A few years ago, during a mid-April synagogue service as we reflected on the Passover narrative, a fellow worshiper joked that so many congregants were on spring vacation that we should move our services to Florida. I froze. Many white Jews picture Florida as the land of vacation and retirement homes. I remember it as the place my father was nearly lynched.
I share this story because it encapsulates the empathy gap between white Jews and people of color (including Jews of color), and how an overly narrow focus on anti-Semitism prevents many white Jews from attending to the broader plague of racism. As we grieve the deaths of 11 murdered Jews and two murdered African Americans this week, it is crucial for all our sakes that we recognize we are fighting the same battle.
I am a Jew by choice, the child and grandchild of African Americans who fled racist terror in the South only to encounter redlining, discrimination and police violence in the North and Midwest. Like many white Jews, I have been shaken and terrified by the racial violence unleashed this week.
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Having also suffered and survived unspeakable historical and ongoing violence, African Americans can understand Jewish fear on a gut level. We can understand how this terrible shooting evokes specters of the Holocaust and centuries of unspeakable anti-Semitic crimes. We must all mourn the dead in Pittsburgh, and vow “never again.”
The Pittsburgh killings immediately unleashed an outpouring of passionate grief and outrage, op-eds and vigils, and rightly so. I have been dismayed, however, that many white Jews have not directed a similar degree of concern toward the Louisville shooting of African Americans in the same week.
The Louisville murders were nearly invisible and ignored until lifted up by the synagogue murders, and then only grudgingly acknowledged. It was as though the deaths of African Americans had no value unless they were connected to deaths of white people.
As an African American in Jewish spaces, it is hard not to feel that only your Jewish side is allowed to be vulnerable. Sitting in synagogues after Ferguson, after the Mother Emmanuel murders, and after the countless deaths of young African Americans killed by police in Chicago New York and Baltimore, I would look at my white fellow congregants and wonder, “Where is your outrage?”
At the time my fellow congregants and other white Jews did issue statements of solidarity and condemnations, attended rallies and circulated petitions. There were calls to fight the twin plagues of anti-Semitism and racism. But these expressions came across as the polite sympathy of outsiders. Decorous. Respectful. “So sorry for your loss.” After the rallies ended, and the petitions faded away, there were no grief-stricken editorials in the Jewish press and few calls to action from synagogue bimahs. In short, no sense of urgency.
As many white Jews voice their grief and terror and rage about Pittsburgh without mourning in the same breath for the African Americans killed in Louisville, those previous calls for Black/Jewish solidarity ring hollow.
What is especially hurtful about this lack of empathy with African American pain that I have experienced in Jewish spaces and media is that the African American experience in the United States bears many similarities to the historical experience of Jews in Christian Europe. Like European Jews, African Americans have faced repeated dispossession and exile. Like European Jews, we have been lynched in brutal pogroms, our suffering treated as entertainment by our tormentors. Like European Jews we have been subjected to state-sponsored violence. The anti-Semitic blood libel became the anti-Black deflowered white maiden; both were racist justifications for unrelenting murder.
This is why it is so disorienting for many African Americans to hear white Jews describe their renewed sense of vulnerability and realization that any day, any time they could be targeted and killed for who they are. Most African Americans — including African American Jews — feel no more fear, no more rage, no more terror than we did three days ago. No more than we feel every day as Black people in this country. As a Black Jewish friend observed, “I can remove my Magen David. I can never remove my blackness.”
This terror is part of normal African American life — just as a related terror is part of everyday life for Indigenous survivors of genocide in this country — and white America, by and large, shrugs both off as inevitable. As James Baldwin wrote, “The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.”
For many white Jews, the US may have become a Promised Land. Yet for African Americans it is still Pharaoh’s Egypt — the biblical land of bondage that the Jewish people fled. And alas, this is a metaphorical “Egypt” in which most white Jews have been complicit. Nylah Bruton has written movingly of anti-Blackness in Jewish communities, and African American rabbi MaNishtana had this to say about Jewish civil rights nostalgia:
American Jews have been running on the fumes of that brief moment in time when a Jewish leader and religious clergyman stood his ground, protested injustice against African Americans, and not only talked the talk, but literally walked the walk…. For all of the invocation of [Rabbi Abraham] Heschel’s name, you’d think that when a chance arose to renew that relationship, to get involved on the ground floor of yet another civil rights opportunity, Jews would report front and center, not rest on fifty year old laurels.
White supremacy is the fundamental problem, whether expressed as anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia or anti-Indigeneity. Rather than insisting on the exceptional and separate nature of anti-Semitism, we must acknowledge that it is yet another manifestation of the central evil of white supremacy. Too often the insistence on the exceptional nature of anti-Semitism, its supposed uniqueness and eternal persistence serve to diminish the pain of anti-Black racism, tragically misrepresenting the dangers both pose. We cannot fight these two in isolation, and we cannot keep pretending that any form of racism is more pernicious or more “eternal” than any other.
As Jews call out for support and organize vigils and prayer services, we must all demand “never again” with equal fervor and persistence in relation to violence against people of color, and immigrants, and Muslim and gay and trans people as well. We must demonstrate unwavering solidarity with the victims of Louisville and Mother Emmanuel and Pulse nightclub. We must recognize that anti-Semitism is racism, and start insisting that no form of racism is acceptable within Jewish communities or within our society at large.