B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Last Bigots Standing

This morning as I was getting my eight year old son ready for school, I told him I needed to talk to him about something. “Remember that conversation we had before, about being careful how you talk about Israel to other kids at school?” I told him. He nodded. “Well, today if someone is mean to you or bullies you about Israel at school today, or says something about your parents, please don’t respond to them. Just tell the teacher what happened.” 

Even as I was reluctant to stoke fear in him and did not give names or details, I felt compelled to give this reminder to remain disengaged because of what had happened the night before. Specifically, in an ongoing group chat discussion about how the current war impacts school decisions, a parent DMed me privately that I was a “low life” and said that she planned to tell her third grader–a friend of my son’s–“what kind of people you are.” Not knowing how this might be taken out on my Jewish child, I thought better to prepare him.

Jewish parents are scared. Not just the parents, of course, but raising Jewish kids at this moment feels a special kind of heavy. We’re responsible for their physical safety while the world’s eyes are fixated on Israel. We’re responsible for their Jewish identities, for their pride in being Jewish, for their emotional resilience and well being. We must compete with Taylor Swift and constant screen time to hand down an age-old legacy of beautiful tradition, prayer, Torah, culture, ritual, food. We’re tasked with keeping the memories alive of their relatives who fled pogroms and died in the Holocaust. We’re responsible for giving them tools to navigate a society that looks upon them with fear and skepticism, and one that will scapegoat them for the world’s collective problems with the opportunity strikes.

Such scapegoating is in fact taking place right now, in plain sight. Jews are being skillfully and purposefully leveraged as a smokescreen for the economic grievances and the social evils of the day–a tale of antisemitism as old as time itself. When people are upset about something, somebody always blames the Jews. Jews are accused of secretly driving the bus on everything from wars to pandemics to global financial crises. Jews are deemed in charge. Jews started it.

But at this moment, the world outside our community struggles with white supremacy and patriarchy, with dismantling inequitable power structures secured through violence and colonization. We are in a moment of retrenchment, but we are already past the point of no return on certain social norms. 

As the veil is lifted and glory days of white supremacy fade, antisemites are seizing upon our reflexive fear and collective trauma to accelerate their new endgame: forcing us into their rightful place as the villains of history.

The Christopher Rufos of the world pretend to be our allies.  They cleverly align Hamas with their own enemy “wokeism,” so that we’ll align wokeism with Hamas. 

And the Jewish community is buying in. The face of the litigation campaign against racial equity is a Jewish attorney named Edward Blum.  Reputable writers like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss. We’re all flooded with those Niemoller reversal memes that whine with bitter betrayal about how “first they came for the LGTBQ and I stood up because love is love…then they came for the Jews and I stood alone…” (I’ve seen these mostly displayed by people who did NOT show up for other communities, but I digress). The hashtags of #jewsdontcount. The awkward appropriation of indogeneity and other social progressive rhetoric into Zionism PR. And from there: the slow poisoning of authentic cross-cultural relationships, the gradual breakdown of trust between Jewish Americans and Americans in other marginalized communities, the reversion into echo chambers for safety and comfort.

These are the tools by which antisemites, white supremacists, and their slightly-less-obviously-Nazis buddies accomplish their goals, namely: in the short term, consolidating and prolonging their power by exploiting our votes; in the long term, absolving themselves of accountability by putting a target on Jewish backs, casting the victims of the genocidal Holocaust as the Last Bigots Standing.

Hamas and the extreme right have succeeded in leveraging me in this way. Over the last six months I have all but disappeared from the antiracism and equity work I used to do outside the Jewish community. Less than two weeks after October 7, I fell into an emotional spiral after someone circulated a pro-Palestine manifesto during a meeting that had nothing to do with Palestine. I reacted vocally and in a way that ultimately led to this person losing their job. Is it my fault they lost their job? On some level, of course not. This individual’s actions were unauthorized and at a minimum, inconsiderate of the very fresh agony shared by multiple people in that room. And I even told the employer I did not want this person to be fired, knowing they would be gifted a life experience they might describe as “the Jews canceled me.” Feeling antisemitism vibes, I have isolated myself from most of my friends in the Black, Arab, and Muslim communities. I blocked one friend, became distressed and distanced from another, failed to reach out authentically to many others, have held others at arms’ length. Though perhaps subtly, October 7 caused me to nestle into my own racism. Was it out of a visceral need for self protection? Yes. Was it racism? Also yes.

(Israel itself is another example. Every thriving nation on this planet was established through violence and oppression. But as long as these wealthy, greedy, mostly white Christian nations have the Jews to point to as the Last Colonialists Standing, no one is holding them accountable for their crimes, which were the direct progenitor of any of Israel’s. Was this Britain’s endgame all along?)

My two congregational rabbis have each spoken with clarity and courage as to the current existential crisis in the Jewish community. In the weeks after October 7, Rabbi Mike Rothbaum spoke of the threat to the Jewish soul that we must not neglect through dehumanization of others. And just a few weeks ago in his Shabbat sermon, Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal spoke of the critical work we must do in showing up as Jews in the non-Jewish world, modeling kindness and forging positive and meaningful relationships.

Jew haters wish to erase Jewish victimhood, to contaminate Jewish souls who are commanded to love the stranger and to shed symbolic tears every Seder for the dead Egyptians who were coming to kill us. Slandering my beloved community of light unto the nations as Last Bigots Standing would be the ultimate victory for them. Especially as a parent of Jewish children who I want to love Judaism and Israel, I will never give up fighting against that.

But the only way to win is the way that my rabbis have admonished. 

Resist bigotry. Resist it against others. Resist it in ourselves.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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