Why being a White American Jew is not the same as being a Black American

artwork by @blu.th on Instagram

artwork by @blu.th on Instagram

As I returned home from the Black Student Union’s powerful sit-in at Allderdice yesterday, I was thinking of the inspiring, courageous students who organized and spoke at the event. Their words will stick with me as I unlearn the prejudice within me and aim to practice antiracism. In addition, I was upset by what one of the speakers had to say. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers is the leader of the Tree of Life synagogue, and was there when it was horrifically massacred in 2018. No one can deny that it was an awful, hideous act, and that antisemitism exists in America.

Rabbi Myers should be recognized for leading his congregation through the unimaginable, and for advocating against White supremacy since the shooting. The rhetoric I heard him use in his speech at the BSU protest, however, felt wrong. 

Rabbi Myers approached the topic of racism from a place of understanding by identifying his own experiences with oppression. He expressed that he understood racism because he is a Jew. Making this comparison was an inaccurate conflation of two very different situations. Even though both American antisemitism and racism stem from White supremacy, there are many important differences between being Jewish and being Black. If you are walking down the street, one can see the color of your skin; they cannot, however, see your religion. So much of anti-Black racism lies in subtle glances and assumptions, and Jews, unless they are wearing signifying clothing, are not immediately identifiable. Even if you are a White Jew, and are wearing a kippah or traditional tzitzit, others do not cross the street because they are afraid of you. I am a White Jew, and I choose not to wear Jewish memorabilia on a daily basis. Black people cannot choose to stop being Black. 

Antisemitism is horrible, yes. Having said that, being a White Jew in America is not the same as being Black. We did not arrive to America in cramped slave ships to be sold like animals and extorted for free labor. We are not the victims of centuries of frequent attacks by the government that is supposed to serve us. We are not the victims of educational inequity, gentrification, and voter suppression. It is wrong to equate the general experiences of being a White Jew with being Black in 2020 America. 

A large crowd gathered in front of Allderdice High School on June 11 for the BSU’s Black Lives Matter sit-in (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Rabbi Myers, of course, has gone through an unimaginably traumatic experience due to White Supremacy. When speaking of this experience, he attributed the police for being the reason he’s still alive today, and said he is eternally grateful for the police who saved his life. Instead of  leaving it at that, he should have recognized that for Black Americans, Jewish or not, interactions with police officers often do not go the same way. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White Americans. It is possible to be grateful for your life being saved while also understanding that even though the system serves you, there are many people whom it doesn’t.

Rabbi Myers went on to preach against the word “hate,” which is plainly a word to describe a feeling. This is ignoring the real problem. Instead of pretending the construct does not exist, all White people must dismantle it in our own souls and in our systems. White supremacy will not be demolished simply by removing a word from English speakers’ vocabularies. Further, to rail against the “h-word,” at a Black Lives Matter event was incredibly ill-advised in light of a much more negative word targeted against the Black community. The n-word exists, and White people still throw it around as if it doesn’t carry a cruel, painful history with it. Sure, hate is generally not constructive. But it is certainly valid if Black people hate the system that has abused them for centuries. Hate is not the enemy; racism, oppressive systems, and White supremacy — far more nuanced than the word “hate” — are. 

As a Jew, I felt embarrassed listening to Rabbi Myers speak. The first enslaved Africans were brought to American shores in 1619*, and Deuteronomy 16:20 in the Torah teaches us, “justice, justice, you shall pursue.” When oppression occurs, justice must follow. In order to achieve justice for all American lives, those of us who are White and Jewish must acknowledge our immense privilege. The best way to be Jewish, right now, is to support the Black Lives Matter movement, knowing that Black people face immense discrimination and oppression different than anyone else could fully understand. Educating yourself about racism, rather than living through it, is a privilege. Use it. I hope Rabbi Myers reflects on the context of his words, and works to use them in a more sensitive and constructive way moving forward. 

Antisemitism and racism both plague America’s systems and Americans’ hearts and minds. As a Jew who lives just blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue, I know that both need to be dismantled for America to be the land of the free it says it is. And as a White person, I am taking this time to listen to Black voices, so they can tell us what they have been screaming for so long while White America’s knees were on their necks.

Black lives matter. Go to protests, get educated, listen to Black voices, and support all Black people, including Black Jews. It is the responsibility of White Americans to dismantle racism. It’s the Jewish thing to do. 

*Since publishing this editorial I have been informed that 1619 was, contrary to popular belief, not the first time enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas. More info can be found here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/misguided-focus-1619-beginning-slavery-us-damages-our-understanding-american-history-180964873/