If I Am Not for Myself, Who Will be For Me?
When I was seven years old, I told my parents I wanted to be Anne Frank for Purim. When they asked me why, I told them, “Because Anne Frank is my superhero.”
Most of my family members did not survive the Holocaust. Those who did were scarred and rootless, searching for purpose and life. After losing everything in the war, they now ached to have what they once did: extended family, work, and a place to call home. Instead, they had to start anew. I grew up, like so many others in the post-war generations, with the unspoken, shared intergenerational trauma of Jewish genocide. I was eleven years old when a white supremacist called a few of our local synagogues in Cleveland, Ohio, threatening to “finish what Hitler had started.” My mother was at temple and I begged her to come home. Her response was, “That’s what they want. You don’t ever give in to hate.” I was terrified my mother wasn’t going to come home from work that day. She was working as a Sunday School administrator at the time.
I was still asleep when the news broke about the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. It was my freshman year in college. I attend DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the US. My friends at school, two non-Jews, burst into my room and woke me up with tangled questions and concerns like, “Are you okay?”,‘“Do you have any family in Pittsburgh?”, and “We’re here for you.” I was groggy and confused until I checked my phone. I can’t put into words the feeling of complete hopelessness that overcame me. It seemed like whatever bit of hope I’d held onto all those years was now fleeting.
Growing up white and Jewish gave me a unique sense of both privilege and marginalization. I got to be a white girl, who received friendly smiles from white police officers, but also a Jewish girl, who was told by her piano teacher that we were all parasites, that we caused the destruction of her country. I struggled to wrap my head around this duality: White Jews benefit from the system of white supremacy, and are often complicit, until their Jewish identity is revealed.
It is because of this duality that I find it imperative to act as a voice for justice. My privilege and marginalization have worked together to remind me of the importance of speaking up for others, whether they are like me or not. I have been able to see both sides of this coin of inequality. I saw a man call my father a kike; it felt like the word was hanging in the air and all he had to do was aim it properly. I have also been seen as my white skin. The only thing that makes me different from any other white person is my persecuted history and religion. What’s below the surface cannot be seen, so I benefit from my whiteness. For a moment.
It is important that white Jews, specifically, see how they are a part of the problem. Those who support President Trump are supporting a leader not unlike the autocratic dictators that forced so many out and killed even more, from Germany to Russia. The color of your skin has a large impact on the way you are seen and treated in this country, a country built on the backs of those with black and brown skin. If white supremacy as a concept provides white Jews the privilege of being seen as white until they are not, it also allows them the advantages that are closed to other minorities. Systems like white supremacy flourish on the disenfranchisement and oppression of people of color. It is equally as important to mention that a significant number of Jews are people of color. White is not the voice of Judaism, and supporting Trump and his platform full of such hateful rhetoric towards minority communities only further oppresses many Jews. We can only finally be free when everyone is.
Simply because a system of oppression does not impact you directly does not mean you are exempt from acknowledging its evils. It is our civic duty, as white Jews, to vote and to speak out in solidarity with our minority comrades. White Jews should reciprocate the empathy that so many have shown toward us. We acknowledge the idea of “Never again is now,” but we must also apply this to the intersecting systems of oppression. Never Again applies to Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia as much as it applies to antisemitism. We cannot continue to be bystanders—we know that narrative all too well.
There is an old quote from Rabbi Hillel that goes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” To the bystander Jews who don’t see the autocratic parallels between Trump and Hitler, I beg of you to open your eyes. Hate is hate, whether directed against you or not. It is not enough to be silent; The answer to Rabbi Hillel’s last question is simple: The time is now.
How to cite this page
Kornblut, Hannah. "If I Am Not for Myself, Who Will be For Me?." 10 October 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 17, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/if-i-am-not-myself-who-will-be-me>.