By Shira Grife
In the past few weeks, familiar childhood tropes of white Jewish oppression have filled my Instagram feed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some of these posts are in support of the movement, citing the oppression of Jews as a calling for all Jewish people to stand with the American Black community as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Others exclaim that Jews have managed to overcome our struggles, therefore the American Black community should be able to as well. Some even suggest that the Jewish community should be providing the American Black community with tips and pointers for overcoming years of oppression, drawing a comparison between slavery and the Holocaust.
Whether these comments come from an anti-racist white Jewish ally, or a fed-up white Jew calling for the Black people in America to overcome as American Jews have, the common theme in all of these posts is oppression. This made me wonder, is oppression so central to Judaism that being in a place of privilege strips us of some aspect of our Jewish identity? (Spoiler alert, it does not.)
Every Jewish person living in America has been asked at some point in their life whether they consider themselves to be an American Jew or a Jewish American. If you live in Texas like me, you may be asked if you’re a Texan Jew or a Jewish Texan. It’s a question that I never understood as a child and continue to struggle with today.
My earliest memory of learning about the Holocaust was in kindergarten, when a classmate’s grandparent and Holocaust survivor came to speak to the class. Every year I continued being exposed to age appropriate tales of the Holocaust, learning about the gruesome details of the concentration camps in middle school, and eventually taking a class trip to Poland to visit them in the 11th grade.
There is no denying that the Holocaust was an atrocious act of evil. Six million Jews across Europe were murdered, and surviving Jewish families were torn apart and torn away from their homes. Many survivors immigrated to Western Europe and North America, many assimilating in an effort to blend in and be less Jewish, for fear of their lives, as anti-Semitism still ran rampant in the Western world.
It’s atrocious that we should have to hide our Judaism in fear for our lives, even that we should have to be less Jewish or more American in an effort to get a decent job and feel safe. However, we can’t overlook the fact that the option to assimilate is a privilege in and of itself, a privilege that Black people in America do not have. Our 10,000-year history of oppression does not exist without privilege; in fact, the two go hand in hand. Throughout Jewish history, Jews have hidden their Judaism, passing as Persians, Greeks, Egyptians and Christians, and hiding their Jewish practices from the outside world. The entire Exodus from Egypt, one of our more famous ancient tales of oppression, was only made possible by having a Jew on the inside (yup, Moses).
Black people cannot assimilate or hide their Blacknes. They cannot choose to be less Black or take off their skin for a day or a job interview. Black people will always be perceived as Black. It’s not our job to say, “We did it and so can you” — that rhetoric is extremely harmful. Rather, it’s our job to protect the Black community by sharing their history and teaching our children not to repeat it. Start with the history of King Leopold II, who was the king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909 and the sovereign of Congo from 1885 to 1908. Under his regime, 10 million Congolese people were killed.
We as Jews have to stop teaching our own history as if it universally applies. Imagine that four to five generations after the Holocaust, every North American Jew is still living in Germany and Poland, no one really speaks of the Holocaust outside of that one chapter in ninth grade history and the occasional film set in Nazi Germany. Statues of Hitler and various Nazi officials line the streets, and every Jewish person, despite the concentration camps being liberated 70 years ago, wears a yellow star every day. That awful and fictional scenario is more in line with Black history in America than the history of Jewish oppression.
For generations, we have said “never again” – in hopes that approaching hate and evil through a lens of Jewish history will prevent it. But we have to do better, and we have to do more. Whether you consider yourself to be a Jewish American or an American Jew, the fact of the matter is that most white Jews are perceived as white Americans. Identity is important, and I have a strong Jewish identity. However, perception is powerful, and how I am perceived — that is my white privilege. As the Jewish Instagram personality @maimonides_nutz stated so well, “Seems like a lot of white Jewish opposition to recognizing we benefit from white supremacy comes from a fear that doing so will invalidate our own history of trauma. I don’t think that’s how it works. It can’t be. Framing it that way only hurts everyone involved. Esp. Black Jews.”
This mutually exclusive thinking is especially harmful to Black Jews who deal with racism on a daily basis in the U.S., in Israel and around the world, in addition to their inherited trauma from the history of Jewish oppression.
I hope that white Jews can begin to realize that acknowledging our privilege is not harmful to us, nor does it erase or invalidate any part of our history. As Jews, we should honor the differences in our struggles, and help amplify Black voices and Black history. Racism still runs rampant in North America, and being inclusive, not racist and remembering our history is not enough. We need to use our white privilege to protect Black people and help dismantle racist systems from within. We need to address racism with our children and have the uncomfortable conversations with our friends, families and communities. We need to acknowledge that we benefit from white privilege and start working to dismantle that privilege, as uncomfortable as that may be.
Shira Grife grew up in Philadelphia. She now lives in Texas.