Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

On Jews and Race in America in the Aftermath of the Murder of George Floyd

I am a Jewish historian. I am also the daughter of a sole survivor of her large family, murdered in the Shoah (one brother got to Israel before the Nazis and was killed in Jerusalem in 1948, when he tried to save another civilian who had been felled by indiscriminate Jordanian shooting into the Jewish street). My father fled Poland after Jew-hating gangs threatened to kill him after he ripped off a placard they had plastered on his parents’ store front. I can say that both from personal and professional background, I am well familiar with Jew-hatred.

As Jews in the US and elsewhere take in the police execution of George Floyd, there have been a number of responses. Many express horror and solidarity and a desire to take actions to promote significant, fundamental change. Some responses are troubling.

The troubling ones are comparisons with the Nazi attempt to eradicate all Jews off the face of the earth. We also hear denial of racism and soft collusion with it in comments about how Jews, as a group, have succeeded in climbing out of poverty in the US to become, on the whole, phenomenally successful. This accounting does not stop these commenters from also noting contemporary Jew-hatred in the US. But the message of the comparison is clear.

While there was plenty of informal and institutionalized discrimination against Jews in the US well into the post Word War II era — housing discrimination; quotas in elite universities, in medical and law schools, and in top law firms and hospitals — the reason that Jews founded their own such institutions — Albert Einstein Medical College, Mount Sinai Hospital, and flooded City College in New York; and while there was violence, including a blood libel murder of Leo Frank, who was lynched by a mob that included local notables, in Atlanta, GA, 1915; and while there is definitely worrying Jew-hatred in the US now, evidenced in assaults on and murders of Jews and attacks on Jewish sites and in the flourishing of anti-Jewish stereotypes and conspiracy accusations, there is no comparison between the overall Jewish experience in the US and that of African Americans. The former story is, yes, overwhelmingly, one of tremendous success. But that is because of a combination of dogged and savvy effort, and a particular environment that gave room for that effort to succeed, if not in one area or way, then in plenty of others.

As a scholar of Jewish emancipation in Germany, meaning, not just of the legalities and politics of rights on the books but the day to day of what went on during the era of Jewish emancipation in Germany (roughly, the 19th century), I know that Jewish advancement and success testify not only to Jewish striving and effort but to the receptivity of the environment.

Jews did not do well, putting it mildly, in Tsarist Russia. The overwhelming majority of Jews were desperately poor; it was extreme poverty, not pogroms, that drove their mass emigration once the industrial revolution created the means for such emigration– railroads and steam ships. The community was also crime-ridden, with crime including white slaving– Jewish men selling Jewish women into prostitution. Which was a plague, not a side malady.

The difference for Jews in Tsarist Russia and the US — it was the same people, since US Jewry was built on that immigration (and the same was true for such Jews who went to Germany, France, or England, or other places with industrializing or new economies and liberal constitutions) — was the very different environments of these countries and the opportunities open to Jews there.

Who, as many scholars have noted, became “white” in the US. Something they could never do in the Old Country (whichever Old Country), no matter how middle class or wealthy they became. Because of ancient, embedded anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe.

Jews came to the US in search of betterment, and overwhelmingly, found it. African Americans came to the US in chains. They were not aspiring, hopeful immigrants seeking a better life, with reason to expect fulfillment of that promise, if not in their lifetimes, then in those of the next generations. When the physical chains came off, legal ones replaced them and stayed on and stymied Black lives, depriving African Americans of the educational opportunities that were bedrock to the ability of Jews to succeed in America. Systematic discrimination in education, housing, and employment, not confined to the US south but practiced everywhere, kept the promise of America held out to immigrants of opportunity from the descendants of involuntary immigrants.

To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, slavery did not end in 1865. It just evolved.

While much has changed for the better because of dogged struggle over centuries, poverty and its manifold, insidious consequences continue to cluster very disproportionately among Blacks and other people of color, as the current statistics about the concentration and mortality from the corona virus indicate. Voter suppression tactics target these groups, specifically. The full promise of America is yet very distant to these communities, including their middle classes, including graduates of elite universities and professionals, who experience racial profiling regularly, whose abilities and accomplishments still don’t provide cover.

The US Constitution does not mention the word, “Jews,” which has been very much to Jewish benefit. The assumption was that federal laws applied to them. By contrast, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution counted African Americans as 3/5th of humans– for the purpose of deciding how many seats Southern states, in which of course, Blacks could not vote, would get in Congress.

Blacks are the Jews of the US, the society’s inveterate out-group — who can’t, because of physical features, pass as “white.” Name changes and cultural changes don’t work for African Americans. They can’t “convert” or assimilate. Barack Obama is as white as he is African American — people forget his maternal descent. He is absolutely bi-racial. But he is “Black,” called this by admirers and haters alike, because that is the identity that sticks in America. We barely heard about Bernie Sanders’ Jewish background.

Jews in Tsarist Russia and in Nazi Germany rightly feared the police or any authorities. In the US, Jews assume, rightly, that the police will protect them and act legally. They turn to the authorities in confidence. African Americans relate to police and other authorities as Jews related to Tsarist authorities, for good reason, as we have had sad occasion to learn recently and see played out, to our horror, in that video of the police execution of George Floyd. We should note and truly ponder that the officers doing the murder and enabling it knew they were being videoed– and that this did not stay their hand in the slightest, so sure were they of impunity.

No African American needs to note and ponder this because simple acts, like going to a convenience store or pumping gas or driving a car or sitting on a porch can be and are life endangering. African American parents have to educate and warn their children constantly about the dangers of going about their daily lives. George Floyd is but one of a class of people, women and men, victimized by ongoing, active racism that is a fact of daily life when it is not the occasion of death-by-skin-color.

It behooves Jews to listen, just listen.

African Americans are in danger from the authorities, right up to the president of the United States, right now. White Jews aren’t.

We need not to engage in false dichotomies. The overwhelming majority of uninsured property loss and utter financial ruin in the riots after George Floyd’s murder has been suffered by small businesses owners who are people of color. The choice is not between law and order and equal justice for all. African Americans want law and order, too. Just not the kind that gets them killed.

We need to listen and take in. Our historical experience needs to improve, not impede, our hearing.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history, author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, and the Jerusalem Post.
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