A Message to Fellow White Jews

Black Lives Matter poster. Via bete ribeiro.

Content warning: Discussion of police brutality

In recent weeks, as police brutality and the effects of systemic anti-Black racism—century old problems—have gained media attention, I’ve noticed something that disturbs me deeply: a lack of support from some fellow white Jews. I want to address the various roots of white Jewish apathy, as well as its flaws, but first, I need to discuss language.

While I understand the controversy of calling any Jewish person white (since Jews have historically been and presently are targeted by white supremacists and deemed to be their own race by many antisemites), I feel that it's disingenuous for Jews who look white to ignore our proximity to whiteness and our privilege as people perceived as white. For a further discussion of why I consider myself a white Jew, read my blog post, “Jewish DNA.” That being said, we cannot let the nuances of language become our focus. The bottom line is that as white Jews, we can (and do) perpetuate racism and benefit from white privilege.

Also, while much of this discussion regarding white Jews disengaging with the Black Lives Matter movement may also be applicable to non-Black Jews of color, I am specifically addressing this piece to white Jews because I can only speak from my own experiences as a white Jew.

First, to the white Jews who don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement due to concerns about anti-Zionism:

Many Jews were upset by the anti-Zionist stances put forth by The Movement for Black Lives network in the last four years. In 2016, The Movement for Black Lives network included support for BDS as part of their “Invest-Divest” policy platform. The updated 2020 platform does not mention Palestine or BDS directly, but still offers this information in the resources section. Since then, I’ve noticed a pattern of white Jews disengaging with the Black Lives Matter Movement on social media and in conversations with my Jewish community.

To these Jews, I ask you to reconsider. Whether you support or oppose BDS, we have to remember that one network is not representative of an entire movement, and certainly not one aspect of that network. To dismiss anti-Black racism and the movement for Black liberation based on one stance of the network is both misguided and racist.

Also, if the reason you oppose BDS is a genuine concern for the safety of Jews in Israel, should your safety concerns not extend to the Black Jews there? I am not asking you to support BDS, but I am asking that you not dismiss the Black Lives Matter Movement. Caring for Jewish people—including Jews in Israel—literally requires you to stand up to racism. Black Jews exist in and contribute to Jewish communities all over the world, and are too often erased due to Ashkenormativity and anti-Blackness within our communities. Do not forget about the Ethiopian Jews in Israel who were coerced into receiving shots of long-acting contraception, rendering them temporarily sterilized without informed consent. Do not forget about the Jewish Ethiopian families who have been separated due to racist Israeli policies. White Jews cannot use our connection to Judaism and Israel as an excuse to avoid supporting the BLM movement. In fact, we must advocate for racial justice in order to show solidarity with Black Jews in Israel, in the United States, and in the rest of the world.

To the white Jews who don’t support BLM because of “violent rioting” which causes property damage:

I don’t know where to start. I could discuss the harms of reducing a movement to its most violent supporters. I could discuss the police officers who are often the ones inciting violence. I could discuss the harms of telling an oppressed group how to mourn and fight their oppression. I could discuss the blatant racism of prioritizing property over Black lives. And I could discuss the hypocrisy of shaming rioters while experiencing the benefits of so many Jewish riots throughout history. Have you forgotten that both Hanukkah and Purim commemorate times we revolted to protect our rights? Do you believe it was unjustified for Jews to riot against the Roman Empire (between 66-73CE) when the Roman governor began killing us and stealing from the Temple? Even in more recent history Jews have used rioting as a tool; in 1902, tens of thousands of Jewish women participated in the Kosher Meat Riots to protest the unaffordable rise in kosher beef prices. If you believe that these Jewish riots were justified, then perhaps you are not anti-riot; perhaps you are anti-Black.

To the white Jews who just don’t care:

First and foremost, you are complicit in an unjust and violently racist society. The most important value in Judaism, above all others, is pikuach nefesh, “to save a life.” In Judaism, saving one life is like saving the world, and it overrides all other Jewish mitzvot. This is one example of a Jewish value that encourages us to fight systems of oppression, but ultimately, that’s just commentary. You shouldn’t need to be convinced that Jewish teachings support Black Lives Matter in order for you to care. You should care simply because it’s right to. You should care because George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Nina Pop, Michael Brown, Tony McDade, and so many others should not have been murdered at the hands of white supremacy and police brutality. It should not take another Black person murdered for you to care. In fact, it never should have taken one in the first place. To only care when Black people are being literally killed on a regular basis is an act of privilege and white violence in itself. There are no excuses.

To involve ourselves in tikkun olam and practice pikuach nefesh, we must strive to be anti-racist. We must challenge racism wherever we see it: in our criminal justice systems and law enforcement, in ourselves, and within the Jewish community. Historically and presently, white Jews have tried to align ourselves with white supremacy to gain safety and power through assimilation. Intentional or not, our assimilation tactics have caused us to violently exploit and turn our backs on Black lives. We have our own struggles with antisemitism, yes, but we cannot fall into the trap of believing that being Jewish makes us immune to being racist. And we cannot center ourselves and our experiences with antisemitism right now.

Today (because there isn’t time to spare), show up to a protest (with a mask of course), register for anti-racism trainings led by Black women, buy from a Black-owned business and practice tzedakah if you are able by donating money to a Black-led organization for racial justice, and funds for Black wellness and joy (because just striving for Black survival is not enough).

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Activism, Protests
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How to cite this page

Gage, Belle. "A Message to Fellow White Jews." 6 July 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 11, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/message-fellow-white-jews>.

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