White Like Me: A Woman Rabbi Gazes into the Mirror of American Racism
Holiness, as the 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev says, is a continual process of awakening. In our own time, a white person can only attain a state of holy awakening through ongoing attentiveness to our own racism. Developing an awareness of racism should be at the center of one?s spiritual practice in America, whatever our particular form of faith.
For the past 500 years, racism has been denying people of color fundamental dignity and economic opportunity. Racism fuels the American caste system that perpetuates widespread oppression for the benefit of a few. It pits poor people of color and poor whites against each other and maintains the hold on power of a small elite. It allows us to carry forward brutal enforcement policies for economic gain here and abroad. It is the root of our spiritual sickness.
Within the North American construct of racism, I am Jewish and I am white. Like other white people, and especially those committed to social justice, identifying with my whiteness makes me squirm. Whiteness brings up feelings of embarrassment, rage, helplessness, and guilt for our shameful past and present.
As a Jew, my impulse is to emphasize the ways in which my whiteness is different. When people of color share their experience of racism, my first feeling is often, wait a minute, I?m not white, I?m Jewish! I belong in the ?people of color circle.?
This is a common response among Jews of European descent. We want to be in a category all our own. But when I mention to people of color that many Euro-Jews do not consider themselves white, most respond with looks of complete non-comprehension. We certainly look white to them. When I walk down an American street, no one assumes I am a person of color. When I look into America?s racial mirror, America reflects back the color white.
That is why people of color question Euro-Jewish claims to be non-white. Jews in America enjoy the many benefits that accrue to whiteness. We, like other white people, are barely aware of the ways our white privilege has an impact on our relationships with people of color. We have certain expectations about the ways we are treated that emanate from our whiteness. Moreover, Jews have not suffered the brutalities of American racism. We did not come here as slaves. Jews of European descent were legal immigrants to this country who live on appropriated Native American lands. The majority of Jews in the South (like my distant relatives from West Virginia) identified with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Some Jews owned slaves and participated in the international slave trade. The foundation of American prosperity was built on the genocide of Indigenous Americans and African-Americans from which we have prospered.
This history separates us from the experience of people of color in the United States. Although Jews, like other European immigrants, were subject to the difficulties of first- and second-generation immigrant life, we nonetheless were able to advance economically in one or two generations. Although Jewish people have experienced discrimination based on Jewish identity, we never suffered the restrictions of legal segregation imposed upon people of color after the Civil War. We have not been lynched in the thousands. Jews have been able to enter most hotels, drink from most water fountains, eat at most lunch counters, work in most professions, live in most neighborhoods, buy goods in most stores, and go to the schools of our choice. We were not placed in segregated military units. Most Jewish people in America eventually move to the suburbs or all-white urban neighborhoods. We attend majority white schools and go to college. We are a very socially and economically privileged class of people.
Still, the temptation to deny whiteness is strong among Jews like myself. Like most of my peers, I have always lived with a sense of alienation from American society based on my Jewishness. Our disturbing history at the hands of the white Christian world includes the horrors of the Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms, and the Holocaust that murdered one-third of the entire world population of Jews less than sixty years ago. The story of the St. Louis, the ship of Jews turned away from American shores and returned to Germany during the most profound period of genocide in Jewish history, confirms the assumption that Jewish safety, even in America, is always conditional. Accusations of ?Christ killer? and the oft-repeated stereotypes that Jews control the media, the world?s money, and the world?s government, coupled with the pressure to assimilate and convert, cause Jews to feel insecure about our status even in America. Moreover, whiteness is associated with Christianity. In the circles of the Klan, white supremacists, and other manifestations of racist Christianity, Jews are not white. We are viewed along with African-Americans and other people of color as the cause of racial impurity. These factors in Jewish life set us apart from other white people.
Even in good times, it is daunting to be Jewish in an America where four out of five people are Christian. For example, during one Christmas saturation period from Thanksgiving to the New Year, I took my son to the mall (a rare trip for us!) to see the Lubavitch Hasidim light a menorah in a public space. Nataniel commented, ?Finally, someone remembered Chanukah!? It is hard for a Jewish child to grow up with the knowledge that he or she is not normative. Jewish children who seek acceptance and want to avoid the anti-Jewish slurs so commonly spoken in their schools, or to fit into the sports team that prays to Christ before every game, often choose to hide or leave behind the Jewish part of their identity in order to fit in. Given that children in school often divide themselves along racial lines, Jewish children are faced with the issue of how they place themselves in a world that does not allow them to be themselves. Many Jewish people grow up with negative feelings about being Jewish. Jews are very vulnerable to assimilation into normative whiteness. This is not a positive development.
Our appearance can add to our confusion. My fourth-generation American-German-Jewish grandmother had jet-black hair and dark skin and was often mistaken as a ?foreigner from a Mediterranean country??an identity she often cultivated without letting people know that she was, in fact, Jewish. Although she enjoyed being exotic in America, this same grandmother constantly nagged me to get my nose ?fixed.? Her efforts to ?normalize? my looks caused me to feel embarrassed by my Jewish body and face. Big noses are not ?white.? Appearance confusion is often compounded by non-acceptance within one?s own family for distinctive cultural expression. We don?t want to stand out. When I was growing up, my father reacted angrily when I uttered oy vey! or wanted to be associated with anything that he considered ?too Jewish,? such as keeping kosher. Jews are often pressured to lower their vocal output. I dated a white Christian man who was constantly telling me I spoke too loudly in public. These overt messages are about silencing distinctively Jewish traits. We internalize the message of our whiteness.
Another wrinkle in the effort of Jews confronting racism revolves around the issue of Israel. Jews committed to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine sometimes come up against anti-Jewish feelings just under the surface of speech about Israel?s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, often framed in classic anti-Semitic rhetoric and innuendo. The widespread preaching and teaching of hatred of Jews is not a paranoid fantasy. The malevolent fiction known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still one of the world?s most popular books and, until recently, was on the Palestinian Authority?s Web site. Interrupting anti-Semitism wherever it occurs is part and parcel of the struggle to end racism and injustice, yet our experience of anti-Semitism and genocide is often dismissed or denied. This makes some in the Jewish progressive community question our relationship to the progressive community as a whole.
However, we cannot ignore or justify the brutality of military occupation of Palestine in the name of a Jewish state. Non-critical American Jewish identification with the policies of the State of Israel is problematic. From a Jewish religious perspective, religion is viable only when it can speak truth to religious, government, and corporate elites that are all about the business of amassing privilege through either the manufacture of consent or the bald use of coercive force.
The prophetic tradition never identified itself with the state; instead, the prophets took the state and privileged classes to task for their preference for military might over human concerns. While we are told by the rabbinic tradition to honor the laws of the land, we also have to remember and practice rabbinic traditions of non-cooperation with oppressive state policy throughout our history. And, most especially, when the state in question is a Jewish state.
The leadership of the American Jewish community has been unable to address the brutality of Israeli state policy for decades. This leadership constantly calls for a ?balanced approach? and monitors speech about Israel. People who speak to human rights violations of the Israeli state are condemned by organizations such as the ADL, CAMERA, the Israeli consul, and local Jewish Federations as anti-Israel. This effort tends to silence voices that care deeply about Israel?s future, just as they care deeply about the Jewish people, and are distressed by the havoc the occupation wreaks upon Jewish and Palestinian life. Those of us committed to human rights cannot countenance Israel?s building a massive separation wall with American tax dollars, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through policies of internal and external transfer, the use of collective punishment, torture, administrative detention, targeted assassinations, land confiscation, daily humiliation at checkpoints, the lawless actions of settlers throughout the West Bank, and a whole host of policies perpetrated upon Palestinian society. We cannot talk reconciliation and peace without dealing with these dimensions of the conflict. The horror of suicide bombing, the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, and the anti-Semitism propagated by some in the Islamic world cannot justify these violations of Palestinian human rights.
In facing the nature of American racism, communities of color will inevitably hold Jews accountable for our racism toward Palestinians, especially since we identify so deeply with Israel. We must be consistent in our efforts on behalf of human rights for all people; otherwise we lose credibility and weaken the effort to liberate the human condition from injustice. We can only effectively challenge anti-Semitism while struggling in solidarity for Palestinian human rights, while supporting Jewish people
wherever they live to be safe and secure in their societies, while forging solidarity with people of color in behalf of social justice, while confronting our own racism, while trying to delight in the beauty of this life as a single complex tapestry.
Trying to dismantle racism in America and confront anti-Semitism often places Jews in positions that reveal our place in the deadly system of white racism. For example, Jews often take Louis Farrakhan or Jesse Jackson to task, yet fail to hold Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, or Rush Limbaugh equally accountable for their blatant preaching of anti-Semitism. We Jews should not allow ourselves to be positioned as the classical ?middleman-fall guy,? providing a distraction that permits the politically powerful to avoid responsibility for economic oppression. By focusing our ire on certain leaders in the African-American community, by joining the bandwagon against ?illegal aliens,? we unwittingly ally ourselves with white privilege. The effect is compounded by the decision of mainstream Jewish organizations to forge alliances with so-called ?pro-Israel? white Christians who fuel the flames of division between Palestinians and Jews in order to bring about the evangelical vision of the Apocalypse. In the efforts of the mainstream Jewish community to create alliances with Christian Zionism, we are lifting up some of the most racist elements of American society. The Jewish community?s attempts to create respect and understanding between Christians and Jews must incorporate an evaluation of the way racism works in the context of that relationship.
What does an authentic relationship look like? I have learned from people of color that becoming authentic allies means taking direction and guidance from people of color who are struggling for justice in the context of their own communities. Agenda-setting should not be imposed from above, but arise from collaboration. Rather than focusing on the dispensing of charity (which allows us to maintain our privileged position as benefactors), we could choose to become more involved with people of color alliances around efforts to improve immigration policy; to provide affordable housing and better education and health care; to end police brutality in minority communities; to promote sustainable wages; to reform the criminal injustice system; and to uplift the possibilities for cultural creativity.
Finally, we cannot truly deconstruct racism in America without addressing the invisibility of the Native American community and its struggle to achieve historical justice. I believe our collective struggle to dismantle systems of injustice in America needs Native wisdom at the core. Native people are the bearers of the spirit of the American continent. Their cultural recovery is at the heart of transforming American society, because it will restore our memory and interrupt the vast wall of denial that most white people have about our history. We can?t be satisfied by token efforts to involve them by asking them to be present in prayer, but no more. We need to seriously engage with their issues, on their terms.
Anti-racism work is fundamentally a spiritual task because it addresses the question of human dignity and wholeness. An authentic interfaith ethic must be at the center of our spirituality. The deepest self-examination by each of us, and the willingness to engage in a vibrant exchange of faith perspectives, is needed if we are to have any hope of accomplishing this task. We have a long way to go to truly heal the devastating impact of racism on the spiritual vitality of American life. May we accomplish this task quickly and in our time.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is the co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk. She lives in Ojai, California, and regularly leads Interfaith Peace-Builder delegations to Israel/Palestine. She works on interfaith projects to promote understanding among children, youth, and their families and communities through use of the arts and spiritual wisdom traditions that relate to peacemaking.