Tag : racism

The Lilith Blog

March 5, 2019 by

Don’t Assume Anything About That Kid on the Bus

I see where the mistake came from. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many Jews of color in our community. But still: don’t assume that that the black boy on the Jewish day school bus is the bus driver’s kid.

Yeah. That happened. I don’t think I need to tell you how it made the kid’s mom feel.  I don’t think I need to tell you what that says about our school community’s assumptions, commitment to inclusivity, and default gatekeeping. But to be crystal clear: it was devastating. 

There’s some context, to be fair. Our bus had been a mess the first couple of weeks of the school year. The driver was late (hours late), partly, it emerged, because of childcare challenges. (Insert full rant about the need for much better and more comprehensive and more affordable childcare in the US.) So yes— there was a day when the driver’s kids, an older girl and an infant boy, were on the bus. Once. Neither of them was five years old.  Neither had been riding the bus every day since the beginning of the year.

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The Lilith Blog

January 17, 2019 by

A Challenge to White Jews on MLK Day

Recently, a fellow Jew of Color (JOC) posted on social media that she was feeling apprehensive about attending upcoming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in her Jewish community. Several other JOCs and parents of multiracial Jewish children shared her reaction, saying that MLK Day Shabbats often read as haphazardly organized, superficial efforts to celebrate diversity.

On a different space on social media in response to the Jewish Women of Color Women’s March Sign-On Letter, I witnessed a white Jew lamenting that Jews don’t get enough credit for the work they did during the Civil Rights movement. This reflects the same problem. All too often, the Jewish community focuses on the work of the late 1960s while not recognizing the need for or engaging with antiracist work in the present day. Thankfully, another white Jew in the social media group helped the commenter understand the ways that her original comment falls short.

None of this is a surprise to me: In my experience as a Jewish diversity consultant, I encounter defensiveness and unwillingness to confront the ways that white Jews do benefit from and thus perpetuate white supremacy. Resist the urge to say “not me” as you read this. Instead, answer yes or no to the following statements:

  • I have been watched or followed at a department store or boutique.
  • I have been asked, “What are you?”
  • When pulled over or in the presence of police I have feared for my life.
  • When entering my shul security has searched my bag and my person.
  • I have been asked how I am Jewish.
  • I have been mistaken for a service worker or the help.
  • I’m usually the only person of my race when I am in synagogue.
  • When requesting an aliyah, I’m asked how I converted.

If these questions are foreign to you, you benefit from white privilege. If you have asked some of these questions yourself (like “how are you Jewish?”), you have perpetuated white supremacy. Our nation’s institutions and systems are based on the idea that whiteness is the norm, the ideal, and anything other than whiteness is considered wrong, lesser than, other. And Jewish institutions are no exception. 

Like every Jewish person across the world I was heartbroken, angry, and frankly scared after the Tree of Life shooting last year. And like a lot of Jews of Color I know, I cringe and worry for the lives of my fellow JOCs trying to enter police-guarded places of worship. This tug is at the center of what it is to be a Jewish person of color living in America today.

When you question the validity of someone’s Judaism (by asking if they understand the order of service, or if they converted, or asking their “story”), you are perpetuating white supremacy.

When you have the urge to talk about Nazis and white supremacists as oppressors, but do not acknowledge other systems of oppression, of you are perpetuating white supremacy.

When you dismiss the words and concerns and perspectives of People of Color (POCs) and Jews of Color, you are perpetuating white supremacy.

When you say, “But not me!” or “I have a lot of friends who are POCs!” you are perpetuating white supremacy.

When you herald Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King for one Shabbat each year, yet JOCs are not in positions of leadership, members of your organization’s board, or helping to make decisions in your organization; when you don’t do the work of making your Jewish spaces welcoming to JOCs and multiracial Jewish families; when you lean on JOCs to teach you instead of doing the work yourself; when you invite JOCs to share their stories and don’t pay them for the emotional labor of telling of those stories; when you exoticize Jewish communities of color in other countries without acknowledging the long-standing Jewish communities of color here, you are perpetuating white supremacy.

When you feel safer with a police officer outside your place of worship without acknowledging how the presence of a police officer feels to a JOC, you are perpetuating white supremacy.

I’ve written an article like this every year because the message needs to be heard every year. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. We, as a Jewish community do the legacy of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel a disservice by looking to the past instead of addressing what is occuring in the present. We do a disservice to our communities by talking about tikkun olam instead of living it. Change does not need to be slow. It does not need to take time. It does not need to be a process. It’s actually quite easy. Here are some steps.

  1. Take a look at your organization. Who is in key leadership positions? Is there a Jew of Color? Or two? Or three? If not, ask yourself why not, and change that. Hire JOCs in positions of power. Actively recruit JOCs. Invest the time to work with Jewish leaders of color to recruit, retain and hire more Jews of Color.

  2. Next, take a look at your Board. Do you have JOCs represented there?

  3. Review your synagogue’s welcoming policies. Everyone should be treated equally when coming into shul. No one should feel singled out. This means that if you have a security guard, that security guard should be checking everyone’s bags and person, even if they come every single week.

  4. Remove words like “welcoming” “inclusive” and “diverse” from your synagogue’s welcoming page if your space isn’t truly welcoming, inclusive, and diverse. Don’t use stock photos or older photos of Jews of Color, especially if those folks are no longer in your community..

If these steps feel too hard to implement in your Jewish organization, you have to acknowledge that diversity and inclusion are not your priority and move on. If the idea of moving on and doing nothing doesn’t sit right with you either, then take the advice from our fathers and remember that “you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” King’s dream has not been realized. His work is not complete. The movement did not end in the 60’s. It continues today. We have an obligation to work towards justice and equality. That work begins with the individual. Listen and amplify the voices of Jews of Color, pay Jews of Color for their work, hire Jews of Color to work in your organizations and invite us to sit on your Boards.

We are not the stranger the Torah reminds us to welcome. We are your brothers and sisters.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

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The Lilith Blog

September 6, 2018 by

My High Holiday Prayer: Stop Exploiting Jews of Color

About three months ago I invited over 20 Jews into my home for a havurah we call the Tacoma Shabbat Experiment. After my co-organizers and I finished leading Kabbalat Shabbat and the important bits of Ma’ariv, we sat down to a dinner that I’d prepared. I only planned for 20 people, and we had almost 30, but we found more plates, pulled up another table and folks sat on a hodgepodge of various lawn chairs and stools. Wine flowed, we tended to a pre-lit bonfire and folks meandered around the backyard my wife and I share with neighbors.

shabbat tableI was saying goodbye to one woman when a man I didn’t know approached me and asked what my connection to Judaism was. Slightly tipsy and really pissed off, I quickly reminded him that his question was hugely problematic. He leaned in to ask about Ethiopian Jews and Ugandan Jews, hoping for some validation. Instead of realizing his misstep he continued to ask my connection to Judaism, claiming to not understand my objection to his line of questioning. Thankfully, a white Jewish woman stepped in and I turned my back to him to continue to say goodbye to a friend.

This was not the first time a white Jew has questioned the authenticity of my Judaism based on the color of my skin. It was, however, the first time a white Jew had done this to me in my own home.

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The Lilith Blog

August 8, 2018 by

Five Things You Can Do Right Now for Abortion Rights

Supreme CourtIn the 45 years since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, feminists have worried that abortion rights are gradually being eroded as some states passed laws limiting aspects of this medical procedure. After the announcement of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, the first thought in the minds of many is the future of hard-won reproductive rights. Now, the right to determine one’s own reproductive future, once guaranteed by Roe, may hang by a thread.

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The Lilith Blog

June 26, 2018 by

If “Incivility” Makes You Sympathize with Racism, You Were Racist Already

When I was an undergrad, I sat on my Women’s Center Collective. We made decisions by consensus. All it took was one person to block something and it wouldn’t happen. So it took a while for things to happen. We had to talk about everything. And it could be super frustrating when something you cared about died in process because of the deeply held convictions (or intransigence) of some who maybe didn’t even totally understand the issue.

God, it was annoying. God, were we annoying. Believe me when I say that I fantasized more than once about a (benevolent, run by me) dictatorship of liberal ideals. Think about how much we (ahem, I) could get done! Imagine how quickly we could organize if we weren’t so minutely attuned to what might cause offense to…someone. Anyone. 

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The Lilith Blog

June 20, 2018 by

At the Border, We’re Seeing Exactly What America Is

It’s impossible not to see the pleas plastered on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: “We are better than this.” “This is not who America is.” “This is not the America I know!”

But it is who we are: what the United States is doing to families and children, specifically families and children of color, by ripping them apart at the U.S. border is part and parcel of an ongoing history. It is horrific and unbearable and inhumane. But it is exactly what America is and continues to be.

We do not like when these injustices become so evident. We prefer our cruelty to remain in the shadows. You know, like lack of access to safe and legal abortion. Or barring women, especially low-wage workers, from paid family leave, or perpetuating a medical system that continues to allow Black women to die during pregnancy and childbirth at three times the rate of White women. So, yes, this new policy is an emergency, but the oppression is definitely not new. (more…)

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December 10, 1991 by

Connecting with Black Women

It was a summer evening in 1984, the day after the Democratic National Convention nominated Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate. A woman vice president! In our lifetime! I couldn’t have been happier if my mother had been commemorated on a postage stamp. After work, I bounded up to the apartment for a get-together of our Black-Jewish women’s group. I could hardly wait to share my ecstasy with my pals.

In the six-woman Black-Jewish dialogue group that Harriet Michel and I had founded, we discussed Geraldine Ferraro’s brand-new nomination.

Besides Harriet, who was then director of the New York Urban League, two other African-American women were in our group — Bernice Powell, then president of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women (now executive associate to the president of the United Church of Christ); and Marguerite Ross Barnett, then vice-chancellor of the City University of New York (now chancellor of the University of Houston). Besides myself, the two other Jewish women with the dialogue were Marilyn Braveman, then director of education and women’s issues for the American Jewish Committee, and Jacqueline Levine, past president of the National Jewish Community Relations Council and vice president of the American Jewish Congress.

Our group had originated as a spin-off of a larger, coed Black-Jewish coalition composed of New York City movers and shakers. Because the male members seemed incapable of talking personally, of exposing their vulnerabilities, or of making real human connection, the group had degenerated into power-posturing and speech-making. Finally Harriet and I, who had been grimacing to each other across the room for months, decided to convene a small, all-women’s group. So here the six of us were, toasting Geraldine Ferraro, bubbling with enthusiasm as we reviewed our impressions of her acceptance speech and the prospects for the Democratic ticket.

After a few minutes, however, I noticed that the three Black women in the group were not bubbling quite as effervescently as the three Jewish women.

“How come you guys aren’t so excited?” I asked the Blacks. “Is there something wrong with Ferraro?”

I wasn’t being rude: directness is one of our ground rules.

“She’s white,” answered all three Blacks, almost simultaneously.

“But she’s a woman, like you, like us” said one of the Jews.

“But she’s white.”

“Yeah, she’s also Catholic and not a Jew but I still feel her achievement as my own” said a Jewish woman. “I think to myself if an Italian Catholic woman can do it, maybe someday a Jewish woman can be in the White House.”

“It’s a big leap from a white Catholic to a Black of any kind,” said another Black member.

“But this is a tremendous breakthrough for the American political system. If Gerry can be the candidate of a major party, you could be too” said a Jewish woman, gesturing toward the Blacks, all of whom are prominent enough in public life to run for office.

“Not so!” was the reply. “And that’s the point. The woman in me is glad for Gerry but the Black in me has no greater political possibilities today than last week. Gerry’s success won’t help my people one bit.”

In the midst of my celebratory raptures my African-American friends forced me to change my angle of vision, to alter my strictly feminist orientation and acknowledge a critical difference between Black women’s marginalization and mine. Whereas it depends on the political and social climate of the moment as to whether I feel more vulnerable as a Jew or a woman, the oppression of color and class always outweighs the oppression of gender or religion. In a white-run society, racism is the overriding injustice; it does not allow invisibility, or passing.

I turned the situation around and saw their point even more clearly. If a Jewish man had been nominated as Walter Mondale’s running mate, I would have felt pleased and proud but I would not have been popping my cork. Jew or not, I would have seen it as a man’s triumph and thus familiar. His victory would not have greased the track for a Jewish woman or any woman. Likewise, Ferraro would not ease the way for any Black, male or female.

If our women’s group works harder at decoding causes and goes deeper into the realm of feelings than the other dialogue groups I’m familiar with, it’s because we all consider ourselves feminists as well as advocates of our own communities. We are interested in one another not just as Blacks or Jews, but as women. While we are not afraid of male-style confrontation, we are more devoted to female-style communication, down-and-dirty mutual self-disclosure and emotional honesty.

I have learned that although I see myself as a Jewish woman, Blacks see me as a white woman. I have had to admit that I see Blacks as Black before I think of them as Christian. I have bounced back after hearing some of the infuriating opinions Blacks have of Jews, and I have gotten off my chest some racial hostility I wouldn’t have dared to confess anywhere else.

JESSE JACKSON

At the victory rally the night David Dinkins won the New York City Mayoral primary, Jesse Jackson made a speech that contained a number of gratuitous Christian religious references. The next day, I asked a Black friend, “Since Jews supported Dinkins in greater proportions than any other group of whites, don’t you think all that Jesus talk was pretty insensitive of Jackson?”

The Black woman’s face closed tight as a fist. “You’re not gonna get me to speak against Jesse” she said flatly. “Jesse Jackson is our Israel. Even if he embarrasses us or says the wrong thing, he’s the best we’ve got and I’m not going to bad mouth him — just like you’re not going to bad mouth the Jewish State.”

Her analogy made so much sense that I took it a step further in my own thinking. I’ve been saying that uncritical support of Israel threatens the integrity of Israeli democracy and the Jewish ethic. Following my friend’s analogy I want to insist that Blacks’ uncritical support of Black leaders who are insensitive to Jews or to outright anti-Semitism can be just as corrosive to black ethics. Cumulative insults from men like Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim extremist, plus polls showing rising Black anti-Semitism, plus Black criticism of Israel, have coalesced for some Jews into an irrational fear of Jesse Jackson, simply because he is the most prominent representative of Black sentiment.

I agree that at times Jackson has been insensitive to Jews, but I do not believe he has demonstrated disregard for Jewish interests. On the contrary, I think we have reason to take heart from many of his gestures of support: his appearance in the pulpit of the Skokie synagogue prior to the announced Nazi march, his public apology at the 1984 Democratic convention, his stirring remarks at a Holocaust memorial service, his interceding with Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of Soviet Jews, and his participation in a Kristallnacht remembrance. Such actions have persuaded me that Jesse Jackson is capable of sensitization and change. I take his overtures toward Jews as a sign of his potential for empathy and self-education. Unless he shows signs of backsliding, I see no purpose in the continued attacks on him, especially as long as he remains a strong advocate for women.

Using the Jackson/Israel analogy of my Black friend on post-election day, I believe that Jews, who want the world to give Israel the benefit of the doubt despite her errors and flaws, can work harder to understand the gigantic significance of this African-American leader, flaws and all, and should give him the benefit of the doubt as well.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF MEN

On the issue of Louis Farrakhan, the women in our small Black-Jewish group battled for months to change each other’s minds. The argument sounded something like this:

Black Woman: “Since we have so few spokesmen who can engage the attention of the whole community, we have to protect our leaders, not censure them. I’m not going to attack any African-American just to make Jews feel better, especially someone like Farrakhan who has been such a positive influence on our, youth. We’re trying to develop living symbols of Black aspiration.”

Jewish Woman: “But Farrakhan’s hate message should invalidate his hero potential. Real leaders send the message to their followers that bigotry is unacceptable. Real leaders aren’t afraid of denouncing injustice whoever its targets or perpetrators.”

Black Woman: “Maybe Jews feel strong enough to go around undermining other Jews, but we have to worry about exacerbating the tensions that already divide the African-American community. If Jews really were there for us, you’d stop harping on Farrakhan. Only one percent of American Blacks are members of the Nation of Islam. There are millions of white anti-Semites. Isn’t it hypocritical to keep throwing Farrakhan in our faces? Farrakhan’s main message is one about economic independence, self-help and mutual support. What you do for your community is what Farrakhan .wants Blacks to do for Blacks. But whenever he speaks about self-help, the press reports only what he says about Jews.

Jewish Woman: “Why not point that out to him? Maybe if he edits out the Jew-hating, the press will notice his economic program. No one’s going to pay attention to the main ‘message’ as long as it’s surrounded by malice. And how can you be sure that his anti-Semitism is rhetorical? Maybe he consciously uses it to gain attention. Anyway, Jews have learned from experience that no expression of anti-Semitism is just rhetorical. Every pogrom starts with a hate campaign. Why not just admit it’s wrong?”

Black woman: “Our position as middle-class, moderate Black leaders is too precarious for us to look weak.”

And so it goes. Even in our intimate group where there is a will to understand, we spent five or six sessions on Louis Farrakhan and finally declared an impasse.

THE POLITICS OF SURVIVAL

At about the same time that Harriet Michel and I started our small dialogue group, I helped to found a larger Black-Jewish women’s group that was to prepare us for the Nairobi U.N. Conference; this group petered out within two years. At first, I attributed its failure to waning Black interest.

“Why do you think so many Black women stopped coming to meetings even though we started out with an equal representation?” I asked a Black friend who had been part of the group.

“You Jews have to stop acting like God’s chosen people,” she barked, her eyes shooting sparks. “The world doesn’t revolve around you. Relations with Jews are not a priority for most Black people; our main concern is survival.”

Blacks worry about their actual conditions and fear for the present; Jews worry about their history and fear for the future.

My friend’s point about Black priorities was well taken, but her words hurt; inter-group dialogue is the Jewish response to our deep-seated insecurity. We invest in dialogue as a form of insurance against anti-Semitism. Although safe and relatively prosperous right now, Jews are a people whose vulnerability is seared indelibly into our collective unconscious.

“A Jew needs dialogue the way anyone, even if never personally threatened, would need constant reassurance had one-third of her relatives been murdered,” I tell my friend.

My friend listens but she still doesn’t get it. She grew up in a neighborhood where Jews collected the rent, ran the shops, employed Black domestic workers, checked up on welfare clients, and taught Black children. She works now in New York City where every Jew she sees is thriving. She points out that 30 million American Blacks have only 24 Congressional representatives and no Black Senators, while six million American Jews have 31 Jewish members of the House and seven Jewish Senators.

Blacks worry that their (bad) situation will never improve — therefore their issues are affordable housing, better education, and affirmative action. Jews worry that our (good) situation will never last — therefore our issues are freedom of religion (separation of church and state), freedom of emigration (Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews) and a secure Israel. Blacks need relief in the form of practical economic assistance. Jews need relief in the form of continued acceptance.

Assistance. Acceptance. Clearly, these needs are not comparable, but they can be experienced with comparable intensity and they can lead people to the same place. Thus Blacks enter into dialogue in the hope it will result in action to address their needs, while for Jews, dialogue is the need; if Blacks are still talking to us, we think, maybe the liberal alliance is not dead, maybe we don’t have to fear Black Christians as much as white Christians, maybe everyone will promise not to hurt us.

While I had been hurt by my friend’s angry words, talking together clarified that I was the one who had not understood. I had suggested there was something wrong with Blacks for dropping out of the dialogue when in fact there was something wrong with the dialogue for failing to serve the needs of its Black participants. Because the Jewish agenda — creating alliances — was being fulfilled, Jews kept showing up at the meetings. But the Black agenda — cooperative activism — had stalled, so some Black women had stopped coming.

ISRAEL, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND SOUTH AFRICA

I have been trying to persuade Black friends that Zionism — the commitment to keep Israel alive as a Jewish state with a Law of Return that gives Jews automatic citizenship — is not racism any more than goals and timetables for Black hiring is reverse racism. I believe that anyone who can understand why history entitles minorities and women to affirmative action ought to understand why history entitles Jews to safe space and preferential immigration policies. Just as legal remedies are justified in reparation for racism and sexism, the Law of Return is justified by worldwide persecution and anti-Semitic bigotry.

Why, ask my Black friends, should Israel’s relatively well-off four-and-a-half million people get three billion dollars in aid (much of it military) when all of Black Africa, with its half billion poor people, gets less than one billion dollars? Given the U.S. budget crisis, they say, some of the money earmarked for Israel might be redirected to developing African nations, Black Caribbean islands and the Third World within our own borders: Harlem, the South Bronx, Detroit, Watts,-and the South Side of Chicago.

Despite growing antagonism between Blacks and Jews, I draw hope from surveys that show our two communities still are the most politically compatible groups in America. Our voting patterns are more alike than any other racial or religious categories. We share a common vision of justice. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Jewish members of Congress vote together on most issues including those affecting Israel, Soviet Jews and South Africa. In our electoral habits, we are similarly perverse. Although Jews have experienced great economic success, we still vote our consciences, not our pocket-books. Although Blacks have experienced great economic stress, they still vote their consciences not their rage. It’s up to us to build on this compatibility, bring it out of the statistics books and make it work for us.

Where Black-Jewish relations are concerned, I find my women’s movement experience instructive. In the early years of feminism’s Second Wave, millions of disparate women accentuated female commonalities in order to create a unified women’s movement. This period was analogous to the time when Blacks and Jews accentuated their common dream of justice in order to create a unified civil rights movement.

Now, however, feminists are acknowledging that each woman comes from a different place and has different needs, and likewise, instead of saying Blacks and Jews are the same under the skin, most of us are trying to respond to each groups’s special needs while keeping alive that common dream of justice.

My first reaction was to regret that identity politics — the ideology of distinctiveness — have replaced the politics of commonality. But taking the lead from women of color, I have seen the virtue of group cohesion, self-affirmation, and unashamed advocacy of their special interests. Today Blacks and Jews and other Outsiders insist on being let “In” (wherever that is) without having to pay the price of conformity.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor Ms. magazine. This material will appear in somewhat different form in her forthcoming book Deborah, Golda and Me: Being Jewish and Female in America to be published by Crown Publishers in 1991.

 

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