Being Jewish in Social Justice Spaces

Spending the Jewish High Holidays at Kenyon always makes me consider the way that Jewishness fits into my life at this school. One thing that’s been on my mind lately is the experience of being Jewish in places, like Kenyon, where social justice is a common way of thinking.

In a political climate where neo-Nazis march in the streets, I would say most people are ready to acknowledge that there’s a lot of anti-Semitism on the far right. But increasingly, I’ve been bothered by the way people talk about Jews on the left as well. Too often, I get the sense from the way some liberal people talk about Jews that they don’t always extend the humanitarian values that underlie social justice to us. Even worse, I hear people twisting the language of social justice to express ideas that wouldn’t be out of place at a white supremacist rally.

Recently, I heard a conversation between two classmates. One was telling the other about a book he was reading, whose author, a professor, had apparently included very long, very defensive footnotes.The speaker was telling the listener about one particularly lengthy and petty footnote in which the professor went out of his way to tear down a student who had challenged him in class, reporting to readers that the student was in fact a Jew who had eventually been killed in the Holocaust. The two laughed––not about the Holocaust, I’m sure, but about the professor’s over-zealous pettiness––and then the conversation turned to Taylor Swift and white feminism.

Now, like I said, I truly don’t think that these two were laughing about the fact that this man had been murdered. But it was troubling to me that his death didn’t spoil the mood for them. I was especially startled in the context of a discussion that immediately turned to intersectional feminism. It seemed strange to me that two people so obviously dedicated to social justice could joke about the Holocaust. The respect for human life that the movement is built on would seem to preclude laughing about genocide.

Of course, this was just one instance. But too often, I feel that the left either forgets that our values apply to all victims of racialized violence, or twists those values to frame anti-Semitism as something acceptable and even progressive. I often see liberals expressing attitudes that are completely synchronous with the far right, just repackaged in social justice terminology. White supremacists talk about how Jews secretly control the world, while some liberals will argue that Jews have “Jewish privilege.” White supremacists will argue that Jews are not white, and should, therefore, be mistrusted, while many liberals seem to think that Jews are whiter than anyone––wealthier, better connected, more politically influential––and should, therefore, be mistrusted. White supremacists will tell Jews they should be gassed and that Hitler should have finished the job, but I have heard liberals say with a straight face that if holocaust survivors were just going to end up founding the state of Israel, it would have been better for all Jews to have died. And it seems to me that in general, while it’s mostly the right that wants to kill Jews, some on the left would just rather we not exist.

I think the problem in all these cases––Jews not being included in social justice, social justice language being used against Jews, etc––is that the model of oppression we’ve come to understand in America evolved in response to other minorities and other struggles. Thus, there’s a disconnect when it comes to Jewish issues. Rather than a history of constant and systematic abuse, Jews have a history of relative peace punctuated with intense bursts of violence in the form of pogroms and ethnic cleansing. If you are not looking directly at one of those bursts of genocidal violence, it can be hard to imagine Jews as oppressed. And if Jews are not oppressed, it can be hard to imagine what social justice has to do with us.

The issue with this line of reasoning is that if you had gone to Vienna in the 1930s and looked at my family in the years before some were forced to flee and others were murdered, you probably wouldn’t have called them oppressed either. They were economically comfortable and mostly assimilated. You might have thought, as many liberals think today: these are basically just white people. If they had said they were oppressed, you might have thought they were whining, lying, or taking attention away from more important issues, the same way you might think I’m doing now. And it could be that ‘oppressed,’ in our American social justice understanding of the word, is the wrong term. But as the next decade would prove, they were in danger whether they were technically ‘oppressed’ or not. Their race––because white supremacists absolutely did and absolutely still do see the Jewish people as a race––put them in danger.

Jews today, despite not fitting neatly into the American social justice framework of race, privilege, and oppression, are also in danger. We face hate crimes, harassment, and even the kind of casual anti-Semitism I recently overheard in class. And the threat that another burst of violence is just around the corner is something that never completely leaves our minds. Ultimately, I’m not arguing that Jews are oppressed in America. I’m not arguing about whether Jews are or aren’t white or do or don’t have white privilege. I think it’s more important to acknowledge that our understanding of all these terms evolved to describe other groups’ struggles, and that as a result, we need to think carefully about how we apply them to Jewish issues. We need to make sure we’re not ignoring the racialized dangers Jewish people face just because those dangers don’t look like racISM to us, and especially that we’re not using our social justice to advocate outright anti-Semitism.

The end of the high holidays marks the beginning of a new year on the Jewish calendar. As I try to do better in how I support other groups in the coming year, I hope others will try to do the same for people like me.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2