The Intersection of Racism and anti-Semitism: The “hook”

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Cherie Brown

As a result of a long history of oppression, Jews have sometimes faced an uncomfortable dilemma: to live among other Jews, often in a vibrant Jewish community, but at the cost of becoming isolated from the rest of the world’s peoples or to become universalists, fighting everyone else’s struggles but ignoring Jewish liberation and the legitimacy of the fight to end anti-Semitism.

Many Jewish young-adult activists are rejecting this false choice. They want to claim being proudly Jewish while having a commitment to broader social justice issues. They refuse to accept that there is any contradiction between living a visible, proud, Jewish life and fighting for both Jewish issues and the liberation of all peoples.

From 2001 to 2014, I was invited to lead sessions on racism for Jewish young-adult social justice groups. In these workshops, I appreciated their commitment to using Jewish texts and symbols to strengthen social justice activism. I observed how passionate many were to root out racism in their personal and work lives.

But I also noted a challenge. Many of the Jewish-young-adult activists I was working with did not always recognize how they were experiencing anti-Semitism or how the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism could derail hard-sought relationships with People of Color.

Jews have a right to show up as Jews as we work alongside others in liberation movements. This includes expecting our allies will learn about to combat anti-Semitism, just as we (specifically White Ashkenazi Jews) learn how to combat racism. In fact, it may be an insult to our allies, to not have high expectations of them, and it is ultimately racist not to expect that they will also want to come through for us and take on anti- Semitism.

Ideally, one would expect that White Jews and peoples targeted by racism would be natural allies. There have been many historic moments of cooperation in the U.S. between Jews and groups targeted by racism, particularly people of Black African heritage. Over time, Black Gentiles and Jews have come to recognize that they have many experiences of oppression that link our peoples in a common struggle for social justice.

But there have also been too many moments of mistrust and division between Jewish people and Black African heritage people on both personal and political levels. One way to look at the difficulties over the years between Black Gentiles and Jews is to examine the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism. I sometimes talk about this as a “hook.”

Jews are sometimes scared and panicked, the result of a long history of betrayal and abandonment. This panic leaves us, in certain circumstances, wanting to take charge of a situation, exerting strong leadership, even interrupting or taking over if it looks as though something could go wrong. I have sometimes called the Jewish need to take charge of situations and the urgent need to “get things right” as being “scared active.” When White Gentiles are scared, they might hide out in their bedrooms; when Jews are scared, we might build ten new organizations. In other words, fear may propel a Jewish person towards urgent activity.

These Jewish behaviors are understandable. They are attributable to the horrific history of anti-Semitism, when things going wrong could mean imminent death. We need to model compassion towards ourselves and other Jews who show these “scared active” behaviors.

At the same time, when these behaviors are acted out in relationships with Black African-heritage people, it is also racism. And Black people have learned over a long history of oppression that when White people get scared, Black people’s lives can be in danger. In the U.S., for example, many states have “stand your ground” laws. Under these laws, if a White person is afraid of a Black person, the fear may be a justifiable defense for shooting the Black person. As a result, Black people may understandably want to run far away from any White person who is acting out of fear. And yet, abandoning White Ashkenazi Jews because they show fear may be anti-Semitism.

This is the “hook.” Jewish panic and “scared active” behaviors lead to racism, and the response of People of Color to the racist behavior leads to abandoning Jews, which is anti-Semitism.

Here are some examples of the “hook,” where people are caught in the interplay of racism and anti-Semitism:

  • A Jewish activist and a Vietnamese director of an advocacy organization are working together to improve the lives of domestic workers. The Vietnamese director fails to meet agreed upon deadlines. The Jewish activist panics about the possible impact of the delays and becomes impatient with her colleague, exhibiting racism. The director testily pushes back at the Jewish activist, blaming her for her panic, exhibiting anti- Semitism.
  • Several Jewish students at a Midwestern University were distraught when they learned that the organizers of a rally in support of Palestinian rights scheduled the event on the Jewish religious holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish students shared their upset with the rally organizers, but they were oblivious to the racism coming across in their strident, urgent, and demanding tones. The organizers of the rally pushed back at the Jewish students, saying, “This isn’t about you! Don’t tell us when we can or cannot hold a rally!” This response was unaware anti-Semitism. The organizers failed to recognize the legitimate concerns of the Jewish students. By scheduling the rally on Rosh Hashanah, the organizers were excluding Jewish students who would otherwise want to participate in the event.
  • A Jewish leader in a national organization became troubled by the unaware anti- Semitism expressed by Black colleagues in a panel discussion. It took the Jewish leader three months to summon the courage to approach one of her Black colleagues to discuss her concerns. When she did so, her Black colleague became upset with her, noting that waiting so long to raise these concerns was racist. The Black colleague felt that the Jewish leader had left her “high and dry” with her anti-Semitism “showing.” The Black leader however focused solely on condemning her Jewish colleague for waiting so long, without recognizing how scared her Jewish colleague was to even raise the issue of anti-Semitism.

By understanding the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism, White Ashkenazi Jews and People of Color can avoid getting caught by the “hook.” Aware of this dynamic, Jewish social justice work can grow without succumbing to either unaware racism or anti-Semitism.

Cherie Brown is the founder and CEO of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), an international nonprofit leadership-training organization that fosters diversity in organizations and communities. Ms. Brown is also an adjunct faculty member at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, teaching courses on diversity and inclusion, racism, and anti-Semitism. For the past four years, Ms. Brown has led weekend workshops for Jewish young-adult activists and for If Not Now leaders on anti-Semitism, internalized anti-Semitism, and the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism.