Opinion

White Jews Have Found Privilege in America. Black Communities Haven't

The Farrakhan firestorm has subsided, but it laid bare the uncomfortable contradictions that fuel Black-Jewish tensions. We white Jews suffer from anti-Semitism, but we're protected from the anti-black racism coded into our country's DNA

A young girl wears an image of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot and killed by police officers in the backyard of his grandmother's house. Black Lives Matter demonstration, Sacramento, California. March 22, 2018
JUSTIN SULLIVAN/AFP

On the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviours’ Day, Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory attended a rally headlined by Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Farrakhan devoted a significant part of his speech to reciting the anti-Semitic tropes he’s trafficked for years: that the Jews run Hollywood, the Jews run the government, the Jews are responsible apartheid and other historic traumas.

Tamika Mallory's Instagram post praising Louis Farrakhan
Instagram

In the face of all this, Mallory posted a photo of herself standing alongside Minister Farrakhan with a laudatory caption: "Thank God this man is alive and doing well."  

Cue the tweets. Cue the press releases and resignations, the coded niceties and then vitriol.

The firestorm has, for the most part, subsided - thankfully. There’s no doubt that many of the pundits who clamored for Mallory’s resignation did so in a calculated attempt to discredit the Women’s March movement and its leading figures, not just Mallory but also Linda Sarsour

The calls for Farrakhan’s denunciation were also complicated by a number of factors - especially the Nation of Islam’s legacy of advocacy for black communities and the formerly incarcerated, and simultaneously the lack of focus on Farrakhan’s transphobia and homophobia in public conversation.

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But before we put this flare-up behind us, it’s important to examine what happened and why, to understand the anger of those victimized by Farrakhan’s bigotry, as well as the resentment of those attacked for loyalty to his leadership.

The Women’s March incident is the newest manifestation of a decades-old conflict. It is a conflict that emerged in light of Jewish opposition to affirmative action in the 1970s (prominent conservative Jewish scholars like Norman Podhoretz and Nathan Glazer ardently demeaned the idea of racial preference); in light of Leonard Jeffries’ allegations, in the 1980s, that rich Jews financed the slave trade; in light of the Crown Heights Riots.

While the Jewish community proudly recalls its legacy of support for the civil rights movement, the recent history of Black-Jewish relations in the U.S. is riddled with stories of tension and distrust. The controversy over Mallory is only the most recent example - and while we may have pruned the leaves off this crisis, we’ve let the roots grow deeper.

In managing the controversy that emerged after Farrakhan’s speech, we’ve failed to engage the fundamental tensions at stake in Mallory’s words and the Jewish community’s response.

Until we publicly wrestle with these tensions, we’ll continue to confront moments that lay bare the Black-Jewish divide. We must articulate the contradictions that complicate the Jewish community’s position within the movement to end white supremacy.  White American Jews have historically been victims of white supremacy — but we have also benefited, incontrovertibly, from white privilege. We have profited from the entitlements that white privilege affords; our communal success has been tied to its perpetuation. White Jews have been complicit in white privilege because we have gained from it, we have assimilated into its culture and embedded in its structures. From white privilege we have gained our homes, our bank loans, our positions of influence. We have not only embedded in the system but also climbed to its very upper echelons.

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As organizers and allies in the cause of justice, we too often fail to articulate this contradiction in our work. We fail to name the ways in which we advance daily because of the very power systems that we are battling to dismantle. Not to address this head-on is to undercut our alliance and compromise our capacity to organize powerfully against racial injustice.

Part of reckoning with our white privilege must be a concerted effort to center the leadership of Jews of color and socioeconomically marginalized Jews in our organizing against white supremacy. These are the voices we must amplify in this moment - the voices of people wrestling, most acutely, with the pain of both Farrakhan’s bigotry and the attacks on Mallory’s leadership.

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House, Feb. 19, 2018, in Washington D.C.
Evan Vucci/AP

Traditionally, Jews of color have not been afforded positions of leadership in our communal institutions; this moment, more than ever, demands that we begin to center the leadership of those most affected by white supremacy in all its forms.

These are thorny issues, ones that we’d often prefer to evade rather than confront. Jews, more so than many other white groups, have danced a complicated waltz with our privilege, sometimes holding it at a distance even as we climb its ranks.

We need to develop the language to grapple with our dual histories of trauma and privilege. Yes, for centuries we’ve been the victim. Yes, we’ve also thrived in this diaspora while other minority communities have struggled for the right to survive. Legal and cultural discourses in the U.S. too often frame privilege as a zero-sum game.

And for all our commitment to social justice, how many have actually sacrificed status and wealth to remove ourselves from America’s capitalist, racist hegemony? In this game of privileged musical chairs, have we offered up our seats when the song comes to a stop?

A demonstrator holds a "Never Again" sign during the second annual Women's March Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. Jan. 20, 2018
Bloomberg

All of this is not to say that Jews haven’t faced, don’t continue to face severe threats — to our status, our safety, our existential rights. Not all that much time has elapsed since the quota systems of the early 20th century, since the Holocaust and the pogroms. Jews across Europe continue to face waves of violent threats and attacks. There have been numerous allegations of anti-Semitic dog-whistles emerging from Trump’s White House. 

 But to a large extent, white American Jews have been protected from many U.S. systems of discrimination due to our skin color. We have been privileged by the systems that produced slavery, poll taxes, and mass incarceration. It is within this very history, of Jim Crow in all its forms, that the story of Jewish-American success unfolds.

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White supremacist groups in the U.S. have made it clear that they view Jews as "other," as "less than," something that's become especially salient in recent months and in the Charlottesville protests.

However, American culture is structured by many less visible systems of racial inequality - from U.S. policing practices to the unconscious biases present in hiring and housing processes - that certainly privilege white Jews on the basis of skin color alone.

An attendee holds a sign reading 'Stand Against Racism' during the Women's March One-Year Anniversary: Power To The Polls event in Las Vegas, Nevada. Jan. 21, 2018
Bloomberg

As organizers for racial justice, we must be conscious of the complex space we occupy. Even when our words and our intentions are pure, our histories and identities are anything but simple. Our community’s ascent in this country has occurred against a backdrop of continued violence to black bodies. We live in a country that must constantly remind itself that Black Lives Matter.

Anti-Semitism has been present throughout American history, but racism is actually coded into this nation’s constitutional DNA.  

We cannot wrestle with the shadows cast by Mallory’s sentiments, by Farrakhan’s words, in isolation; we must wrestle with the belief systems that give rise to these moments of divide.

We should be proud of our community’s social justice legacy, of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s march alongside Reverend King. We should continue to recount the centuries of oppression that we’ve faced, and respond to threats that have emerged as recently as Charlottesville.

But as activists and allies, we must acknowledge that our history in this country has been defined, by and large, not by victimhood but by privilege. Allies in struggle can come from different starting points. There’s no shame in recognizing that.  

Emma Goldberg writes on political and cultural affairs. She has been published in the New York Times, Forbes, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Twitter: @emmabgo