What if we actually succeeded in creating a racially just society—but somehow still allowed hatred and bigotry toward LGBTQ people? Would that work? How about a “just” society that is anti-Muslim? Of course not. So why is antisemitism, especially from people of color, accepted as part of our brave new world?
This is by no means a question solely for communities of color. Jewish leaders must also ask themselves why they counsel their fellow Jews to ignore expressions of antisemitism emanating from those communities.
Thanks to the courageous demonstrations for racial/social justice, more Americans recognize that every life, not just those of people of color, has been afflicted by the bigotry corroding our democracy and our souls. Those of us who are devoted to correcting and sustaining a true democracy know that we must continue to support this movement.
But our country, including its minorities and people of color, also needs to acknowledge another bigotry eating at the soul of America. The FBI recently reported that although Jews comprise only 2% of America’s population, over 60% of religious hate crimes target Jews. It is not surprising that a society riddled with racism also embraces antisemitism as well as hatred of many other marginalized groups. Similarly, it is not surprising to find Jews who are racist and Blacks who are antisemitic.
If we are going to move closer to true equality, we will need to learn mutual respect. That means that leaders of both communities need to be accountable for banishing bigotry within their ranks. To this end, the Anti-Defamation League and more than 600 other Jewish organizations and synagogues have declared support for racial justice movements. They have been joined by major organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League.
However, Jews seeking solidarity with spontaneous movements for racial justice too often encounter rejection, Jew hatred and even physical violence. Furthermore, antisemitism has been expressed from the pulpits of notable Black ministers, in the tweets of Black celebrities and by politicians of color. Some of the demonstrations for Black Lives Matter have been poisoned by marchers defacing synagogues, vandalism of Jewish-owned buildings and stores, and violent outbursts. A mob in Philadelphia “violently chased away” Jewish marchers. “Zionists” have been declared unwelcome at the Women’s March, a recent Juneteenth march, and an LGBTQ march.
Such actions have been condemned by prominent Black Americans, including Cory Booker, Charles Barkley, and Kareem Abdul Jamar. Former NBA star, Charles Barkley issued this challenge: “I don’t understand how you beat hatred with more hatred…Listen, DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, Nick Cannon, Ice Cube – Man, what the hell are y’all doing?… Y’all want racial equality…We all do. I don’t understand how insulting another group helps our cause…”
It is heartening that some Black influencers and organizations recognize the inherent contradiction that a movement created to stamp out bigotry against its own people can harbor bigotry toward another people. Jewish leaders, on the other hand, are much less outspoken against antisemitism coming from communities of color, shying away from frank confrontation with it.
Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the esteemed Jewish newspaper, The Forward, asked Jewish clergy, “…What should the role of American Jews be in this moment? What does Jewish tradition have to say about moments like these?” Approximately twenty rabbis interviewed by The Forward agreed that Jewish tradition requires being our brothers’ keepers, standing up–not standing by–when we see abuse. They argue that because Blacks have been subjected to racist brutality for 400 years, our task is to listen, to understand, to face ugly truths, to examine our own complicity.
According to the rabbis, bigotry directed against Jews is not a priority right now, not a consideration, in fact, barely mentioned at all by any of them. The Jewish position, as voiced by one rabbi, (cited in different article) is: “Now it is on us to make certain that George Floyd’s death will not be in vain….” Jewish clergy have largely aligned with the “It’s on us” position. However, one must ask, as Barkley did, how hundreds of years of racial abuse can possibly be ameliorated by turning a blind eye to antisemitism.
The question for Jewish leaders, who are not lacking the courage to call out racism, is where is your courage to call out antisemitism? Why should it be “on us” to tolerate abuse? In any relationship, inviting the disrespect of another diminishes the humanity of both parties.
Jewish leaders need to stop forfeiting Jewish self-respect by demanding less of others than we do of ourselves. “It’s on us,” implies that the demands we make of ourselves cannot or should not be made of others. It implies that other minorities, those who happen to be antisemitic, should be given a pass, one that we Jews deny ourselves.
We also need to recognize the condescension implicit in “It’s on us.” If Jews are responsible for their racism while others are exempt from owning their antisemitism, we are declaring we view those other groups as less capable, less virtuous, or too damaged to do what we ask of ourselves.
Being equal does not mean we have to be philosophical or political “twins. It does not mean that our experiences as Americans have been identical. But it does mean we share mutual respect and mutual accountability: People of color expect Jews and other Americans to take responsibility for rooting out racism. Jews expect color communities and other Americans to expunge antisemitism.
Whenever Jewish leaders fail to insist on this dialogue with their counterparts in communities of color, they are failing their fellow Jews and they are failing America’s movement toward greater equality.
[Footnotes upon request]