us are waking up to the dangers we and countless Americans face.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of speaking at a synagogue with my friend George, who recently won asylum after seven months unlawfully imprisoned in ICE detention.
When we began, the congregants of the synagogue had no idea of the scope of this problem. An hour later, they were mobilized and ready to do what they could to help.
The day before, a rabbi of another synagogue pulled George aside after he spoke.
“I didn’t know,” the rabbi said. “I’m ashamed that I didn’t know about any of this.”
Ignorance can no longer be an excuse, but knowledge is nothing without action.
Indifference paves the way for things to get worse.
The first order of business is to vote on November 6th. Do what you can to promote Democratic candidates before then.
We need to elect representatives at the local, state, and national level who care about us and Americans at the margins.
It cannot stop there.
Even if we flip the House and Senate blue, the work will have just begun.
The damage of the last two years won’t be easily undone, and as long as Trump remains in the seat of power, he will do what he can to protect and consolidate his rule. He will also continue to use his platform to spew racist rhetoric and embolden the hateful.
The President of the United States of America is a threat to every Jew living in this nation. That is something we need to take seriously.
He is also a threat to African Americans, Latinx and Chicanx Americans, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, women, anyone with a preexisting medical condition, immigrants, and countless more.
American Jews must remember intersectionality in our fight. A quest for civil and human rights must include all of the above groups.
We must also recognize our privilege and use it to our advantage.
Whatever power you have, from financial means to political influence, it is imperative that you use it.
This is not just a fight for political office. It’s not just a fight for control. It’s not just a fight to improve our status in America.
It is a fight for our lives.
It is a fight for the lives of all Americans being hurt by this administration.
We are still at risk. Many Americans are still at risk.
Refusing to act now makes you complicit in the horrors yet to come.
“Never again,” is already here.
Now we must say, “Enough is enough.”
Of blessed memory:
And to those injured and traumatized, I wish healing and refua shlema, a full recovery.