Allyship in a fractured society

Photo by Aliza Becker

The communal work Pittsburghers have been doing to heal from the trauma of the October 27th synagogue shooting is reflected in their nuanced commentary in response to recent incidents of anti-Semitism on social media. Black Pittsburghers Jasiri X and Zach Banner stand out for their ability to comprehend subtle elements of the Jewish experience and their willingness to enter into uncomfortable spaces to build solidarity with Jews. This is the third article in a three-part series on antisemitism and racism; you can find the first two articles here and here.

Jasiri X, a hip hop artist and founder of 1Hood Media, spoke powerfully alongside Jews from Pittsburgh in a July 24th Zoom webinar called Standing in Solidarity.  He recounted how he had to step outside his personal experience as a Black man to understand Jewish stereotypes. He also shared about how being in community and breaking bread with Jews helped him to more deeply understand Jewish oppression. 

I remember thinking I didn’t know why Jewish people were so sensitive….We inherently know that police officers are… going to perceive me as more dangerous and criminal just because of the color of my skin. My stereotypes are: ‘I’m dangerous, I’m a thug, I’m a criminal.’ If you see somebody else’s stereotype [that says] you have power, you have money. ‘Oh, that sounds great to me.’ You don’t realize until you are in community with [Jewish] folks how damaging those stereotypes can be…

He then explained how those stereotypes are used “to pit us as communities against one another” and that leads to us “taking our frustrations out on one another…”

“Jews in particular,” he learned, “are hypersensitive to certain language…because after that language comes violence and persecution and ‘we have to leave.’ You are raised to be vigilant to survive and protect yourselves.” 

To come to this understanding, he “had to be willing to have an open mind when talking to people and be vulnerable in my own self….” 

That came into play when he reluctantly decided to attend a Passover seder to which he was invited. He put aside his doubts and dove into a potentially awkward situation that turned out to be a deeply meaningful experience. 

Jasiri X’s keen listening and attunement has led him to profound insights on both the structural impact and the personal toll of antisemitism on Jews. 

Pittsburgh Steeler Zach Banner has also been outspoken in this time about his  transformative personal experiences with Jews. He wrote in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle about how his membership in Zeta Beta Tau, a historically Jewish college fraternity, deepened his understanding of Jewish oppression. 

Suddenly, the 6 million victims I’d read about in my history books were the grandparents of my brothers. I learned that antisemitism isn’t a relic of the past but a modern-day threat:  From the pickup basketball court to fights picked at our parties, I heard my Jewish brothers called degrading slurs like ‘kike.’ 

In the solidarity webinar, he spoke about how his childhood experiences in a community without Jews left him with misperceptions about Jews.

 There’s a common misbelief amongst Black and Brown people — I know this from growing up and I’ve heard it and listened to it — that Jewish people are just like any other white race. You can mix them up with the rest of the majority and don’t understand that they’re a minority as well… 

Banner relayed the initial awkwardness of his relationships with Jews in college. 

I felt uncomfortable. I asked ‘is it Ok for me as a Black man for me to use [the word] Jew?’ The reason why I’m exposing this miseducation is because this is part of the problem. Me admitting these type of things. As you know, there are people who use Jew when they are trying to degrade Jews. I was like, ‘Is that the same thing? Is that like in the Black community when we use the n-word?’

Like Jasiri X, Banner reflects on his own experiences as a Black man to understand the impact of antisemitism and also recognizes that the Jewish experience is different from his own. This approach of empathy and humility is a powerful form of solidarity and allyship to Jews.

Zach Banner acknowledged that his next step to address antisemitism and the racism suffered by his community will be to “challenge himself to step into the role” of activist. “We’re going to have more views on the Super Bowl this year than you will with this YouTube video, so it’s up to us with that kind of platform,” he said.

Pittsburgh educator, Michelle King, who moderated the webinar, described solidarity as staying “in relationship,” even when it gets difficult. “How can we compost the pain so we can be in the world?” she asked. The question is a good one for two peoples who have long struggled as the victims of oppression. King held out one possible answer in the form of the importance of solidarity. She said, “May we continue this practice and continue to dream it forth.”

These stories are reminiscent of recordings in the Meanings of October 27th oral history archive in which Pittsburghers share their life stories and reflections on the 2018 synagogue shooting, including a teshuvah-like process in relation to racism and antisemitism. Jasiri X recorded an interview for the archive; an interview with Zach Banner has been scheduled. 

In these stories, may we find inspiration to act boldly in solidarity with other peoples and “continue to dream forth” a more connected future together.

About the Author
Aliza Becker is the director of two oral history projects: The Meanings of October 27th, reflections from Pittsburghers on the 2018 synagogues shooting and the American Jewish Peace Archive 1967-2018, stories from American Jews involved in leadership of American Jewish peace and anti-occupation organizations. She is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
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