Opinion

Tempted to Compare anti-Semitism With Anti-black Racism? Just Don't

When white Jews ‘impersonate’ Black Americans to draw attention to the very real threat of anti-Semitism in America today, and its heightened effect on Orthodox Jews, it’s tactless, divisive, factually incorrect – and unnecessary

People take part in a protest against the killing of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march along Manhattan's streets in New York July 8, 2016.
Eduardo Munoz, Reuters

A recent Haaretz op-ed entitled "What It’s Like Being Another Kind of Black Jew," opens with the words, "I’m a black Jew. Despite my Caucasian coloring. My skin color is what people call white. But the felt fedora I wear in public is black, as are my shoes and, more often than not, my suit." The article compared the anti-Semitism faced by Orthodox Jews based on their heightened visibility, as well as the bias the Orthodox face from non-Orthodox Jews, to the position of Black people in the United States.

Anti-Semitism is real, and anti-Semitism is horrible. One of my earliest memories is of getting stomped on by a group of students because of, among other factors, my Judaism. I was in fourth grade. I understand what it’s like to have your Judaism scrutinized, and pulled apart, and inspected as a foreign entity. I understand feeling like your every move is a referendum on Jews in general, and striving to be better because of the kippah atop my head and the Magen David around my neck. 

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I wholeheartedly agree with Rabbi Shafran’s underlying point that anti-Semitism by and large, and more specifically, the struggles of the Orthodox community, are not taken seriously enough or given enough attention. But this attention must not come at the expense of Black people and other people of color. 

This points to a larger problem within white American Jewish discourse. The pain, discrimination, and anti-Semitism you face because of your Judaism, a fuzzy characteristic with aspects of religion, ethnicity, and culture, is something you want badly for the goyische world to see, name, and fight to end.

And the way much of the community has sought to go about convincing the world that anti-Semitism is a real evil that must be stopped is through constant analogy with a more "tangible" and publicly-recognized prejudice. These analogies compare the evils of anti-Semitism and of the realities of being a Jew in America to what many Jews incorrectly believe is the only way to get Americans writ large to react in outrage: American racial dynamics. 

White Jews are suddenly people of color, the Holocaust is suddenly the same thing as chattel slavery (an equalization that does no favors to the legacy of either atrocity), pogroms in Eastern Europe are the same as segregation in the Jim Crow American South, and, most importantly, all aspects of modern-day anti-Semitism are equivalent to the oppression Black Americans face daily. 

One thing I’ve stressed, time and time again, is that Jews need not co-opt the language or struggles of people of color in order to legitimize the very real threat that anti-Semitism poses to us. White Jews don’t need to refer to themselves as people of color to be viewed as having legitimate struggles or facing legitimate oppression. 

For Black Americans, the theft of our narratives, our stories, some of our most painful oppression used as a rhetorical tool to increase awareness for anti-Semitism leaves us feeling like a simple rhetorical prop. Especially as anti-black sentiment grows within the white Jewish community, it feels like a slap in the face for our language and narrative to be stolen, without even true allyship or solidarity in return.

Head of the Jewish community Gennady Klebanov and chief rabbi of Vladivostok Isroel Silberstain at the swastika-smeared door of the synagogue. March 2, 2007
AP

Anti-Semitism and anti-black racism both largely stem from the ugly culture of white supremacy that has become ever too visible in recent years to those not paying attention. As American Jews, we need to recognize that our liberation from cycles of anti-Semitism is linked to the struggles of liberation of other marginalized groups, because of our positions together as pawns in a larger game of white supremacy.

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This is the tightrope that has to be walked. White American Jews must realize that they’re a target of white supremacy alongside Black people, but understand that it’s tactless, divisive, and factually incorrect to compare or equalize their experiences with those of Black people. The whole point of standing together against a common enemy is unity - despite the fact that our stories, our backgrounds, and our lives are vastly different. 

Rabbi Shafran himself appears to realize this, saying "I would never equate what we haredim experience in America today with the sort of persistent racial prejudice that people of color experience in employment, housing and police encounters." And he was right. He never explicitly equated them, but his constant comparisons of the two did the job for him. 

Taly Kogon and her son Leo, 10, listen to speakers during an interfaith vigil against anti-Semitism and hate at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, Fla. Oct. 30, 2018
Wilfredo Lee,AP

I know that much of the time, the intentions of those who make awful and hurtful comparisons such as this one are good. It’s a reaction to horrible prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish people in an environment that feels like no one’s listening. But Jews can’t steal the language and narrative of another group. That alienates Black Jews, worsens Black-Jewish relations, and is ineffective in exposing the horrors of anti-Semitism to the world. 

Instead, white Jews need to work on developing a language to discuss their experiences in a modern context: what anti-Semitism is, how it manifests, and what Jews are - that is uniquely Jewish and doesn’t take the narrative of another people as their own.

One possible way to do this is to listen to the voices of Jews of color on anti-Semitism and take their lead in crafting a narrative that doesn’t co-opt that of  communities of color. We need to craft a narrative of anti-Semitism that names it for what it is: a vile, ethnic and religious based hatred, and does not mistake it for what it is not: analogous to antiblack racism.

When that happens, perhaps an op-ed can be written about the disgusting discrimination against Haredim, and the responses be ways to change the society in which we live, rather than shock and indignation at the piece’s central metaphor.

Bentley Addison is a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Sociology and Political Science and minoring in Jewish Studies. Twitter: @ashkenegro