Obligations of the New Jewish Left in the Triad
עַל נַהֲרוֹת, בָּבֶל–שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ, גַּם-בָּכִינוּ: בְּזָכְרֵנוּ, אֶת-צִיּוֹן. עַל-עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ– תָּלִינוּ, כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ. כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ, דִּבְרֵי-שִׁיר– וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה:שִׁירוּ לָנוּ, מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן. אֵיךְ–נָשִׁיר אֶת-שִׁיר-יְהוָה: עַל, אַדְמַת נֵכָר.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps. For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
In July of this year, Temple Emanuel Rabbi and unabashed Zionist Fred Guttman spoke at the Lights for Liberty Vigil for Detained Migrants, where he proclaimed that keeping children in cages at the US-Mexico border is a human rights issue: “it’s important for people who oppose the way children are being treated to speak out… because we are parents and grandparents ourselves. Because we are brothers and sisters. Because we are witnesses…”
The cognitive dissonance with which Rabbi Guttman is able to address a public vigil and say these words in regards to immigrant children at our border while he’s made a career out of advocating for and defending Israel in the midst of brutal attacks on Palestinian children is glaringly apparent in the greater Jewish community. It is the same cognitive dissonance that was evident in Kathy Manning’s 2018 congressional bid, in which Manning, a major figurehead and philanthropist in the local Jewish community, capitalized on her career as an immigration attorney to win the support of progressives. Like Fred Guttman, Manning has an established track record as an ardent Zionist. These seemingly obvious contradictions, which have gone largely unchallenged by the local Jewish community, prove how shortsighted the fight for liberation is in the mainstream Jewish progressive movement.
Guttman’s and Manning’s denial is not unique, nor is it confined to the obvious connection between the treatment of children at our border and in Palestine. This liberation double-standard is borne out of privilege and racism. It is the natural result of a white supremacy that engenders superficial sympathy and perpetuates passive progressivism. As the global Jewish population grows more diverse in every sense of the word, we can no longer ignore the intersection of race, religion, and nationality that comprise the Jewish identity. Now is the time for our Jewish leaders to be held accountable as we push ourselves forward in living out the values we espouse.
The Identity Conundrum
My great-great-grandmother, Rachel Rosen, migrated with her children from Ukraine to the Bronx in the early 20th century to protect her family from anti-Semitic violence; I was named in her honor. Rachel’s experience as a white Jew in America was undoubtedly different than mine. She was an immigrant, poor, and likely unable to read or write. She lived in a tenement with her children and the trauma of being forced to flee their home for fear of violence. Now, almost 100 years after her arrival in the US, I exist with the same basic identity, but in a vastly different context. I am not poor, as my elders were given access to education and industry. I am not an immigrant; in fact, my father still lives in the house in which I was born and raised, only a ten minute drive from my apartment. I do not live in fear of state-sanctioned violence against myself or my family. I am now confronted with the reality that in the process of assimilation and integration, we have become complicit in such violence.
Most white American Jews have similar origin stories as my own. Our relatives were poor, uneducated, and often lived in homogenous communities of fellow Jewish immigrants. In spite of these humble beginnings, many of our families achieved class mobility and gradually assimilated into the dominant culture. Now, while we continue to tell the stories of our past persecution, we do so without acknowledging the great amount of wealth and privilege that we’ve been afforded because of our whiteness.
Our trajectory across socio-economic status is not unique. The United States is supposed to be the land of opportunity, after all. But the structural racism and class conflict that are the fabric of our country generally provides only those who assimilate into whiteness with the opportunities that our ancestors came here seeking. White supremacy thrives on narratives of extreme victors and losers, of great rights and wrongs, and, of course, on the withholding of information. Thus, nationalism thrives and groups that are now fully assimilated take great pride in “overcoming” their tragedies, but without any perspective on the intersections of privilege through class and race. How, then, can the white American Jewish community reconcile our past of persecution with our present status as “beneficiaries” of white supremacy?
Confronting Whiteness in the Jewish Diaspora
Race is a fragile construct, one that has historically been defined by the dominators. The foundation and evolution of race in America cannot be separated from imperialism and capitalism, and yet we continue to operate as though it is simply a demographic category. Race in the Jewish diaspora is less a construct and more a nebulous assortment of historical, ethnic, and religious ideas, difficult to even talk about, much less agree upon. Jewish education often perpetuates the idea of Judaism as an “ethno-religion” – a community with a shared religion, culture, ethnic origin, and traditions. In one single identity, Jewishness is defined by the very things that for the non-Jewish world constitute an array of identities and experiences. It follows, then, that in an increasingly diverse society, Jews are struggling to reconcile our identities in the important context of present day oppression.
Whiteness is complex. It is a concept that encompasses many histories and many peoples. It is informed by money, war, death, land, food, time, and, most importantly, power. Historian Nell Irvin Painter explains:
“Whiteness has a history of multiplicity…Construction of whiteness have changed over time, shifting to accommodate the demands of social change. Before the mid-19th century, the existence of more than one white race was commonly accepted, in popular culture and scholarship. Indeed, there were several. Many people in the United States were seen as white — and could vote (if they were adult white men) — but were nonetheless classified as inferior (or superior) white races.” (New York Times)
The complexity of whiteness intensifies when considering Jewishness. There are many ways to approach race from a Jewish perspective – theologically, ethnically, culturally – but all approaches fall short when we fail to contextualize the Jewish diaspora within the structures of race and class that influenced it. This lack of context has led many white American Jews to understand anti-Semitism only in the frame of, but without acknowledging, our whiteness.
Growing up, I learned about only two of the Jewish ethnic groups: Ashkenazim and Sephardim. There are, in fact, many other Jewish ethnic groups – Mizrahi Jews in West Asia and North Africa, Temanim from Yemen, Karaim from Egypt, Iraq, and Crimea, and many more modern groups that most American and Western European Jews don’t know about due to our limited education. White Jewish leaders and educators exclude these groups because the white American Jewish community still benefits from (and seeks to maintain) the racist power structure that allowed us to integrate into the dominant racial group in the first place.
Herein lies the danger of characterizing Judaism as an “ethno-religion”; even in considering the ethnic component of the Jewish diaspora, we often fail to investigate race as a tool of power. The idea of an “ethno-religion” also completely erases converted or adopted Jews and interfaith families, limiting the validity of Jewish experience to an exclusionary genetic requirement. Jews who do not meet this requirement are often considered a “challenge” for established and more conservative or orthodox Jewish communities to reckon with, especially with the rise of the well-funded orthodox organization Chabad and general whitewashing of Jewish identity and struggle.
Complicating this ill-defined conceptualization of race is our complex and distressing history of displacement. The ethnography of the Jewish diaspora tells us that global Jewry is comprised of many ethnicities, but indeed, collectively, the Jewish people have experienced great trauma through subjugation and exploitation. We have been systematically enslaved and murdered. We have recent ancestors who died in concentration camps or due to famine. Our freedom has come in bits and pieces, always subject to the time, place, and people in power. Our survival and perseverance in the face of atrocities committed against us are the core of our identity. We carry the past with us in our songs, our books, our recipes. Every Jew exists with the weight of our collective trauma and the light of our imminent liberation. This consciousness, though, is insufficient without perspective and application. For too long, we have turned our cheek to the complex realities of our existence.
Palestine and the Obligation of Anti-Zionism
The American Jewish community is a predominantly white, socially and economically privileged, formerly oppressed minority group that lacks historical perspective and uses our “formerly oppressed” status as justification for our role in racism and imperialism. Yes, we have suffered, but our Jewish identity does not preclude us from being complicit in oppression. To have been displaced and to have decried that displacement for centuries, and then to turn around and displace Palestinians is morally reprehensible. To witness the murders of Palestinians, many of them children, at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force, and continue to support Israel politically, financially, or verbally, is indefensible. In what Jewish text is there justification for this violence?
Israel has been framed as reparations to Jews after the Holocaust, but not only is this framing disingenuous due to the political nature of Israel’s creation, it also proves the need for a racialized understanding of the Jewish diaspora. While the US has eschewed reparations for Black and Indigenous peoples, and the myriad other populations across the globe that have been colonized and genocided, it is only white Jews who have received this large-scale reparations effort.
Those familiar with the history of Israel and its creation should have the historical context to understand the inevitability of it becoming a racist, white supremacist state. It was formed for imperialist, capitalist, racist purposes, and nothing else. We must understand that Israel was never meant to be a “Jewish homeland.” Israel has repeatedly passed discriminatory policies that specifically target Arab and African immigrants, including a large population of Ethiopian Jews. Racism (both de facto and de jure) against these populations in Israel is well-documented, which brings into question just what kind of Jews are welcome in Israel (for more information, see Rebecca Torstrick’s The Limits of Coexistence).
When we take these contradictions into account, it is evident that white supremacy has corrupted Zion. Zion, or צִיּוֹן, is commonly understood as Jerusalem, the geographic location where the first temple in the City of David existed. This definition drives the modern Zionist movement, arguing that for the past 2,600 years the Jewish people have been yearning to return to our homeland. But this geopolitical definition of Zion is limited in its practicality and relevance in our current world, as evidenced by the violent and tumultuous establishment and history of the modern state of Israel.
A true Jewish homeland would welcome Jews and non-Jews of all races. A Jewish homeland would value peaceful coexistence with others who inhabit the land. Moreover, a Jewish homeland could never be borne out of violently annexing land, because after thousands of years of our homes being violently annexed for the benefit of unjust rulers, to turn around and do the same would be hypocritical and immoral.
In light of this corruption, we must acknowledge the nuanced and alternate meanings of Zion. Perhaps Zion is a geographic location that is meant to be our home. But humanity has been able to create homes all over the world. We have fostered community, built physical structures, established traditions, and developed languages, religions, and social practices throughout the history of our existence, even before Judaism existed. “Home” means something different to everyone, and it is a human right to be able to choose a new home or remain in a familiar home so long as we do no harm to others. Or perhaps Zion is a state of being rather than a place. “Home” should be a place of safety and freedom, and as we seek that safety and freedom for ourselves, we cannot insulate ourselves.
This idea of Zion, then, is more synonymous with liberation, or even heaven on earth. It is this fluidity in definition that we should embrace as we reimagine Jewish identity in the face of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and the occupation of Palestine, and our Jewish leaders must champion this change.
Our rabbis, synagogues, and schools must educate their communities on the interpretations of Zion and on the history of imperialism that has informed Zionism as it exists today. These Jewish leaders, and the Jewish community as a whole, must reject the right-wing, white nationalist informed definition of Zion as a nation, rather than a state of being, as it will only drive us more into the role of oppressor as we search for a “just” solution that simply cannot exist as long as nations do. It is time to reckon with our beliefs and our past so that we can live truly in chesed, or loving kindness.
We can continue to build beloved community in chesed by boldly confronting race. White American Jews must acknowledge that we have benefitted from being complicit in white supremacy, and actively work to dismantle structures that oppress people of color in this country and across the world. In short, we must be anti-racist.
Anti-racism is a philosophy and a practice that is inherently spiritual, and as we build community based on the most central tenets of our morality, spiritual fulfillment is imminent. Judaism, in its theology of love, justice, and questioning, can be a wonderful foundation for developing the tools to be anti-racist as well as to value the renewed or intensified sense of community, livelihood, and people power that comes with doing anti-racism work.
It is a shame that so much of the white Jewish community is not eager to do this work, and it is an outright disgrace that our leaders are not guiding us toward it when they should be actively incorporating anti-racism into their teachings. There are many anti-racist organizers throughout the US doing essential work on prison abolition, reproductive justice, education access, and immigration. Part of our search for Zion should be plugging into this work in our communities and taking it upon ourselves to dedicate our energy to bringing Zion here. Liberation is due not only to us, but to our coworkers and our neighbors.
Additionally, we must undertake the important role of connecting global struggles for liberation. When we decry the treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border and our xenophobic anti-immigration laws, we must speak out with as much conviction about the same treatment and laws in Israel. I have yet to see the Jewish community and its leaders in the triad speak out about the global fight to end oppression. They remain silent about policies in Israel that look extraordinarily similar to the Trump administration policies they criticize and fight against here. It is the responsibility of our rabbis and community leaders to open space for meaningful dialogue about Israel and Palestine, about racism and classism, and about the multitude of lived experiences that shape Jewish theology.
Now is the time to recognize that our leaders have not risen to the occasion and to examine and challenge the power that allows them to neglect these spiritual needs. The current leadership of the Triad Jewish community is almost exclusively white, cisgender, and middle- to upper-class. The directors of local Jewish organizations, our rabbis, and our teachers are not representative of the local Jewish community as a whole, nor the Jewish community in the US or across the globe. It is not surprising that these individuals are not held accountable; they benefit from the same structures of oppression that their identities afford them.
If we are to move forward together as a people, it must be the responsibility of the new Jewish left to press for accountability by overhauling the structures and power dynamics of our organizations. It must be our responsibility to actively resist state-sanctioned violence against marginalized groups both in the US and throughout the world. It must be our responsibility to engage in conversations about race, class, and power. It is through the fight for justice and liberation for all that we honor our traditions and our history, and only then can we truly reach Zion.
Rachel Wieselquist is a member of the Piedmont Left Review editorial collective.