October 31, 2018
Saturday morning, October 27, I cast my mid-term election vote and enjoyed the, unfamiliar for me, sensation of civic hopefulness. The moment was short-lived. After attending the early-voting rally, I turned on the news and learned of the shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t shocked; mass shootings simply don’t surprise me anymore. But, I didn’t know what to feel. And I certainly didn’t know how to understand this overt expression of antisemitism. In the context of my political analysis of the United States, which is deeply rooted in a critical study of capitalism, racism, and sexism today and throughout our short national history, I didn’t know where antisemitism fit.
I have spent the last year deeply immersed in what felt like a good and necessary project of waking up White Jewish folks to Whiteness in service of ending racial oppression and violence against People of Color in the United States. I have not approached the central New Mexican White Jewish community by visionary design, but rather, byway of inheritance and proximity. My community of origin simply seemed the most necessary and effective place for me to do the work.
And after all, not that many antiracists really want to walk into a room of White Jewish folks, talk about racism, and confront the highly charged themes that arise: What is a Jew? Are Jews a race? A religion? An ethnicity? Are Jews really White? And if that’s not enough, there’s the specter of Israel and Israeli politics looming. Some of these matters are diversionary nightmares for racial justice trainers and others are simultaneously diversionary and necessary to engage. Navigating this labyrinth of complexity can be off-putting at best, and prohibitively difficult at worst.
So, I commit to walk into the room with my community. But even I haven’t quite known where antisemitism fit into the matrix of this conversation with White Jews about racial oppression. I knew it did, somewhere, but where and how? In these days following the shootings, while metabolizing the various media coverages and local conversations, the necessary antisemitism framing has begun to surface for me. People committed to undoing the structures of racism in the United States, and ending the material enactment of oppression against People of Color in the forms of direct bodily violence, early death, incarceration, ghettoization, malnutrition, poverty enforcement, denial of citizenship rights and education, must understand antisemitism.
I don’t put forth antisemitism in comparison to the oppression against People of Color – there is no comparison of the real harm done to Jews which is very infrequent to that of the horrifyingly common occurrence of harm done to People of Color at the behest of American institutional racism. Nor do I wish to center the voices of White Jews in the antiracism movement. Rather, comprehending that antisemitism is the ideological glue that binds together White Nationalists is imperative to the growth and thriving of our antiracism movement. According to Eric Ward, the Executive Director of the Western States Center a nonprofit that works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy, in a March 31, 2018 Jerusalem Post article “the White nationalist movement – which is now re-branded as the ‘alt-right’ – has managed to coalesce around one common enemy: the Jew.”
Lois Beckett, the senior reporter at The Guardian covering gun policy, criminal justice, and the far right in the United States, echoes this sentiment. On Democracy Now! Tuesday morning October 30, 2018 she said the gunman “told S.W.A.T. officers while in custody that he had ‘wanted to kill Jews because Jews were trying to commit a genocide on his people.’ This is the central conspiracy of the contemporary White supremacist movement in the United States, the idea that there is a massive plot to make White people extinct.” This cabal notion, and the attendant concept that Jews are the engineers and organizers of this evil worldwide effort to eradicate White people, is the fundamental organizing tenant of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism. We must talk about this.
Though some will counter that the Alt-Right and White Nationalists are a radical extreme, I believe this vehement voice is a clear stating of the ethos of racism and White supremacy that undergirds the legal and social rules our country is built on historically and operates under today. In understanding this voice, we can better understand what fuels the policies and practices that animate mainstream American oppression against People of Color.
After hearing the news about the murders at Tree of Life and feeling the numbness inside me morph into confusion, it became very clear that something had changed, bubbled to the surface of our culture, and what felt like a good and necessary project for me in the White Jewish community took on a new significance. It became an imperative: Unless White Jews awaken to the real significance of the privilege we have been accorded in conjunction with assimilation into American Whiteness, we cannot be a meaningful part of changing the political and democratic crisis this country faces.
Not only have we have benefited directly from implication in and collusion with this racialized system of oppression that enforces Whiteness as supreme through violence against and impoverishment of People of Color, we have also tacitly and dangerously legitimized the terrorism of White Nationalism. It is now vital to antiracism coalition building that White Jews awaken to our Whiteness since the form of racism that animates the United States today implicates not only the safety of People of Color, but of Jews too, and binds us together under the dangerous mantle of threat that is White Nationalism.
In order to understand the real cost of the benefit we have reaped during this White assimilation project of the last 50+ years, we must understand the system of racialized oppression, specifically White privilege and dominance, to which we have consented. We can see many elements of this system present by looking to Saturday’s killing and understanding more about the political context in the country right now.
First, we must understand one of the pernicious ways the system operates to exclusively value White lives though a coded racialized language. The relentless mainstream media re-inscription of Whiteness as good and invisible has been painfully on display in the reporting of Saturday’s shooting. The media narrative positioned this Jewish neighborhood as White without saying so, and presented at both the institutional and personal levels. There was the national news outlet insistent connection to the neighborhood as one where Mister Rogers once lived (USAToday, CNN, NYTimes) and attended a Presbyterian Church just blocks from the shooting location. Mister Rogers, an undisputed icon representing the ubiquitous well-intended White guy. The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition referenced the area of the Tree of Life synagogue as a formerly urban business district transformed into financial security boasting great public schools (implying high property value and evoking the racialized system of redlining) as well as many private schools (implying wealth and attendant security.) Many of the reporters and residents interviewed expressed the sentiment “How could this happen here? It’s such a good neighborhood.” Everyone was positively shocked. The subtext and insinuation is clear this type of thing doesn’t happen in a nice White bucolic neighborhood, it only happens in the uncivilized ghetto to the dangerous People of Color who live there.
Second, we must understand the harm to People of Color the system sanctions, Jews of Color included. It wasn’t until late Sunday night, and through a deep dive into comments on news reports that I discovered there had been another hateful shooting this week, on Wednesday October 24, at a grocery store in Louisville. The shooter, also a “lone wolf” White male with ties to hate groups had first stopped at a Black church, then after not gaining admittance, gunned down two Black people at the market. This matter had not been reported on widely, and certainly had not made the prominent national news circuit. In the scant, and mostly local reporting that was available, the shooter was almost immediately exonerated by the press with extensive reference to the shooter’s possible mental illness. These are common tropes of how media handles mass-violence terrorism committed by White men against People of Color positioning the perpetrators as the victims of mental-illness and as solitary agents, even those who have direct and verifiable connections to hate groups. In comparison, terrorist violence, both real (Boston marathon bombing) and imagined (“caravan” of asylum seekers), attributed to People of Color almost exclusively operates within a narrative of being in league with larger, usually international terrorist organizations, even when these connections are completely unverifiable. And almost a week later, the Tree of Life shooting of White Jews remains strongly and strikingly in the national media coverage, whereas The Kroeger’s shooting has all but disappeared. The messaging again is clear in both what was included and what was left out the lives of People of Color don’t matter and White men can shoot them with impunity.
Third, we must understand that collusion in Whiteness authorizes the permissibilitly of White Nationalism. Antisemitism has long been used as a lever in the machinery of racism as a divisive tool. We saw the acrimonious wedge tactic employed during this weekend’s coverage, when Black hate-crimes experts were interviewed and the focus invariably gravitated to the bigoted sentiments of Louis Farrakhan. Rather than allowing these scholars to give full analysis of the situation in the context of growing White Nationalism, they were diverted by the White journalists to choose between defending Blackness or illuminating the existence of antisemitic hate crime, a false choice, and one that is central to the divisive functioning of antisemitic rhetoric in our country. This diversion, an engineered divisiveness, alienates allies as it fosters anti-Black racism on the part of White Jews and antisemitism on the part of Black people. This distracting ploy also serves to further evade thoughtful discourse about the use of antisemitism as a crucial theoretical element in the framing, construction, and continuation of American racial oppression historically, and today.
The significance of White Nationalism in the context of our political and democratic crisis cannot be underestimated. What we know to be true of organizing and factions is that often, what is explicit on the fringes is implicit in the center. As Eric K. Ward writes in his 2017 article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism “contemporary antisemitism, then, does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White nationalist imaginary Jews are a race—the race—that presents an existential threat to Whiteness. Moreover, if antisemitism exists in glaring form at the extreme edge of political discourse, it does not exist in a vacuum; as with every form of hateful ideology, what is explicit on the margins is implicit in the center, in ways we have not yet begun to unpack.” The meaning? White Nationalism: if we aren’t actively against it, we’re supporting it.
As American Jews today, we must engage with the traditions we inherit thoughtfully, heart-fully, and scrupulously. Be this the tradition of assimilation that animates our newfound and precarious Whiteness, or the tradition of obedience that animates the ancient and gender-bound tradition of Brit Milah (the Shabbat morning service during which the Tree of Life shootings occurred was a traditional and contested right-of-passage birth ceremony for the adopted twins of Gay parents) we must look at ourselves painstakingly. We are mandated to use rigorous self-reflection, and the Jewish value of learning, to understand why it is essential to reject the benefit of accepting Whiteness and commit to divesting ourselves from these racialized systems of oppression. As Ward states eloquently in his 2017 article, “Within social and economic justice movements committed to equality, we have not yet collectively come to terms with the centrality of Antisemitism to White nationalist ideology, and until we do we will fail to understand this virulent form of racism rapidly growing in the U.S. today.” Simultaneously, until we as White Jews, come to terms with the centrality of systemic racism to Jew’s assimilation and survival in the United States today, we will not be able to commit to a real antiracist solidarity of what Chandra Talpade Mohanty calls “mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interest as the basis for relationships among diverse communities.”