What 2020 taught me about how the American Jewish community is just a little too comfortable in our whiteness- and how we have a long ways to go to truly embodying “Never Again”
2020 is finally coming to a close and after a year marked by a once-in-a-century pandemic, intense racial strife, and an unprecedented and ongoing fumbling coup d’état, it’s time to reflect – as American Jews – on our positionality in the current milieu. No matter your social background (or how you disagree with my characterizations of this year’s events), once the pandemic sent most of us home and online, we became tied to a 24-hour news cycle of pandemic coverage that captured the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of George Floyd’s lynching in the hands of police on a cell-phone camera. Compound this with an *extremely* online President emblematic of today’s technological age, it become impossible for anyone or anything to escape commenting on anti-racist efforts.
On June 14th, nearly three weeks after that infamous day, my beloved alma mater (which I attended for thirteen years and represented honorably in countless media opportunities) the Posnack School in South Florida put out an embarrassingly flaccid condemnation – or lack thereof – of Floyd’s murder and issues of systemic racism writ large, failing to affirm the sanctity of black lives. I mean, I think it’s fair to say that if you are going to address racism as the evil it is, it should not be that tall a task to simply name it; the authors of the statement seem to shy away from touching it at all, failing to mention the words “race” (uttered once in virtually quoting legal statute), “black”, or “injustice”. In fact, the only time the word “racism” is found is at the very end when it is used as but just one example of hatred that should be given our thoughts and prayers until a time it ceases to exist.
What is even the point of teaching students about the horrors of the Holocaust if there is no serious discussion about contemporary issues of the same vain?
For one, racism is the only form of hatred that is really topical to the question of race (unless we want to include colonialism and imperialism as I would but I have doubts that those are the other forms of hatred alluded to in the letter). I also think that for a school that proclaims its purpose is “critical to the overall future vibrancy of the Jewish community” and that actively engages in Holocaust education, its appalling they would issue a statement akin to one memorializing the Shoah yet only mentioning Jews as but one of many victims of Nazi terror. Such a statement would rightfully be condemned for its obvious belittling of the Jewish loss which was central to Hitler’s Final Solution, yet the same dissent in an anonymously written Alumni Open Letter and online personal accounts were rapidly attacked and shunned by others in the community (many of whom are board members and high-level employees with significant influence over the school’s operation and are not remotely shy about their overt partisan affiliations and agendas both online and on campus). One such example is an opposition letter penned that egregiously implies that Posnack has no responsibility to make statements regarding systemic racism, and is even signed by the wife of the school’s Director of Judaic Studies! FDR had no responsibility to help the Jews aboard the MS Saint Louis and we know how history judges his indecision. We know how dangerous this line of thinking is, and Posnack definitely taught about the bystander effect through the lens of Holocaust education. I would know, I sat in one of those classes.
What is even the point of teaching students about the horrors of the Holocaust if there is no serious discussion about contemporary issues of the same vain? I cannot recall any discussions in my Jewish or Holocaust classes about contemporary genocides like the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda or Omar al-Bashir’s ruthless campaign in Darfur, or any discussion about a totalitarian regime in China that is currently using concentration camps in Xinjiang to ethnically cleanse Uyghur Muslims. It took me until an undergraduate level History of the Holocaust course to realize that the Nuremberg Laws and the Nazi’s fetish over race politics is rooted in American race law, most eloquently chronicled in James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model. These are pieces of history, indisputable facts, that we absolutely *must* teach our students. It’s not just enough for Jewish students to go to Poland, hear the last generation of Holocaust survivors, or know that six million of their brothers and sisters were liquidated for the crime of being a Jew. Our students -and teachers too, who clearly have not gone far enough in the past forty years- *must* have contemporary discussions about racism and genocide. Holocaust education is a failure if it does not address how a totalitarian regime came to embrace race-based policies as the core to its ideology.
Our history as a persecuted people is just one reason why we have to call out acts of injustice each and every time we see them occur. This mitzvah is best summed up in Elie Wiesel’s famed acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize where he proclaims “we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Taking action is what me and other alumni believed we were required to do when, after weeks of radio silence from the school’s administration and Board of Trustees, we began organizing and forming a committee to develop tangible solutions for our alma mater to work with us on implementing. After all, Posnack’s motto is “Once a Posnack School Ram, always a Posnack School Ram” and with current students active in anti-racist efforts elsewhere, we not only felt emboldened by the Jewish values Posnack reinforces but expected to be met with open dialogue. Instead, to date our emails are repeatedly ignored and we have met with the Head of School only once, and despite assurances for an open line of communication and our persistence on the longevity of ‘decolonizing’ academic curriculum and literature (an issue widespread in the American education system and not at all specific to Posnack), any attempts to reengage with the school have fallen on deaf ears. We do earnestly hope to see a realignment with the core values we remember from our time at Posnack though.
These are pieces of history, indisputable facts, that we absolutely *must* teach our students. It’s not just enough for Jewish students to go to Poland, hear the last generation of Holocaust survivors, or know that six million of their brothers and sisters were liquidated for the crime of being a Jew. Our students -and teachers too, who clearly have not gone far enough in the past forty years- *must* have contemporary discussions about racism and genocide. Holocaust education is a failure if it does not address how a totalitarian regime came to embrace race-based policies as the core to its ideology.
I write this not to unleash some deep-rooted antipathy against my alma matter; in fact I’m driven by my unconditional love for the community it gave me. I, as other alumni across the country are doing as well, simply hope to see the next generation of Jewish students inherit a world more just and equitable for all. In 2020, after racial ideological terror nearly wiped out European Jewry, one would think that American Jewry would be more keen to take a positive stand against institutionalized racism. Yet my own high school cannot seem to have a firm grasp on reality, echoing the inability of the Catholic Church to grasp reality in Émile Zola’s epic Vérité.
I am truly grateful for the privilege of being able to attend a private Jewish day school for thirteen years of my life. I have to ask myself though, at what cost? In America, the Jewish community has the benefit of equality in representation that was not afforded in the pre-Hitler years in Europe and as a result of his delusional belief in a global Jewish conspiracy we have largely transformed in the public’s eyes as not an “other” people, but a people of common “whiteness”. Despite a dramatic and violent increase in anti-Semitic attacks, American Jews like myself still benefit greatly from our white privilege- I know that I can go downstairs to the gas station on the corner of University and 13th and buy a pack of Skittles and be assured I’ll make it to bed that tonight safely, unlike Trayvon Martin who George Zimmerman murdered in cold-blood while he was going home. I feel uncomfortable with identifying Jews as white because it implies we are a monolith and erases half of our people who are of Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage, yet it is undeniable that the large portion of American Jews are at the very minimum “white-passing”. What I’d like to ask my school, and really all American Jews wavering on waging war against racism, is why not use our unique positionality to push against the status-quo and start a much needed conversation in the American education system? Our people have survived 2000 years of discrimination based on who we are because of our strident commitment to education. Why have we seemingly lost sight of education’s importance at a time with culture wars reminiscent of fin-de-siècle France?
American Jewry has to stand with their Black brothers and sisters in today’s civil rights movement. Even calling it a civil rights movement is too light; this is really the final battle to achieve full human rights for those whose people’s histories are intrinsically marked by colonialism and imperialism. If we do not do so, not only do we forget the camaraderie of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, but we will in time forget the fundamental lessons of the Shoah. It is our duty in today’s dark age of anti-intellectualism to play the role of the vanguard of truth and reason, and to continue bending the arc of history towards justice.