By Matt Fieldman
I want to speak to white Jews like myself: people born into middle-class families, who have done as well or even slightly better than our parents. We are everything our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents hoped we would be socio-economically. My own grandfather came to this country after World War I from Poland, orphaned and accompanied by his six siblings, with not a penny in their pockets. He would be thrilled to see his college-educated Jewish grandchildren and great grandchildren, firmly entrenched in the middle class, enjoying our white collar jobs, owning homes in suburbia, and sending our children to Jewish day school and overnight camp. The beneficiaries of intergenerational wealth and status, we are the very definition of white privilege.
I’m writing this to call us out; out of love and brotherhood, I want white American-born Jews like myself to step up for racial justice. I want us to evolve the way we talk about race with our children. I was taught growing up that since white Europeans were the people that murdered my grandfather’s family back in Poland, along with millions of other Jews, then we were not white Americans. That Jews had no role in slavery (not true). That Jews had no role in the Confederacy (not true). That Jews were on the front lines in the civil rights movement (only partly true). That we understand what oppression is, having lived through it ourselves (problematic at best).
It took a two-day training through the Racial Equity Institute to open my eyes to the realities behind my family’s narrative. The programs so venerated by white American Jews – the GI Bill that sent my grandfather to college; the FHA loan for his first house in Park Rapids, Minnesota; the small business loan to start his Army/Navy Surplus store – were critical to our ascension into the middle class. But look under the hood, and you realize those programs discriminated against Blacks, women, and many others.
Instead of thinking critically about who lost as we gained in America, we instead subscribed to the notion that we built our businesses on our own, lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We were lulled into complacency by our nice houses in the suburbs and cushy, recession-proof jobs. We believed that, because America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, all Americans must believe in b’tzelem Elohim: that all lives matter and our country respects people of all backgrounds. Ironically for a people obsessed with our own historical narrative, Jews have accepted the excellence of this country without recognizing or reconciling with its horrific past. We have internalized the American myth, “Jews are an ethnic minority. Since we succeeded in this country, other diverse groups should be able to as well.”
Sadly, the American dream for Jews, to paraphrase Malcolm X, has been a nightmare for Black people, and we can’t even begin to relate. In America, we didn’t have to fight legal battles for hundreds of years just to be considered a full person, a full citizen with human rights, the way African-Americans did. When Black people protest, the police show up in riot gear with tear gas; when Jews show up to a rally or protest, the police wave and guide traffic. We aren’t seeing Jews die disproportionately as a result of COVID-19. And while we remember the singular lynching of Leo Frank, we can’t forget that African-Americans have been lynched in over 800 American counties – a list that continues to grow to this day.
Worse than our own gullibility, in our move to the suburbs and higher up the socioeconomic ladder, we have left others behind. As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti put it, we have moved from “a past of persecution to a present of privilege,” accepted into the elite ranks of American society. We have moved our Jewish institutions to the suburbs without making investments in our cities and the non-Jewish communities residing – and sometimes relegated to – polluted downtown neighborhoods. We have lost proximity to others that need us, particularly black, brown, and indigenous communities. Because we have been so warmly welcomed and integrated into this country – in no small part because of our white skin – we have been lulled into complacency, enjoying our “insider” status instead of remaining vigilant in our struggle to protect and defend other outsiders. As a result of this acculturation and assimilation, we have forgotten the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, spoken on the steps of the Capitol during the 1963 March on Washington: “Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
This complicity has come from both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, conservative Jews advocate dismantling social programs that directly help people of color, and demanding unwavering support of Israel as a prerequisite for engaging non-Jews on social issues. On the left, liberal Jews read a few books and consider themselves “woke” – not realizing that awakening is a journey and process, not a destination – then fall victim to what Julius Lester called “benevolent racism,” imposing new and paternalistic social programs on communities, without their buy-in or input. We have demonstrated ignorance and outright racism in our hiring practices, our housing preferences, and so much more. I can only speak from my limited perspective, but one need only look at the marginal nature of many race-conscious Jewish social justice organizations, like Be’chol Lashon, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Jews United for Justice to see how we have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to this crucial issue.
It’s time, as American Jews, to put our Jewish identities first. As Avraham Infeld reminds us, Jews don’t have history, we have memory. We must remember that for the vast majority of our 3,500 year history, we’ve been the outsiders, the outcasts of whatever society we found ourselves in. Our past experience of persecution requires us to join our Black brothers and sisters on the front lines today. Our 400 years of general tolerance and acceptance in this country is a proverbial “drop in the bucket” in the larger arc of Jewish history. In America, that arc has not bent towards justice for all citizens, and we can no longer stand idly by the blood of our neighbors.
With this American outlier in its historic context, we have to speak out about the injustices we see from the depths of our Jewish souls, and stop being okay with the incongruence between American society and our Judaism. For example, mass incarceration is not a Jewish value; in fact, the only instance of incarceration in the Torah is when a corrupt Egyptian system unfairly jails Joseph as a result of the incident with Potiphar’s wife – perhaps the first unjust incarceration. We are a people that believe in teshuvah, returning to the right path after a transgression, yet as Americans we reject, demean, and discard people returning from incarceration. We have to recognize that the police, for all their good works serving Jewish communities and even protecting our synagogues on Shabbat mornings, have become instruments of subjugation inside Black neighborhoods.
As the American reality has drifted so far from our Jewish ideals, we must realize that oppression is as real today as it was in Biblical times. Except now, we have to consider the possibility that we, white American-born Jews, are the Egyptians in this situation. Abraham Joshua Heschel saw this back in 1963, proclaiming, “We are all Pharoahs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh.”
In many ways we have fought to maintain a racist and oppressive status quo. When asked to support Black Lives Matter, many of us have pointed to Black support of BDS and Palestinian liberation as a flimsy excuse to stand on the sidelines. We have lived the mantra tzedek, tzedek tirdof – “justice, justice you shall pursue” – as long as it didn’t require any sacrifices of our own privilege or resources. We aren’t the conductors of this train called America, but we’ve certainly enjoyed our comfortable seats on it. We have been complicit in many aspects of systemic racism, and we are in need of our own teshuvah. As Jerry Isaak-Shapiro wrote recently, we are in need of beating our chest and reciting, “Al chet she-chatanu lefanecha – for the sin of not accepting that we are privileged, and that while we face very real prejudices – still, and still tangible and dangerous – it is incumbent upon us to marshal that privilege, to do all that we can with all that we have…”
If we want the relative peace we’ve experienced as American Jews to last, we have to start thinking about race, and we need to use an equity lens for every decision we make. We can’t just condemn the blatant racism we see on a cellphone video, but – like searching for chametz before Passover – we need to find and root out the racist structures and policies undergirding all aspects of American society. It is hard to argue that any American system – education, healthcare, law, social welfare, etc – isn’t stacked against Black people, and Jewish leaders at all levels of these systems have to push harder for change and improvement. We have to challenge the status quo – even though the status quo got us to this point and undermining it may have negative ramifications on our white-skinned Jewish community.
Friends, we have done an amazing job of living the Jewish value, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh” (all Jews are responsible one for the other). It has served us well to this point, but it’s time to move on. It’s time to stand with the Black community in dismantling unjust systems. It’s time to recognize, in the words of the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s
harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
Matt Fieldman is a social entrepreneur and fundraiser living in Beachwood, Ohio. He helped start several workforce development programs, including EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute and Cleveland Codes. He is currently a Fellow of the inaugural class of the Civil Society Fellowship, A Partnership of ADL and The Aspen Institute, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.