“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
- Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Many of my friends and teachers today have noted the importance of time for mourning, for sitting shiva, and allowing the feelings that accompany last night’s news to be felt. I am very much there on an emotional level, and yet throughout this morning I’ve also been visited over and over again by thoughts about how we move forward in general, but especially as white Jews; thoughts that relate to the words of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr quoted above.
Over the past few decades, the privileges of whiteness and affluence have meant that many white Jews in the United States have experienced a time of unprecedented safety and success. For many, this has made it easy to forget a fact that has remained true throughout that time. That is that the same ideology that is leading to the oppression of our Black, Muslim, Latinx, immigrant, queer, trans, female and more neighbors, also targets Jews. It’s an ideology that believes that white, Christian, American-born straight men have supremacy over all others - some call it white supremacy, but that erases some of its complexity, I believe.
The hateful rhetoric of our president-elect started by targeting Black and brown communities and continued in that way for much of the campaign. Many, really most, American Jews and Jewish institutions turned a blind eye to this bigotry because at that point it did not target Jews. However in the closing days of this election cycle, the inevitable antisemitism began to emerge. Inevitable because of the linkages described above. Because antisemitism, unlike many other forms of oppression, functions by making Jews look powerful rather than powerless, it’s sometimes hard to see it - but it was vividly there in the campaign’s words and ads in these last days and weeks.
Whether it’s conscious or not, I can see an awareness of this antisemitism in the reactions of my Jewish friends and colleagues - their expressions of fear, of wanting to hold their children and families close, their moves to prepare their passports and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. These are trauma responses, born out of thousands of years of persecution and seared into the brains of Jews around the world, even those who have never experienced anti-semitism personally before.
However, flight is not what will save us. What will save us is coming to understand the fact that the threats to our safety that have suddenly become so apparent are bound up with the threats to all of our neighbors who whether because of the color of their skin, their religion, country of origin, or sexual or gender identity are considered “other.”
Now is the time for us as a Jewish community, particularly white Jews, to acknowledge that the threats to others as we enter this new chapter of our history threatens us as well. Having acknowledged this mutuality, we must then begin the difficult, complex work of sharing our stories and fears and hopes, of building strong and authentic relationships with other oppressed communities that can weather the challenges ahead, and of beginning to plan together across lines of religious, cultural, racial and other difference what we must do to make this country safe for all of us. Because as Jews, we will only be safe when all of our neighbors are safe too. As April Rosenblum says in “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” “true Jewish liberation..is incompatible with the oppression of any other group.” Trying to address antisemitism without addressing the underlying ideology that leads to it is like pulling the weeds growing in your garden without removing the roots. The weeds may disappear for a time, but they will return. Getting to the shared roots of our oppression and all these other forms of oppression is the only way we can create the country and world that we all want and need. So, let us begin...