I stand here today as a Jew by Choice and the child and grandchild of the Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans fled racist terror in the South only to encounter redlining, discrimination and police violence in the North and Midwest.
Like all of you, I have mourned and raged over the overt racism and anti-Semitism seen in Charlottesville. I have watched in horror as avowed racists defiantly parade in Klan robes and swastikas. I have listened to the anguish of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as they are forced to confront the historical trauma of the Nazi-era.
As both a Jew and an African American, I recoil from the white supremacy and anti-Semitism on display this week. I have been gratified to hear Jewish leaders and organizations call for the destruction of racism, speaking eloquently about the shared history of oppression Jews and African Americans have faced.
Yet, I confess to a certain discomfort in the many appeals to recognize the twin evils of anti-Semitism and anti-black racism in Charlottesville. I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week, and here’s what I’ve realized: for Jews, Nazi symbols evoke a terrifying, traumatic past. For African Americans, they evoke a terrifying, traumatic, unending present. White Jews may be shocked at this undeniable evidence of U.S. racism; African Americans merely see more of the same. Black people did not need to be reminded by hoods and swastikas that we live in a dangerously racist country.
White Jews are not under the same level of threat as people of color. In short, white Jews need to accept that they are white and that whatever harassments or humiliation they may experience from antisemites, they nevertheless dwell under the all-encompassing shelter of white privilege. Police do not murder them in custody, their votes are not systematically undermined; they do not overwhelmingly live in poverty or adjacent to poverty. The two documented lynchings of American Jews, though horrific, pale in comparison to the nearly four thousand lynchings of black men, women and children in U.S. history. The lifestyle and life expectancy of the average white Jewish-American is not materially different from that of the white non-Jewish majority; there is no institutional antisemitism.
Furthermore, white America is generally more accepting of discussing and acknowledging the history of anti-Semitism than they are the currency of anti-black racism.
As James Baldwin wrote in a classic 1967 essay:
One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering.
For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.
For white Jewish Americans, the U.S. has always been the Promised Land. Yet African Americans know it is Pharaoh’s Egypt.
Not only do white Jews of good conscience need to acknowledge that they are not the primary victims of white supremacy, they need to look at how their own institutions have not only failed to challenge, but in some cases are openly complicit in its preservation.
For example, the Anti-Defamation League, which presents itself as a champion of civil rights and “tolerance,” once spied against the NAACP and the African National Congress (ANC), and was responsible for the execution of an ANC activist in apartheid South Africa. As Jewish Voice for Peace points out in our Deadly Exchange campaign, the ADL, and other Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and Chicago’s own Jewish United Fund all organize police, ICE and Homeland Security training exchanges in which American and Israeli police officers share tactics of oppression, teaching each other the aggressive, militarized police strategies which have led to the deaths of African Americans like Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald; and Palestinians such as Mohammed Khalaf, Amar Ahmed Khalil, and Siham Rateb Rashid Nimer.
Meanwhile, according to their own tax filings, many cities’ Jewish federations, including Chicago’s Jewish United Fund, contribute generously to groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as leading anti-Muslim extremists, groups like the Middle East Forum and the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which laid the intellectual groundwork for Trump’s Muslim ban. It’s no coincidence that these groups are all tremendously supportive of Israel’s brutal policies toward Palestinians.
All of this is done in the name of Jewish security, either in the U.S. or in Israel. So I ask my white Jewish friends and family: is the perceived safety of people who look like you worth the continued oppression, incarceration and murder of people who look like me?
Last summer when African Americans challenged white America to support the Platform for Black Lives, nearly every Jewish organization in the country condemned its indictment of the genocidal oppression experienced by Palestinians in Israel. None was more critical, dismissive and patronizing than Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the ADL, who urged African Americans to “keep our eyes on the prize”, and to remember that it is Jews, not African Americans who “know from genocide”.
I hope that the obscenity of Charlottesville will lead all Americans to examine their complicity in tolerating institutional oppression. But in particular, Jewish Voice for Peace calls on our own Jewish community to condemn and disavow our organizational support of racism and Islamophobia, both past and present. We must embrace a vision for safety that does not come at the expense of communities of color. Only then can we truly claim to stand together in genuine, rather than merely symbolic solidarity.
This post is a transcript of a speech Lesley Williams gave at a Resist Reimagine and Rebuild protest in Chicago, Illinois on Saturday, August 19, 2017. A copy of the transcript was first by Lesley Williams on her blog, and on Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog.