Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Written by: Kylie M. Steinhilber
The Black Lives Matter movement saw a resurgence in dominant news focus amid the killings of unarmed Black people this year. Within this movement, we've seen new terms like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) arise, and concepts (new to some), such as white supremacy, catch hold of news titles across social platforms. Interestingly, BIPOC arose as a new term, rather than POC alone, to highlight the lost and buried histories of Black and Indigenous folx specifically (1). Though Jewish people do not have a 'J' in the acronym to reflect their history with anti-semitism, I've also noticed this year a rise in activism among and for Jewish people, which has caused some controversy when focus has been largely dedicated to BLM movements that focus on civil rights for BIPOC. I've come to discover that this controversy is not new- but rather, a revisited tension in civil rights history.
Before diving in, I want to first take a moment to acknowledge my privileges in writing on this topic. I am neither a person of color, nor a Jewish person. Because this topic dives into race/ethnicity and religion, I'd like to unpack for a moment my personal relationship with these constructs. I am racially White (and white appearing), with a European (German & English, mostly) and Persian ethnic background. I identify as "non-religious" but having had multiple religious influences in my life; My mother is Atheist, my father a Christian, my maternal grandfather a Muslim, and I personally grew up spending many years of my childhood going to the Jewish Community Center (JCC), Jewish summer camp, learning Jewish prayers, and attending Shabbat and other Jewish holiday celebrations at friends' houses.
My personal connection is more with the Jewish community I grew up around, rather than the religion itself, and its quite unexpected, given that no one in my family is Jewish. In many ways, it highlights the ways my own involvement in the Jewish community was appropriative given the good overall reputation, especially educationally, of the JCC. In reflecting on this topic, I can not speak for Jewish people, nor can I speak for BIPOC. What I hope to reflect in this piece, is rather, how we notice tensions in activism, reflect, learn, and use activism to address issues of religion, race, and other cultural factors, as a person with privileged identities that are not marginalized in the same ways.
Now, let's talk: Why is it so hard to talk about Jewish plight amid the BLM movement?
1. We don't always understand what being Jewish means...
I have already used the terms "Jewish" and "Judaism" within this piece. But are they the same? I've come to find from my own experiences that Judaism is a religion, with different sects that have different beliefs and practices. The people connected to it, are considered Jewish people. By connected, I mean, by culture, ethnicity, or religious practice. It is a unique identity in that it spans all three types of social constructs that guide our conversations around racial and religious civil rights. And therefore, may be one of the first roadblocks that cause us problems when bringing Judaism into conversations about race, particularly BIPOC's experiences with racism. This has further been highlighted by Trump's passing of a clause that states anti-semitism is punishable by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because this has historically only referred to issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality, rather than religion (2). We may not totally understand what being Jewish means. And, because of that, we may not speak about Jewish peoples' adversities or civil rights because we're not sure which political issue it speaks to amid debates that are often compartmentalized into categories of either racial civil rights or religious freedoms.
2. We may be confused if Jewish people are people of color (POC) or White
Well, it may depend on your definition of 'White' and how a group becomes considered as 'White'. As outlined by The Atlantic article, "Are Jews White?", Jewish people may seen as both White and not-White, depending on one's social and political alignment or positioning (3). Jewish people may also have their own identity as White or as a person of color. While alt-right groups aligned with Trump distinguish Jewish people as impure to their definition of "white", far-left groups may view Jewish folks as White or aligned with white supremacy, centering this question of whether or not Jews are White at the center of Trump-era politics, leaving Jewish people viewed as both too White or not White enough. Moreover, this centering does not work to uplift Jewish people, but rather often centers them as the "problem", reflecting Nazi party rhetoric that minimizes, blames, and overtly harms Jewish people.
Throughout history, as detailed by The Atlantic, Jewish people have been seen as White and not-White due to the ways in which groups "become white". This idea brings to light the difference between 'White' as a race/ethnicity and 'White' as a social construct of power and privilege. At times, the alignment with whiteness has been viewed as a choice of whether to align with whiteness or with people of color, as documented amongst many European groups that were once not considered White (4). It's important to note that alignment with Whiteness is less of an actual choice than it is a outcome of White supremacy that controls who is "permitted" to be viewed as White. Trump has largely fueled anti-semitism in refusing to denounce white supremacist groups and by saying that Jewish people's allegiance to each other is selfish (5). Yet, in doing so, he permits white supremacists who are openly anti-semitic, to be included in the definition of White, inherently pushing Jewish people into a racially ambiguous space. It is only natural that a group who others have declared as not belonging have become allegiant to those of their own shared ethnicity. Because we are not clear on this history of what whiteness is and how Jewish people fit into this ever-changing construct, we may slip deeper into White silence when talking about Judaism amid BLM movements that center the voices and rights BIPOC.
3. We may be afraid to speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
BLM received backlash in 2016 for negative statements the organization made on their platform regarding Israel's actions toward Palestinians that put themselves in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (5). Jewish people called attention to the language of 'genocide' BLM used on its platform when highlighting the number of killings of Palestinian people due to Israeli actions in a way that many Jewish people felt minimized the genocide of Jewish people through the Holocaust. In response, advocates of BLM rose concern that Jewish people remain silent on issues that BLM addresses except when to criticize the BLM movement (7). As The Atlantic article unearthed to me, the tension between BLM and Jewish people is a long-standing one. Since the civil rights movements in the 1960s, there has been tension between Black activists and supporters of Israel that carries forward today. Interestingly, I wonder if this tension is also related to a specific intersection of division and polarization between not only races but political parties, since the Pew Research Institute has reported that "White evangelical Republicans are the most likely to support Israel." (8)
As I start to dive deeper into the Israeli-Palestine conflict, I realize how much I do not know. If you, like me, want to learn more about this, I've linked some helpful readings below (9-10). But, I also realize the ways in which I stay silent as a White person with Persian, or Iranian, ethnicity because I do not know the history of my own people in regard to this conflict and there is conflict that arises within me as I learn about the threat they pose to the region. Moreover, what is the U.S.'s role in the conflict and in what ways are Trump's actions to "keep peace in the Middle East" self-serving to white supremacy? With these existing conflicts, we may stay silent regarding Judaism because we fear involving ourselves in a conflict we either don't know much about it, may have complicated feelings towards our own role in the history of it, or feel that it is not our issues (particularly, as non-Jewish and non-BIPOC folks).
As we start to ponder the reasons why talking about Jewish people's plight is so hard amid BLM movements, we start to recognize (I hope) that this is not an issue that can be compartmentalized. It's a very complicated intersection of issues to tackle in one. Additionally, it is rooted in a deep history in the Middle East and U.S. civil rights movements. In what ways can we incorporate addressing anti-semitism into our anti-racism work? In what ways can we make it part of solving the whole puzzle of dismantling white supremacy rather than perpetuating the issues that exist because of it?