As a Jewish woman, parent and member of a synagogue in Philadelphia, I spent Saturday rent by the horror of watching a Sabbath service infiltrated by a white gunman in Pittsburgh. With 11 people reported killed in the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, I am filled with fear, as I know many of us are.
In the face of this kind of brutality, many of us, of course, feel the urge to hunker down. After millennia in diaspora and with genocide in our living memory, will we tell each other that we can only trust other Jews to understand? Or will we unite with the many communities who are facing violence and oppression in these dark times?
Throughout my years of Jewish education, I was taught that being separate keeps us safe — and that our liberation over the millenia, from Egypt to Europe, was based on our rising above insurmountable odds, often alone. And the Jewish people have an undeniable history of surviving through great odds.
But as an organizer who has worked in multiracial community my entire adult life, I know that targeting Jews is part of a larger project that oppresses and kills us — especially Black, Brown, immigrant and queer communities — around the world. I have turned many times in the last months to a piece written in June 2017 by Eric Ward, a longtime Black community organizer and civil rights activist who breaks down the history of how anti-Semitism animates the white supremacy which grows each day in our country.
In his piece “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” Ward writes, “American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.”
Ward goes on to unpack how white nationalists spread the theory that Black, Brown, immigrant, poor and queer people could not have won their human rights without a puppeteer behind the scenes, running our governments and financial systems. Ward writes that he saw this ideology in sharp relief when he moved from California:
What I learned when I got to Oregon, as I began to log untold hours trying to understand White nationalists and their ideas, was that antisemitism was the lynchpin of the White nationalist belief system. That within this ideological matrix, Jews — despite and indeed because of the fact that they often read as White — are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated. Antisemitism, I discovered, is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.
Knowing and understanding how antisemitism works inside the ugly beast of white nationalism and rising fascism we face today helps me with my fear, with my anger, with my desire to hide. It helps me see how the struggles I face are bound up in the struggles of so many others. It helps me knock doors in this election. It helps me see echoes of my children’s faces in the faces of the little ones carried by their parents as they walk north in their caravan from Honduras.
It allows me to reflect on the many times when Jews have found their liberation in the active solidarity of other oppressed communities. As Dove Kent, the former director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, wrote last Yom Kippur:
Part of our Jewish community’s stumbling block to solidarity and allyship comes from the stories we tell ourselves, and how those stories shape us as a people. Our Jewish communities tell and retell stories of overcoming obstacles, of finding our way to liberation against all odds and of defeating our enemies in order to survive. And indeed that is part of what makes us strong, rooted and proud. But with this story comes another insidious story: that no one ever has our back. We are told, explicitly or implicitly, that we can only truly trust other Jews, that non-Jews will throw us under the bus when given the chance and that we are alone in this world. This story makes us fearful, suspicious, walled off and isolated.
Kent goes on to describe the many times when Jews won their freedom in solidarity with others — and how so many struggles became more powerful when Jews stood up for them. When Muslim religious leaders and groups were first responders at desecrated Jewish cemeteries last year. When thousands of Jews were saved during the Holocaust when Albanians hid their neighbors, and when the Albanian government moved to protect them. And Kent lifts up the deep history of Jews who came from trauma to enmesh themselves, personally and professionally, in American liberation struggles — from the labor movement to the civil rights movement to global movements for peace.
The Sabbath murder of Jews in worship is irrevocably, structurally tied to the murder of shoppers at a Kentucky Krogers earlier this past week, to the slaughter of Black worshippers in Charleston in 2015, and to countless other acts of white supremacy and brutality in this country. Jews hold all of these identities inside our “K’lal Yisrael” — in our whole Jewish community. We are queer and trans, immigrant and poor, Black, Brown and mixed race. The only way through these ugly times is together.
As we approach the election, we must see each other as we vote, as we wrestle with racism, poverty and oppression, and as we organize with our neighbors to make sure that all marginalized people can come to the polls.
Jews can’t meaningfully challenge antisemitism without challenging white supremacy as a whole. To end antisemitism and its murderous fruits today and in the future, we must remember how all these struggles are tied together, and face them with open eyes, and with a commitment to — as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. framed it — bending the arc of the moral universe towards a complete and universal peace and justice.
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Hannah Sassaman is the policy director at Movement Alliance Project, and a former organizer with Prometheus Radio Project, both based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both organizations are parties to the Supreme Court case, Prometheus vs. the FCC.