Facing the truth about our racial biases

Activists of different races and nationalities standing together against racial injustice towards African asylum-seekers at a rally in Herzilya.

We are currently in the midst of Black History Month, and there is a wealth of powerful self-representation as women and men of color raise their voices to celebrate their history and demand a better future. As you can see, I am not one of these people. I am a white Ashkenazi Jewish woman. Because of my white skin, I feel it is my obligation to reach out to others like me to discuss race. Not to silence or replace black voices, but instead to offer an added perspective because we have a moral responsibility to engage in open conversations about our racial privilege and biases. We are obliged to look introspectively at our upbringings and biases, and to use what we discover about ourselves to become better allies. And it is our responsibility not to shy away from conversations about race, but to ask honest questions and learn from our mistakes. I am in this process myself, and I want to invite others to join me in this journey of self-improvement.

My family upbringing would be considered liberal, much like my fellow Ashkenazi American Jews. When my mother was a child her family took her to march for peace during the Vietnam war while angry bystanders shouted insults and hurled eggs at them. In elementary school my brother refused to stand to recite the national anthem because, following the police brutality against Rodney King and the LA riots, he stated that he cannot pledge we are all equal when clearly our society is deeply racist. In 2003 when the United States declared war on Iraq I joined tens of thousands of fellow citizens in marching against the invasion. Like many in the Jewish diaspora, I understood from a young age that we owed our safety and freedom to those who stood with us as allies and therefore we have an obligation to do the same for other marginalized groups.

It is clear that my family was not an isolated case, as a simple online search can find a wealth of cooperation between American Jews and racial minorities. As far back as the early 1900s, we see Jewish newspapers referring to anti-Black riots in the American South as “pogroms.” About half of all the white civil rights lawyers in the South during the Civil Rights movement were Jewish, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood at Martin Luther King Jr’s side during the Selma to Montgomery marches.

In contrast, in Israel between 1948 to 1952 thousands of Yemenite children were quietly kidnapped from their mothers to be given to white Ashkenazi families who had lost children in WWII. Ethiopian Jewish women entering Israel as recently as 2012 were reportedly given birth control injections without their knowledge or consent, some even being refused entry into transit camps until after receiving their dose of the drug. Now, 2/3 of citizens support the deportation of African asylum seekers while remaining conveniently silent on the subject of asylum seekers from Georgia and the Ukraine.

How is it that Jews in the diaspora and Jews in Israel have become so severely disconnected from one another?

I believe it stems directly from the way in which we teach our children. French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan stated as far back as 1882 that the foundation of an ethnic nation-state is the conscious consent to live together in a shared and undivided history and future. This is reinforced in our children through a daily plebiscite, where each day we teach our children their heritage and identity. We sing our national anthems together, celebrate together on our Independence Day and mourn together on our Memorial Day. The way in which we reinforce these ideals in our children shapes how they view their ethnic and nationalistic identity.

In the Jewish diaspora, we are taught as children that our Jewish identity makes us different, and that this diversity is a good thing. We show our children how our own struggle parallels that of other minority groups. As immigrants and outsiders ourselves, we know on the deepest level that slander against outsiders must be false because it was false about us.

In Israel, children grow up learning their parents’ collective trauma and existential fears. We tell our children that our enemies will push us into the sea if we let them. That there is safety in ethnic uniformity and that we can only trust those from our own tribe. That the outsider is a threat to our individual lives, and the collective existence of our people.

Of course, even in instances where Israelis know on a rational level that we do not face an existential threat, the deep feeling of unrest remains. Let’s take the example of forced birth control injections for Ethiopian Jewish women. It is obvious that any Jewish mother who bears more children will increase the state of Israel’s Jewish demographic, which is aligned with the expressed goals of the state. However, despite the fact that she shares the same heritage, she still looks like an outsider to someone who has been taught all his or her life to fear diversity. This creates some uncomfortable feelings, and because nobody wants to be labeled a racist we end up jumping through hoops trying to find an alternate justification.

If this unpleasant sensation exists when we look at non-white Jews, what then of the African asylum seekers who came to the country in search of refuge? The Eritrean people are mostly Christian, with roots leading back to the Jewish Aksumite kingdom of the 4th century. Still today they demonstrate many Jewish values and characteristics in their daily lives and in the way they worship. In the 10 years they have lived in Israel, they have never once committed any terror attacks against Israelis and have committed crimes in general at a very low rate. Research around the world has shown 9 out of 10 of the cities with the largest refugee absorption actually showed a decrease in criminal activity.

And yet, the knee-jerk reaction has been to vehemently oppose their existence. In 2012 a member of Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) by the name of Miri Regev called African asylum seekers “a cancer in our body.” In 2014 a 1 1/2 year old Eritrean child was stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors by a disgruntled Israeli who felt the infant was a threat to the demographics of the country. On social media, right wing Israelis refer to African asylum seekers as rapists because they heard of an unnamed “friend” who fell victim to their violence, even though crime statistics in Israel show that rape by a stranger has one of the lowest rates of occurrence after family members, friends, acquaintances, employers, and spouses or partners.

Others, mainly those on the left end of the political spectrum, tend to take a more veiled approach to racial bias. Many well-intentioned individuals who want to help are guilty of stealing the conversation. There are countless well-spoken people of color who are ready and willing to speak out in a public forum, and are already working hard to do so. Every day we should make the conscious decision not to push our voices ahead of theirs unless the conversation specifically demands the perspective of an ally.

However, we turn on the television and we see panel discussions with only white faces present, we open the newspapers to find interviews with countless white activists represented and just one or two sentences quoting people of color. It comes from a desire to help; the activists feel strongly that they know the right thing to say and they often do speak very well. But just like we women feel sickened by rooms full of men making decisions about female bodies, so do people of color feel frustrated by the rooms filled with white people legislating their rights away. And so unwittingly, white activists take over the conversation from those who are directly affected. Black voices then end up being oppressed by the very people who originally sought to help them. This is a colonial mindset which we may not notice because we grew up immersed in it. I have fallen victim to this mindset as much as the next person and for this reason I stress that it is vital for every one of us to look at our own actions as allies and ensure we are not causing accidental harm with our actions.

We must look internally at the fabric of the country and the uncomfortable questions of race. It is our duty as citizens of the world to look introspectively at our automatic responses to diversity and isolate the reason why we feel vague discomfort around those who look different from us. It is nobody’s responsibility but our own, and the more we as white people of privilege shy away from the topic the more harm we will cause to people of color who suffer at the hands of our ignorance.

About the Author
Andrea Gagne is a U.S.-based aid worker who has worked for several years with Eritrean refugees in Israel. She has worked in multiple refugee community centers in south Tel Aviv, including the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Andrea is a graduate of Hampshire College, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University, and also studied at the University of Ghana.
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