There is a meme circulating on Facebook that says you are being asked to apologize for saying that Jewish people have power. In the age of social media and fake news, it is hard to decipher the truth from the sensationalized. I was unable to find another source that confirmed that such a request was directed towards you. However, I heard the commentary with my own ears so I know that you did really say those words. Regardless, this meme is circulating on social media and found its way on my newsfeed: the same place where I found people I knew sharing articles that negatively depicted Chassidic Jews and were defending Ice Cube and Nick Cannon, even after he apologized. This meme is circulating around social media and is being used to further promote anti-Semitism.
When a Jewish person prays, what is most important is not the words they say but their kavana, the Hebrew word for intention. Your kavana in your statement was, I think, 100% well-meaning. So, before I address your statement, I would like to first attempt to address where I believe you were coming from. I believe you were coming not from a place of hatred at all but from one that is really merited. I think that in your statement in saying Jewish people have power, you were trying to say that Jewish people have had access to certain resources and institutions that black people simply have not. You were addressing the systemic structure that exists in the United States that deprives black people and other people of color from accessing positions of power that can address the problematic ways in which black people and other visible minorities are depicted in American media. I believe you were also referring to the financial and cultural success that some Jewish people have had in the United States.
You are right Charlamagne, Jewish people have had access to the American dream in ways that have systemically and systematically been refused to people of African descent, whether they were imported here as slaves or immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa. Even in a time of intense WASP privilege, Jews found ways to acquire whiteness and work their way up. When Jews were refused access to universities and institutions, they changed their names and some of their facial features so that their Jewishness would not be recognized. This was their way of assimilating into mainstream American culture and avoiding discrimination. I remember playing on the beach when I was younger with a newly-made friend. I must have been in late elementary or early middle school. I can’t remember how the subject came up but I told him “I am Jewish but I shouldn’t tell you that.” “Why?” He asked. “People don’t like Jews.” I replied. His answer: “So what? People don’t like black people either and you can’t hide it.” The privilege in being Jewish is to be able to hide your Jewish identity.
To be a white-passing Jew is to make the choice of showing or hiding that you are Jewish. When you show that you are Jewish, it means you either feel safe enough to do so or you dare to defeat that fear and accept that you may be seen as the “other,” as different and that behind those stares people don’t know you but they have preconceived ideas about who you are. In the 21st century, anti-Semitism still forces Jewish people in certain places to have to hide their identity.
Where does anti-Semitism come from? Historically, it is rooted in conspiracy theories. The leading conspiracy theory of the Middle Ages held the Jews responsible for the bubonic plague. The anti-Semitic statement that claims that “Jewish people have power,” derives from a more recent conspiracy of Jewish world domination. When somebody says “Jews have power” they are echoing an anti-Semitic cliché that perpetuates the depiction of Jewish people as manipulative, world-dominating, conniving masters of the universe who seek to make the gentiles their puppets. The popularization of this horrible imagery can be traced to a book written in 1903 called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This book told a story of a Jewish plot to take over the world to reach global hegemony in order to subdue the gentiles. It was originally written in Russian but notorious American anti-Semite Henry Ford helped fund an English translation in order to reach an American audience.
When the Nazis came to power, they mandated “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” be read as factual. Hitler’s ideas expressed in Mein Kampf were not born in a vacuum. Today, 75 years after the Holocaust, this conspiracy continues to be dissipated in subtle ways and, it gets mixed in with the previously mentioned bubonic plague conspiracy from the middle ages. Jews and Israel are being blamed for the coronavirus and when Israeli researchers were making progress on finding a cure, that fact was used to “justify” that conspiracy. Those who spread conspiracies will always look for “facts” to justify themselves. Similarly, the consequences of Nick Cannon’s remarks are being used as proof of this “Jewish power.”
Throughout history, leaders with influence have used anti-Semitic canards to blame the Jews for the woes faced by a population in distress. As a result, Jewish history is a history of fleeing from country to country, succeeding in countries for a few or many generations before becoming the victim of violence due to the spread of anti-Semitic tropes. This happened in virtually all the countries in the world that once had a Jewish presence. Allow me to list just a few examples.
Before the Renaissance, Spain had the largest and most prosperous Jewish community in the world, unleashing a golden age in Jewish scholarship and Hebrew poetry (both secular and religious). Anti-Jewish riots in 1391 marked the decline of this high quality of life for Spanish Jews. The 1492 inquisition brought it to a complete halt. In 100 years, in the place where Jews had been more successful than ever, their presence and culture was completely dissipated as they were all killed, kicked out or forced to convert. In Portugal, they suffered the same fate. The Jews in Spain and Portugal had been there for over 1000 years. These Sephardic Jews then migrated to other countries in North Africa, Northern Europe and some even came to the Americas and established the first Jewish communities on our continent. In fact, the first Jews who came to colonial America were a group of Portuguese Sephardi Jews whose forefathers had fled the inquisition and established themselves in the Netherlands. They went to Brazil, while it was still under Dutch rule, and when Brazil was taken over by the Portuguese, they fled up north again- fearing the new colonizers might bring the inquisition with them. This group of Jews established themselves in New Amsterdam, which later became New York City. Jews fared relatively well in the beginning of American history despite some local laws that barred them from having equal rights to Christians. A wave of anti-Semitism did not arrive to the United States until about 200 years later, as new mostly poor Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants arrived to American shores from Central and Eastern Europe. Those Ashkenazi Jews eventually formed the beacon of American Jewry as we know it today.
Before the Holocaust, Poland had a long history of religious tolerance. Just like in Spain, Jews prospered in ways that were previously seldom heard of. Poland was referred to as Paradisus Judaerom, a latin phrase meaning “paradise of the Jews.” Jewish secular and religious life flourished in Poland. Chassidic movements advanced and so did developments linked to the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. The decline of Jewish prosperity started when Poland became a part of the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, Jews fell victims to violent riots, known as pogroms, happening all over the Tsarist Empire. Jews were blamed for killing Christ or for kidnapping children and using their blood to make matzah. The Jews responded in various ways. Some called for more secularization and integration into society while their more religious counterparts called for revived spirituality and religious observance. Others fled to Western Europe or North and South America. The Jews that stayed and remained through the Pogroms were met with genocide. Polish Jewry was close-to-completely exterminated in the Holocaust, with over 90% of the Jewish population dying and 1 out of every 2 Jewish Holocaust victims coming from Poland. I do not think Polish Jewry will ever recover. My great grand-parents were among those Polish Jews that fled before World War I. I am conscious, each and every single day, that had they not made that choice, my mother and I would never have been born. Nearly every Jewish person alive today who somewhere has Polish roots is alive because someone made the right decision and escaped before it was too late.
Poland is not the only country where Jews thrived before the Holocaust. Once Germany emancipated its Jews in 1871, German Jews assimilated and achieved success. They felt so happy to be in a safer country where they enjoyed full rights and minor discrimination compared to neighboring France where anti-Semitism was intense and present during the Dreyfus affair. Prosperity for the German Jews came to an end when the Nazi party was founded in 1933. Hitler had recycled all the anti-Semitic tropes, new and old, that had been circulating throughout Europe and North America. In the 21st century, these anti-Semitic tropes continue to haunt us, leading to deadly consequences.
In 2006, Ilan Halimi was kidnapped in Paris because he was Jewish. Ilan’s kidnappers targeted him because they believed Jews are rich and “help each other out.” Ilan’s parents could not afford the ransom they were being asked and after being starved and tortured for three weeks, Ilan was burned alive, at the age of 23. His body is now resting in Israel. His parents were scared that his tomb might be desecrated in France.
According to the latest ideology of hate espoused by American white Supremacists, Jews have been using their “power” to allow minorities to take over the U.S. and destroy white America. So, in Charlottesville, in 2017, they chanted “Jews will not replace us.” In 2018, a man killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh and justified himself by referencing the Jewish agency HIAS, which helps resettle refugees. The white supremacists have adopted the same anti-Semitic conspiracy of Jewish world domination that, of course, involves the Rothschilds and now George Soros, to fit the rest of their agenda.
Anti-Semitism is a disease. It is a virus that stays dormant and becomes active in unexpected ways. This disease is rooted in ideas and myths that people have about the Jewish people. Spreading these ideas is dangerous. I could continue listing experiences of Jews in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Argentina, Yemen, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia or, of course, Italy-where the word “ghetto” was born in the year 1516. My intention, however, is to explain why saying “Jewish people have power” has real consequences even if it may seem like an innocuous opinion.
I hope I didn’t overdo it, I hope I didn’t negate your pain that I know you must be feeling as a black man in the United States where police kill Black children, men and women and are, barely ever, held accountable. Despite redlining being illegal, Black-Americans continue to face discrimination in the housing market. In addition, I recognize that in sharing a bit of my family history, I shared with you a story of a person whose family found refuge in the United States. The United States, a country that has continued to deny Black people opportunities for safety and prosperity. Even as I was writing about the Jews that came from Spain and Portugal and went to the Netherlands, to Brazil and then colonial America, I thought about their prosperity and what that must have looked like. Unfortunately, some were involved in the awful institution of slavery- our country’s original sin for which we have yet to repent. The previous persecution of the forefathers of those Jewish slave owners excuses none of their actions. While anti-Semitism is a global experience, the story of Jews in America specifically is also one of them fleeing persecution and finding opportunity. That opportunity operated within a racist system- and it is long overdue for our community to acknowledge that.
I know, Charlamagne, that you don’t believe any of the small Jewish history I have given you is justified. I know, you in no way wish to perpetuate the awful stereotypes that have been responsible for the fate of so many people simply because of their identity. In fact, since I first started writing this letter, I have heard you speak about the efforts you, personally, took to learn about why Nick Cannon’s remarks were hurtful. I would like to thank you. I hope those who read this letter, regardless of their background do so as well. I hope they realize that your remarks are not simply hurtful, they are dangerous. I also hope that we, as white-passing American Jews, realize that the opportunities that have been given to us, despite the prejudice attached to our Semitic roots, were denied to Black-Americans due to the color of their skin.
The legacy of racism has yet to be properly addressed and neither has the legacy of anti-Semitism. A major teaching of Judaism is “tikkun olam,” often translated as “repair the world.” The world needs healing and reparation right now, I hope we allow the oppressions of our peoples to act as uniting rather than divisive forces. I want to hold my community accountable so that we learn about the ways we have benefitted from whiteness and we come to understand how Black-Americans have been robbed from their heritage while having to overcome completely unfair obstacles. Can I ask you to use your platform to denounce the spreading of these awful anti-Semitic tropes that have been the source of 2000 years of persecution towards Jewish people worldwide?
P.S: I would like to acknowledge that American Jewry is diverse and encompasses many different Jewish backgrounds. While most American Jews are indeed “white” Jews, many are not and I cannot speak for the Jews of Color whose story will likely differ from mine.