My third grade teacher had long hair and a great reading out loud voice. Other than discovering that he secretly smoked cigarettes during lunch and thereafter feeling like we had a special bond because in my head I knew the real reason he was always sucking Altoids, my clearest memory from being eight is putting my head against my smooth cold desk and listening to his deep slow voice read our sunny room of white munchkins a Holocaust story. I remember, those nights, having nightmares. Children were killed because they were Jewish. I was Jewish. And I was a child.
My next memory of fear around my mother’s religion was during Rosh Hashanah in 7th grade. Our all-school assembly fell on the Jewish New Year, and I had some totally irrational and totally consuming fear that to honor the holiday the assembly leader was going to ask all the Jewish kids—all four of us—to stand. I spent a week deciding, if and when that happened, if I would lie or not. I almost asked my Mama to stay home that day. I had never directly experienced anti-Semitism, and I was terrified of anti-Semitism.
Today, my relationship to my own Judaism is no longer one of fear for my safety, but a fear, and curiosity about the unique identity of 21st century white American Jewhood. I often wonder what role the Holocaust plays in American race relations. I recently wonder what role the Holocaust plays in the Democratic presidential primary.
Like Bernie Sanders, I am a white American Jew. When my mama swabbed her mouth and sent her DNA to a lab, Ashkenazi Jew—Judaism is the only religion that is also an ethnicity—was the biggest sliver of her genetic pie. Her last name is Friedman; her grandmother’s last name was Hamburger. My grandfather’s family fled Germany to escape being enslaved and gassed by the Nazis. As a child I often went to temple on High Holidays. I swear the only time I don’t sound completely tone deaf when I sing is when I loudly bellow the Shabbat blessing. Our synagogue’s rabbi came to my house when I was eight and my parents had a naming ceremony in my living room. My Hebrew name is Asalya. Judaism is not a dominating aspect of my spiritual or cultural life, but for all intents and purposes I am a white American Jewish woman.
As my Judaism is in my DNA, the Holocaust is in the DNA of global Jewish identity. Ten million people were killed in Nazi Europe over twelve years, and the largest, but not singular, population killed in that genocide were Jews—alongside LGBTQ folks, differently-abled people, black and brown communities and Roma people. We white Jews, along with Jews of color and other targeted populations, are survivors of ethnic cleansing. We culturally identify with oppression, with violence, with being Other. And while there are almost no living Holocaust survivors in the United States, almost all white American Jews are descendants of Holocaust survivors, Holocaust refugees, or family members, like my Hungarian family in the 1800, who fled Eastern Europe to escape pogroms and violence before the Nazis rose to power. Many of us know of the people in our family who were killed as well as intimately know the genocidal ghosts that haunt those who lived.
The Holocaust is a horror story. Anti-Semitism is violent and dangerous. And, we are not alone. Genocide is unfortunately a part of the fabric of world history. Armenians, Croatians, Cambodians, Rwandans, Hutus in Burundi, Sudanese, Guatemalans, Iraqis, Indigenous people of South, Central and North America, along with other mainly non-white populations, are also survivors and mass victims of genocide. One could argue that the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent enslavement and persecution of African descendant peoples in the United States are genocide. Jews are not alone in our persecution, but actually we are very distinct.
White (passing, if not self-identifying) Jews are the only group of people who have a history of genocide, and within generations, internationally and in the United States, hold large amounts of economic, social and military power. American Jews are 2% of the US population and but are at least 40% of Forbes list of the Top 50 Richest Americans. Those 20 people control approximately $212 billion dollars in private wealth. Israel—indeed a country occupied by non-American Jews, but still majority white passing Jews—has one of the most powerful armies in the world. Israel is also creating an apartheid state and mass killing Palestinians.
Needless to say, Native American folks don’t run one of the most powerful militaries in the world, or have disproportionate numbers of billionaires, or have powerful influence on Wall Street, Hollywood and the Tech industry, nor are they ethnically cleansing anyone. Rwanda isn’t positioned to have one of the world’s largest armies in fifty years. Liberia, a country settled by survivors of American chattel slavery, is not an ascending superpower.
They aren’t white.
But we are. Or, the majority of us are white passing and experience access to white power, regardless of how we may self-identify. And while more orthodox Jews are visually marked, due to clothing and traditions of particular hairstyles, many white American Jews not only pass as white, but also pass as not Jewish, if we so choose—as I was going to when I was 12 at my imaginary assembly.
I assume that many people in the Jewish community have their own reasons to explain our peculiar rise to power, and those reasons may not be untrue as factors. I understand there are influences such as education, as my mom suggests, which complicate our trajectory from genocide victims to folks who have disproportionate access to wealth and influence. But I must believe that central to the explanation is whiteness. And I understand that whiteness has historically been contested. When we first started arriving in New York City, like the Irish and Italians, we were not yet white. But then we were—partly by embracing anti-blackness.
But we aren’t just white. We are white victims. And white victimhood—at the hands of other white people no less—occupies a fascinating position in American identity-making. We are white, which means beliefs in white supremacy are inevitably inherited and reinforced. Whiteness is power. But, we also are the children of the biggest genocide the world has ever seen. We are white, and disproportionately rich and someone else’s boss and yet, because the Holocaust will always exist, regardless of how little it actually has interfered with our ability to live, and our access to freedom and healthy choice, we identify with marginalization and violence.
I believe we as white Jews can recognize the violence of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism while simultaneously not falsely identifying with a type of American-bred racism we do not know.
I witnessed a conversation the other day between a white Jewish American woman and a couple of black American men. The Jewish woman was explaining to the two black men why they should vote for Bernie Sanders and then commented how she was “waiting” for Black Lives Matter organizers to “do as they said they would” and also take Republican candidates to task for their anti-blackness as they (unfairly) did to Bernie Sanders. Because Bernie is the best candidate for Black Americans, don’t “they” know?
This is not distinctly white Jewish American behavior among those “feeling the Bern.” But it felt significant to me in the ways it embodied what has become a very complicated relationship between American Jews and communities of color, especially black folks. I worry that our simultaneous identification with the power of whiteness and the historic oppression of Jewish persecution position us to self-identify as a special kind of insider to communities of color. I think white Jews often feel justified in classically white paternalism and condescension towards brown and black communities because we Jews are “victims of violence too.”
I am not saying anything new nor do I doubt that many Jews try to consciously navigate these power dynamics everyday. American Jews have a history of anti-racism coalition building. As a Jewish woman pointed out to me, a disproportionate number of the white folks who went south to organize during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement were Jewish.
So then, we must know, that we can be all of ourselves and be wary of the way whiteness encourages us to embrace the parts of us inclined to perpetrate racial violence and invest in the empowerment of white folks at the direct expense of the health and lives of brown and black neighbors. We can be honest and patient with our own relationships to trauma and experiences of anti-Semitism, but as long as we are nearly half the billionaires in this country, and Driving While Jewish isn’t a thing, and our children and cousins are not being shot in the back by United States government officials because our great grandparents wore yellow stars, we must understand our relationship to American freedom, health and prosperity is more abundant than our brown and black sisters and brothers. Police brutality, environmental racism, inadequate access to clean water and healthy food, punitive and underfunded school systems, vast unemployment, discriminatory criminal (in)justice practices and systematic erasure and displacement of Indigenous Americans and Black and Brown folks maintain a genocide that kills non-white people in a way the Holocaust is no longer killing us.
Nevertheless I worry that our genocide encourages us to tell Black and Brown people, when they aren’t impressed by Jewish Bernie’s commitment to Black and Brown life, “you just don’t know what’s good for you.” I don’t think there’s a whiter thing to say to folks who know far too well what they do and don’t need.