Willa Spalter '21
As our country has entered a long-overdue racial reckoning this past summer, I have often found myself turning to my Jewish values and community to learn how to become a better ally and more fully understand the struggle Black people face every day in America. Tikkun olam is the Jewish commandment to repair the world and pikuach nefash is the Jewish commandment to save lives, meaning that supporting Black lives and fighting against anti-racism is intrinsically linked to one’s duty as a Jew. I initially asked myself how I can use my experience with antisemitism in America to build a tradition of solidarity. Both Black and Jewish people in this country have faced hate crimes, housing and educational discrimination, and exclusion. Yet today in America, white Jews do not face systemic, institutional oppression. We have the privilege to call on the same institutions that oppress Black Americans, so it is important that we use our history of oppression as a source of solidarity with Black people, rather than a way to absolve ourselves of complicity.
Another important component of allyship to the Black community as a Jew is to address the racism and bias in our own community, starting with dismantling “ashkenormativity”. Ashkenazi Jews refer to Jews whose ancestry traces back to Eastern Europe and ashkenormativity has become a unique form of eurocentrism that defines white Jews as the “default” jew, essentially invalidating the “Jewishness” of Jews of color. It is important that as a community we amplify the voices of Jews of color and learn from their experiences.
In our formative years spent in Jewish educational spaces such as Hebrew school and summer camps, we are taught to unequivocally support Israel. While the history and holiness of that land is integral to our religious identity, ignoring the relationship between the Israeli law enforcement and the US creates an inability to discuss police brutality and racial bias in our own communities. We were taught about the significant role the Jewish community played in the Civil Rights Movement. Jews made up a disportionate number of white protesters involved in the struggle and helped found and fund many of the most important civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. The image of Rabbi Heschel marching arm in arm with Dr. King at the March on Washington is often invoked in our education as a symbol for Jewish allyship during this time. While learning by example from these Jewish leaders is crucial as we seek ways to become better allies right now, ignoring and overlooking the US-Israeli relationship with regards to police brutality and racism effectively compartmentalizes racism in our own community, creating harmful effects.
As I seek ways to live up to the Jewish phrase “tzedek tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice, shall you pursue), unlearning deep rooted ideologies and biases in our own belief systems, acknowledging the racial issues that our community perpetuates, and using my privilege to amplify black voices, is where I have begun. I hope white Jews across America can use the high holidays to celebrate new beginnings and reflect on similar ways to support and uplift the Black community, living up to our commandments as members of this religion.