Recently I attended a superb workshop at the National Museum of African American History and Culture called “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” At one point we were asked to join one of two affinity groups: POC and White. As I was heading to the room for the White group, the leader said loudly something along the lines of: “And Jews are not POCs. Judaism is a religion not a race.” This made me very uncomfortable because, while I identify as Jewish due to my ancestry, I have never had any connection to the religion, and I’ve never considered myself anything other than White. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone in the room who identified as Jewish and had already spoken from the White perspective would think differently.
A POC friend also in attendance said afterwards, when I complained to her, that she had noticed that several Whites had not moved, perhaps provoking the organizer to make that statement. She also told me that one of the lead educators had told her that until recently Jews were identified as a separate race in the DC area and perhaps that was the genesis of the comment. I didn’t buy that as I was well aware of this being the case in many places around the country and the world, but didn’t see it as how we should think of ourselves. In fact, I feel strongly that far from identifying as a race separate from other Whites, we Jews need to acknowledge and own our White privilege. (See my post from a couple of years ago, “The Holocaust and White Privilege, for my thoughts on this.)
However, the events in Charlottesville and Eric K. Ward’s superb “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” have me thinking hard about the reality of anti-semitism today in our country. Now a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Center, Ward has a long and distinguished career in civil rights as well as in leading campaigns against hate groups such as those who organized and participated in the Charlottesville event.
Ward’s essay is long, but very accessible to read, and so important for all to know more. Here’s a taste:
Over years of speaking about White nationalism in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Northwest and then the Midwest and South, I found that audiences—whether white or of color, at synagogues or churches, universities or police trainings—generally had a relationship to white nationalism that, at least in one basic sense, was like my own. They knew the scope and seriousness of the movement from personal experience, and—if they didn’t take this for granted to begin with—they were not shocked to discover its antisemitic emphasis. The resistance I have encountered when I address antisemitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast seven years ago, and from the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that a well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the antisemitism?,” what I am often really being asked is, “Why should we be talking about antisemitism?”
I still own my White Privilege, but I do also think all of us who are concerned — whatever our identity —need to be aware and informed as to the centrality anti-semitism plays in the mindset of groups like those who were at Charlottesville. These are dangerous times.