Opinion |

How Jews Push Jews Out of the Fight Against Antisemitism

The constant gatekeeping of Jewish identity experienced by Jews of color, converts and many others makes coming together in a crisis far harder

Nava Anne Grant
Nava Anne Grant
Solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge after a series of antisemitic attacks throughout the greater New York area: We need a more bonded and safer Jewish community to face threats together
Solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge after a series of antisemitic attacks throughout the greater New York area: We need a more bonded and safer Jewish community to face threats togetherCredit: AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez
Nava Anne Grant
Nava Anne Grant

This past Saturday, the United States endured its 198th mass shooting of 2022. In Buffalo, New York, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, domestic terrorist and white supremacist, opened fire in in a supermarket and its parking lot with a semi-automatic weapon.

According to Gendron’s 180-page-long manifesto found after the shooting, his intention was, in his own words, to "kill as many Blacks as possible." During the shooting, Gendron murdered 10 people and injured several more; among the victims, 11 were Black.

As is common with other white supremacists, Jews factored prominently into Gendron’s phantasmic beliefs and conspiracy theories about racial subordination and dominance. In his manifesto, Gendron devoted "dozens of pages" to antisemitic and other memes. He also peddled "great replacement theory," the conspiracy that Jews are controlling non-white immigration as a means to intentionally diminish the white population and establish dominance over "weaker" races.

Gendron demanded a war against Jews as well as the annihilation of the entire Jewish population, and advocated that Jews "be removed from our Western civilizations, in any way possible."

Gendron’s manifesto indicates – among many other things – what activists around the world have been saying all along: that antisemitism is on the rise all over the world. In the United States in particular, antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high. Within the Jewish community, opinions vary about what can be done.

Mourners light candles at a makeshift memorial outside of Tops market in Buffalo, New York where a white supremacist, antisemitic gunman opened fire killing ten people Credit: SCOTT OLSON - AFP

I don’t work in counter-extremism or counter-terrorism. What I do know, however, is that any external-facing approach by American Jewish communities to combat antisemitism must also include at a minimum an equal effort to look inward and determine how a sense of cohesive peoplehood can be further developed and deepened.

Community leaders need to ask themselves: Do we make all Jews feel included and united, not just during this fight but in daily life? When we ask all Jews to call out antisemitism and its amplifiers, are we fostering a culture that discourages the gatekeeping of Jewish identity? Are we creating a culture that generates the kind of consistent goodwill that makes coming together in a crisis easier? Otherwise, what is it that we are fighting for, not just against?

It can feel unfair to ask those who experience repeated exclusion to fight for a Jewish community that is still learning to prioritize fighting for them.

Consider Jews of color. In a 2021 research survey among American Jews of color, 80 percent of respondents – an enormous percentage – said that they have experienced incidents of discrimination in a Jewish setting. Only 51 percent of respondents reported feeling a sense of belonging among white Jews.

Anecdotally, I have lost track of all the stories I have heard about the confusion and disbelief at the presence of Jews of color in a Jewish space. The "Are you sure you’re at the right place?" types of responses are meek compared to the invasive, fetishizing questions many American Jews of color receive when they are simply trying to live their Jewish lives.

Instances of gatekeeping in the Jewish community extend past notions of race. There is the ever-thorny issue of conversion and the increasingly confusing hierarchy of which processes "count" in order for one – and one’s children, if the convert is a woman – to truly be considered Jewish by everyone in the wider Jewish world. Even after jumping through all the necessary hoops in order to become Jewish, for many converts their status does not feel completely safe.

Their concerns are warranted when they see the reverberations from Israel. Not only is the Israeli rabbinate known for creating a process rife with barriers and even circulating so-called "blacklists" of rabbis whose conversions are deemed untrustworthy, but the same body has also even been known to revoke conversions of longtime Jews after "investigating" their level of observance years after becoming Jewish.

People hold candles as they gather for a vigil in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of PittsburghCredit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

For other Jews, having "less" of a Jewish background than community insiders can create feelings of isolation and inability to participate in communal life. Jews with little to no formal Jewish education, Jews who become religious as adults, Jews with "just" one Jewish parent, and Jews whose ancestry has been so hidden that they are left with very little "proof" of their heritage, all face a higher barrier to entry when it comes to getting involved in Jewish life.

I have friends and acquaintances who comfortably and happily identify as Jewish privately, but never in front of Jews they see as more involved or knowledgeable – for fear of being "outed" as outsiders or being told that they don’t belong in the community.

I recently read a recent essay about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses. In it the author describes a student who implies that on her campus some Jewish students are not "out" to their non-Jewish peers. In reading, I was struck by the idea that for many Jewishly-identified people, it may be as complicated for them, but in a different way, to claim Jewishness in front of their fellow Jews. There is always the chance that they will be told they do not belong.

A woman holds candles while standing in solidarity with the victims after an assailant stabbed five people attending a party at an Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, N.Y., on December 28, 2019.Credit: AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS

There are legitimate concerns about maintaining boundaries around Jewish identity. However for social or activist purposes, and not involving some sort of religious obligation, if someone identifies as a Jew I can think of very little reason to question that person’s claim. The harm that is potentially done to a person’s sense of belonging – and to the Jewish community by extension – outweighs, to me, any perceived "benefit" or reassurance about the person’s status.

I have met Jews from many backgrounds who are genuinely not sure whether or not the Jewish community considers them true members of the Tribe, despite their own deep convictions and profound attachment to their Jewish identities.

I sometimes wonder if I hear more of their stories because I myself converted to Judaism and so I, perhaps, can more easily understand their perspectives. On the one hand, of course I can. I know what it is like to face intrusive questions at times, or to feel surveilled second-hand when converts’ identities are commented upon.

On the other hand, as an adult I have never felt more supported than I do by the Jewish communities of which I have been a part. I have been blown away by the sense of togetherness and positive mutual support that so many Jewish communities have shown me. I know from experience that Jewish communities can achieve truly amazing, unparalleled things. In particular, the Modern Orthodox community has been accepting and generous to me beyond a level I ever could have imagined.

Do we make all Jews feel included and united, not just during the fight against antisemitism but in daily life? The constant gatekeeping of Jewish identity makes coming together in a crisis far harderCredit: Susan Walsh /AP

The people who speak to me about their own sense of exclusion also understand the power of Jewish peoplehood, and they appreciate the myriad expressions that Jewish identity can take. It says so much about Judaism (and all its expressions) that, despite gatekeeping, so many people want to be a part of this thing! More emphasis on inclusion within the Jewish community itself makes this great tradition even better for all its adherents and it creates a more bonded and safer community.

After all, internal hierarchies of who is the most "authentically" Jewish matter little when we are dealing with violent antisemites who aren’t making distinctions among Jewish targets. After all, there is something illogical, not to mention cruel, in querying the credentials of people who positively choose to claim their stake in Jewish peoplehood and in the Jewish community when that same community is under attack.

Last year, organizers planned the "No Fear" rally against antisemitism in Washington, D.C. Given the muscle behind the rally, it would have been expected that the event would be a huge success. Yet the turnout was abysmal, with attendee numbers in the hundreds.

Unfortunately antisemitism is here to stay. More opportunities to join together and denounce hate will arise. Could those crowds grow in size, I wonder, if the Jewish community strives to make sure every single member is valued in both good times and bad?

Nava Anne Grant lives and works in New York City. Twitter: @navaannegrant

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