The 2020 uprising for Black Lives following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota shook the public debate in the US around white supremacist systems and anti-Black racism. Floyd’s killing was just the latest in a long list of murders of African-American women, men, and trans-people. This uprising occurred at the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic was growing in locations across the country, which cruelly and disproportionately inflicted pain upon communities of color. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mainstream options for responding have been reduced to choosing either the liberal narrative of promoting the common good, or a reactionary identitarian individualism—options which usually share elective affinities with one another. Black Lives Matter (BLM) presented another option: the dismantling of a system of white supremacy that was responsible for police brutality, economic inequality, and for the sacrificing of the frontline black and brown bodies of workers for the sake of capitalistic consumption during the pandemic. In a matter of days almost three-quarters of the adult population in the US seemingly supported the movement. This sudden and overwhelming support for a tireless movement, which until recently was largely vilified, led to a quick re-alignment of discourses around a critical engagement with the enduring legacies of white supremacy.
The concern that has been raised for many in Jewish intellectual and activist spaces is how “white American Jews” can draw on the history of Jewish oppression in solidarity with the current anti-racism movement led by BLM without glossing over their own implication in white supremacy and relatedly, in the occupation of Palestinians. Some mainstream Jewish institutions, organizations, and individuals showed their solidarity by creating or alluding to analogies between Jewish experiences of discrimination and oppression and the experience of Black Americans. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals took an alternative route. By presenting this issue as a problem of “analogies” these intellectuals usually overlook pre-existent historical relations between the events. Departing from their “white Jewishness,” they objected to the relationalities of histories, explaining that analogizing between different experiences of oppression does not necessarily lead people to develop empathy and, as such, is a failed strategy for practicing anti-racism. At worst, analogies between the suffering of Jewish people and African Americans erases and literally “whitewashes” Jewish participation in white supremacy and, by extension, the colonization of Palestinians. While this critical intervention and self-reflexive interrogation of Jewish whiteness could be a corrective to some mainstream institutional excesses, it also seems out of touch with current developments in anti-racism work in Jewish activist spaces and the attendant reimagining of Jewishness as multi-racial, multi-gender, and oriented towards solidarity with others. The interrogation of normative representation and the creation of multi-racial and multi-gendered spaces are inadvertently rendered invisible and inaudible within the anti-analogizing stance. This deflates the validity of this stance as a challenge to simplistic claims to “Jewish [white] innocence.” Ironically, some of the very same scholars harshly objected a year ago when the Holocaust Museum rejected making analogies between the camps in the Holocaust and near the US/Mexico border because doing so did not take into account the complex and entangled global histories of violence and racism.
The question animating this series is as follows: Does the rejection of Jewish histories, experiences, meanings, memories, and texts as foundations for the cultivation of cross-communal solidarity (because of normative Jewish assimilation into whiteness) itself participate in detrimental erasures of openings for multi-racial and solidarity-focused forms of Jewishness and social justice praxis? Relatedly, can there be Jewish solidarity that is indeed substantially “Jewish” if any appeals to Jewishness are suspect of being false equivalencies? The authors will explore whether speaking from the enclosed positionality of “white Jewishness” ends up, perhaps inadvertently, erasing relational histories, reifying the notion of pure identities, narrowing the conversation of racism to self-identified “white voices,” and policing the emergence of a much more diverse American Jewish landscape as well as multi-racial coalitional spaces. Furthermore, some will explore the incongruence between support for Israel and Israeli policies and commitments to Black lives, Palestinian lives, and anti-racism.
The path forward is clear: to disengage from the whiteness into which the above-mentioned Jews became assimilated. To do so, scholars of Judaism in activist spaces must learn from current international coalitions led by non-white communities such as BLM, and they must take an anti-Zionist stance. But because this position can become incongruent if it leads some to internalize their supposed whiteness not as an outcome of a specific history, but as an all-encompassing identity, caution is needed. Acknowledging their whiteness requires that they reject any appeals to Jewish experiences as points of connection between anti-racist struggles. Others author in this series will survey if this enclosure suggests a tacit acceptance by mainstream Jews of their assimilation into European whiteness and the curious geopolitical construct of the “Judeo-Christian.” For example, this is a good time to interrogate privilege and romanticized accounts of Jewish solidarity with African-American struggles such as the participation of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Nonetheless, in a historical moment in which support for racist immigration policies is wedded with white nationalism and the promotion of the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation is led by Jewish figures at the highest levels of the White House—where explicit antisemitism is also telegraphed and condoned—it is equally important to de-center white Jewishness. Furthermore, it is also critical to analyze the complex ways in which anti-Jewishness relates to anti-Blackness and where and how creating a marked differentiation between Jewish and non-Jewish experiences itself participates in a logic of internalized Jewish oppression. Most critically, it is important to explore if the reification of Jewish whiteness invisibalizes “non-white” Jewish experiences and knowledges and makes building intersectional coalitions that denounce the interlocking axes of racism, classism, and sexism by multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and “non-white” Jewish communities more challenging. Knowing the importance BLM places in building coalitions, the possibility of creating connections between invisibilized peoples seems to be a task that is challenged by the current intellectual resistance to relationalities and analogies.
The Contending Modernities blog will publish essays by Amanda Mbuvi, Lewis Gordon, Shaul Magid, Susannah Heschel, Walter Isaac, Shahar Zach, Jesse Benjamin, Keith Feldman, and others in this series over the next several weeks.