This time we’re tied at the ankles.
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.
-Aurora Levins Morales, “Red Sea”
Each Passover, we turn to the question of what it means to try to make a crossing so wide that all of us can get through to freedom. We are asking what it means to say “our people” and mean everyone. As white Jews who come from very different backgrounds, communities and lived experiences, the two of us are wrestling with what our relationships are to the familiar ritual language: Our ancestors were once enslaved, and now we are free. How are we free? What does it mean to talk about slavery as white Jews in the United States, where slavery has not really ended? What are our responsibilities as we talk about freedom and liberation?
In North American Jewish communities today, there is a growing discussion about racism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism, and how they play out in the wider world and in Jewish communities. From listening to Jews of Color, we know that there is both overt and subtle racism in Jewish communities. From listening to other white Jews, we believe that some of this is a consequence of white Jews who have not confronted our own whiteness and white privilege. Real instances of anti-Semitism can distract us from the pervasiveness of anti-black racism. In this season of asking questions, telling stories and talking through the hard work of moving from constriction and oppression to liberation, we make this offering. Like many of you, we are trying to unpack and give language to some of the dynamics, challenges, questions and stumbling blocks that keep us from getting free.
Tools for Understanding and Talking About Oppression
As we try to unpack how complicated systems of racism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism play out in our lives and the world, it can be helpful to pull apart different ways in which these systems operate. We can look at four modes in which oppression operates: ideological, interpersonal, institutional and internalized. Oppression plays out ideologically through the core ideas of an oppressive system (like racism). Interpersonal oppression refers to the way that people manifest oppressive ideas and behaviors on each other relationally. Institutional oppression describes how organizations, institutions and systems reinforce oppressive ideologies. Internalized oppression refers to the way that individuals in a group that experiences oppression enact the language and frameworks of that oppression on themselves, internally, and on others in the group.
Breaking out ideological, interpersonal, institutional and internalized oppression has been particularly useful to us in understanding anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. While the ideology of anti-Semitism still very much exists, and interpersonal anti-Semitism still happens, the systems and structures of power in our country don’t currently perpetuate anti-Semitism in any structural way that has an impact on the day-to-day lives and freedom of movement of average white Jews. Anti-black racism, however, is visible and present in every part of government and civil society: education, housing, health care, criminal justice; all of these institutions have inherited and manifest racism. The United States was built on the genocide of Native American people and enslavement of Black people. These systems were legal and have been embedded in the culture and government for centuries. As Michelle Alexander famously shows in The New Jim Crow, the system of racism that slavery upheld and by which slavery was upheld didn’t end with emancipation. It continues and has become embedded in criminal justice, housing, education, health care, legal slavery and democratic systems (for example, through voter-suppression tactics targeting communities of color).
Another helpful concept for thinking about how oppression functions in our daily life is intersectionality. First named and explained by civil-rights advocate and law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality explains how multiple systems of oppression play out in every individual person’s life and lived experience. No one holds just one identity; for all of us, our self and perceived identities and expressions of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, nationality and citizenship, ability and so much more are playing out all the time. We live at the intersections of multiple, often fluid, identities. This helps us understand and explain how, as white Jews, we can simultaneously experience privilege as white people, while also experiencing oppression as Jews. Identities and oppression shift in different times and places. Anti-Semitism experienced by white Jews in Europe and the United States two generations ago is not experienced in the same way today. Anti-Semitism that plays out today in some parts of North America is not experienced by all Jews. We need to be attentive to the ways that the current experiences of Jews in North American life today differ from the experiences of generations past. We need to be aware, too, of when anti-Semitism does appear, and to clarify for ourselves which mode of oppression we are experiencing.
Additionally, interactions at the intersections make for different experiences of the oppressive systems, so that, for instance, white women who are middle-class or wealthy encounter and are impacted by misogyny differently than poor and working-class white women. White Jews experience anti-Semitism differently than Jews of Color. Sometimes, this is about whether or not and how we are seen and understood as Jews in everyday interactions. And sometimes, it is about the very basics of living in our world: our access to safe and hospitable housing, to work and education, to free and safe movement through our cities and streets. In the past, a combination of systematic and interpersonal anti-Semitism did prevent white Jews from accessing these things regularly. Currently, it does not.
Where We Came From, How We Got Here
Why is the conversation about race and Jewishness so complicated? Among the many reasons, we think that the history of the construction of race and the application of racial categories (racialization) to human beings and the history of Jewish migration to (and integration within) the United States are central.
In the 18th century, scientists in Western Europe began to develop classification systems and to apply these to all of the natural world, including humans. The cultural predilections of these scientists led to valuing whiteness and things that were similar to their own experiences and values. This came out clearly in these classification systems. Carolus Linneaus created the first classification system in 1735 and classified humans in 1758, giving implicit priority to white Christian Europeans. Johann Blumenbach’s 1795 system became the basis for examinations of race and racial difference into the 20th century. Like Linneaus, his categories were geographic: Caucasian (Europe), Mongolian (most of Asia), Ethiopian (Africa), American (the Americas) and Malay (Asian Pacific Islands, Australia). Unlike Linneaus, his classification was an explicit hierarchy of worth based on beauty, centering on Caucasians. He thought that Adam and Eve were Caucasian, and that the other races were essentially degenerations of this original race. There were two active theories in the 19th century about human races: that the races are separate species, and that humans are one species with different variations. This line of thinking has been adapted into theories of racial superiority; it has been used to justify genocide, including in the Shoah.
Another way of classifying and understanding race, older than Linneaus and Blumenthal’s work, is to assess racial purity by blood. This has appeared in the United States, of course, as the “one drop rule.” The first blood-purity law emerged in Toledo in 1449. Leading up to, and after, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, racialization focused on religion more than on geography. These early blood-purity laws (liempieza de sangre) looked at whether, and how far back, a person had a relative who was Jewish, a Converso (Jewish convert to Christianity), Muslim or a Morisco (Muslim convert to Christianity). The more recent a relative was in any of these categories, the less pure one’s blood was deemed to be. This upheld white Christians as the ideal, and only, citizens. Linneaus and Blumenbach, who were Christians in Western Europe, similarly functioned in worlds that held that white Christians were the ideal (only) citizens.
These views were imported into the Americas through the varied colonial projects of Western Europe. The founders of the United States used those ideologies as frameworks to support the attempted genocide of Native American people and the enslavement of African people. The superiority of Christianity and the inferiority of Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians was certainly a key tenet of the founding of this country, but ideals about religious freedom gave European Jews space to settle in the Americas alongside other white European settlers. They were able to do this because they were eligible as white citizens.
Though rarely discussed in our communities today, early Jewish settlers in the colonies participated in the slave trade. While Jews did not make up a significant part of the population, it is important to note that Jews had a role in the slave trade throughout the Americas. Jewish landowners profited, as did their non-Jewish land-holding neighbors, off of the slave trade and the labor of slaves, both in the North and the South. When we are talking about Jews, race and white privilege, we often focus on white Jews “becoming white” in the 20th century. There are ways in which the status of white Ashkenazi Jews of European descent changed in the 20th century. But in terms of the ability to own slaves—an extremely fundamental measure of what it meant to not be on the bottom of the racial hierarchy in the United States—European descent white Jews were always considered qualified.
It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about the change in status for European Jews in the 20th century. Early American religious tolerance for Jews did wane; for some time, white Jews were not understood as white (nor were, for example, Irish immigrants and people of Irish descent). For example, Jews (along with Quakers and Catholics) were not granted the right to vote or hold public office in the Constitution. Just 11 years after the ratification of the Constitution, though, most religious tests for voting and holding public office were defunct. The last, from Maryland, was ended in 1828. For context, property-less white people and black people were only given the right to vote in 1870, by the 15th Amendment. Most Jews had enjoyed the right to vote in the United States for at least 80 years by that point. Systematic anti-Semitism has existed in the United States through McCarthyism and the Red Scare, barriers and quotas on admission to elite education, housing segregation, immigration refusal during the Holocaust, and formal policies and informal practices that kept Jews out of social and business centers of power. These formal policies were officially ended by the 1970s. Though ideological anti-Semitism—tropes of Jews controlling finance, the media, the world—continue and play out in interpersonal oppressive ways, institutional anti-Semitism for the most part fell away as white Jews assimilated into the full protections of whiteness in the United States. We believe that a great deal of the confusion about Jews and race comes from how relatively quickly this change seemingly happened. But when we’re looking at the U.S. landscape, European Jews—though not afforded the full privilege and power of Christian elites—were certainly not considered black or Native Americans on this land. At the same time that Jim Crow laws were working to solidify institutional racism for black and brown people, barriers to white Jews being considered white were falling away.
Today, in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump—with the growing strength and national prominence of white nationalists for whom anti-Semitism is a given—questions of the racialization of Jews, how anti-Semitism works and how much of a real-time threat it is in Jewish lives have re-emerged. In this conversation in Jewish communities, we often, and understandably, see intense fear and confusion about Jewish safety overtake us. We believe that the threats posed by white nationalists and growing anti-Semitism are real and must be confronted. Now, as always in U.S. history, there are active white nationalists in public office. The frameworks of anti-black, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic oppression work hand in hand with anti-Semitism. However, there are no barriers for white Jews to access housing, legal support or health care, and white Jews are not targeted by police for arrests, surveillance or immigration raids. Anti-Semitism is real, and we believe it is best confronted in context. Our context includes the reality that white Jews are able to benefit from our whiteness, to collude (intentionally or not) with white supremacy, and to reinforce and reproduce racism, both in and outside of Jewish community.
Where does all of this leave us? What are we to do? Far too often, victims of oppression are pitted against one another. This has the personally devastating effect of forcing a divide between people and their lived experiences: a great deal of the discussion around anti-Semitism and racism erases Jews of Color, assumes all Jews are white, and all people of Color are not Jewish. Strategically, no one wins. The mindsets and structures of anti-Semitism and racism rely on a philosophy of domination. Someone and some people are on top; someone and some people are on the bottom. We can, as white Jews, choose another way. We can, as a whole Jewish community, take another approach. As we think about what it means to be in freedom, to go from the narrow places to liberation, we remember the words of Fannie Lou Hammer: “Nobody’s free until everyone is free.” This is a deeply spiritual statement about interdependence, and we can see its truth manifested in the kinds of fights that break out in our movements for justice.
Too few Jewish organizations whose boards and top leadership are primarily or all white have incorporated an analysis of or action around opposing racism into their work. We need to strengthen and support multiracial Jewish community and nurture the leadership of Jews of Color. Too often, we see white Jews and white-led Jewish organizations stepping away from anti-racism work or making statements that undermine black leadership when there is disagreement. We saw this in the white Jewish organizational responses to the Black Lives Matter platform, and in the controversy on the scheduling of the March for Racial Justice overlapping with Yom Kippur. And so, we ask: What would it take for white Jews to commit to racial justice without conditions?
We want Jewish communities where everyone—the full mixed multitude who make up our communities—is able to bring themselves fully. In order for that to happen, white Jews need to listen to Jews of Color and all people of color, trust their experiences, and commit to challenging the structures and ideologies that perpetuate white privilege. This involves taking a look at the places where we hold privilege and asking what it would mean to give that up: to expand the stories we tell, to make repair and reparations, to change and expand who is in leadership, and what that looks like.
Watch the Evolve web conversation based on this essay. Transcript available here.