Letter to a Diversity Committee about Anti-Semitism

The following is a letter I wrote in November 2018 to the diversity committee at my child’s school. It was inspired by the thinking of Cherie Brown (the International Liberation Reference Person for Jews) and Amy Leos-Urbel and their pamphlet Anti-Semitism: Why Is it Everyone’s Concern? [For more about the pamphlet, see page 87 of this Present Time.]

Dear Good People on the Diversity Committee, 

 I am seeking allies at our school and elsewhere who recognize and are taking steps to counter Jewish marginalization. I hope concern about anti-Semitism will be taken seriously alongside the other oppressions we are committed to understanding and undoing.

 It is exceedingly common for people today—even open-minded, big-hearted people committed to facing and eliminating other oppressions, such as racism and homophobia—to have difficulty recognizing anti-Semitism. Yet even if we lived in a world with no anti-Semitism, Jews would still need strong allies in our politics, schools, and neighborhoods due to the recent genocide of our people during World War II—a deep trauma warranting sensitivity, warmth, and a conscious welcoming of Jews.

 A—, whom my son is named after, was a pianist who was out of town on a music tour when his entire family was killed and his town wiped out [destroyed]. The timing of that piano tour was why he was the sole survivor in his family, and why T— and E— were born and attend our school today. Another school mother’s grandfather, “Papa,” received a tip that “they’re coming for you tomorrow,” so that very night his nuclear family left behind their family business and homes and possessions. The sixteen aunts and uncles and cousins who did not leave were shot the next day. Because Papa left that night, his granddaughter’s two children are students at our school.

 Almost every Jewish family of European descent has stories like these. We are descended from the survivors of the tiny minority of Jews who escaped from Europe alive, who saw the writing on the wall [the signs that danger was coming] and got out before it was too late. We therefore carry a legacy of watchfulness, of looking to see if things are turning ugly again and it’s time to get out. And it wasn’t just Europe. It has gone like this throughout Jewish history and continues today.

 The phrase “to Jew someone down” means to be cheap and offer someone less than something is worth. Last year students threw pennies at Jewish students at my son’s middle school to see if they would be “cheap” enough to pick them up. That is a common form of Jewish hazing that some of the school parents also experienced as young people. Last year we saw news footage from Charlottesville [Virginia, USA] of hundreds of angry white men, with torches, marching and chanting, “The Jews will not replace us!” Last week the horrific murders of Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania, USA] devastated our people. But while it left us heartbroken and shattered, many of us were not surprised. We have been here before. And we wonder, “Is this the writing on the wall, the moment when we should get out?”

 U.S. leaders are engaged in class oppression, and to avoid blame they are targeting scapegoats: immigrants, Gay people, Black people, Jews. They oppress the working class and then tell them that Jews and other vilified groups are responsible for their problems. This is exactly how anti-Semitism has functioned historically, and as the class gap continues to widen, we can expect anti-Semitism to become more overt and widely accepted.

 The fact that many Jews are white, educated, and financially successful can make Jewish marginalization seem invisible. Jews were also white in Europe in the 1930s. That’s no protection from being targeted. The tropes [commonly understood derogatory messages] are simply different for different targeted groups. For example, Black people (especially men) are seen as physically and sexually threatening and potentially criminal. Latinos/as are seen as stealing U.S. jobs, browning the Anglo culture and language, and flooding the borders so as to soon outnumber “us.” Jews are seen as seeking the reins of power to take over the world (the media, the law, the corporations, the politics).

In all of these cases, the beneficiaries of class oppression deflect attention from their own pocket-lining [financial enriching of themselves] and power-hoarding by throwing out a scapegoat: “They are the enemy, and they are to blame for your problems.” That is a powerful rhetorical device and calls for an equally powerful response of consciousness-raising, caring, and social action among good-hearted progressives who refuse to be divided.

 What I want to underline here is that progressives are the vanguards of a growing cultural awareness of the targeting of Black people, Latinos/as, Native Americans, Gay people, Trans folk, immigrants, women, people living in poverty, and so on—but typically not Jews. What is so pernicious about anti-Semitism is, in fact, the
total silence about it. Before Pittsburgh, how many allies were gathering on our behalf? How many non-Jews were speaking up about anti-Semitism, educating themselves about it, taking steps to help Jewish children feel extra welcome in schools? Even we Jews, afraid to be targeted, are mostly silent in mixed groups, speaking of anti-Semitism and trembling only among ourselves when we feel truly safe.

Four Jewish parents at our school broke the silence. In 2017 we summoned our courage to write you a letter saying we wanted your help to feel safer at school. We outlined several ways to help—such as including in the curriculum more books with strong Jewish characters and not scheduling school events on Jewish holidays, such as the school play that occurred on the first day of Passover or a diversity discussion held on Shavuot. The dream reply to our letter would have been, “We’re on it!” [“We will do something about it!”] and for allies to emerge who would think about ways the school could become more Jew-friendly. Ideally the school would have broadened the self-education it’s been embarking on regarding racism to include learning about anti-Semitism en route to becoming better allies to the Jews. However, the reply to our letter was instead that we should join the diversity committee and make it happen.

If we were any other minority group crying out to feel more welcome at school, I doubt the response would have been that we ourselves should step up and make it happen. But the response to Jews is frequently different in this way—non-Jewish allies seldom rise up to take on [do something about] anti-Semitism. This difference is enormous and something worth deeply investigating within each of us. Just a few decades after the murder of six million Jews, the failure of non-Jews to register, acknowledge, and address anti-Semitism among other diversity issues, and the invisibility and dismissing of it among progressives who generally take note when groups are targeted, is frankly difficult to comprehend.

 A mom at our school called me and left a voicemail after the Pittsburgh killings. She said that she was thinking of me after the tragedy, that she knew it had probably stirred up a lot in us, and that she was reaching out to the Jewish families she held dear to let us know that she stands with the Jews. I cry again now just writing about it. She saw. She was not blinded by whiteness. She could see a people who had narrowly survived their attempted annihilation—within the lifetimes of many of the school families’ parents or grandparents—and who were continuing to be scapegoated for other people’s suffering as a way to shift the blame from the greed of the wealthy to the “conniving” of the Jews.

 As Jewish parents we are looking for counter-narratives about Jews to support our children as they grow. We want our children to feel cherished—as Jews—and are still fervently hoping that books with strong Jewish characters will appear in the curriculum, particularly ones that show Jews in settings other than the Holocaust (which is often the only setting for Jewish characters in school literatures). A Jewish student at our school has said that in three years she has not seen a single book that contains a Jewish character. She feels this in her heart, the way many minorities feel their lack of representation in school literatures and histories that often treat white, heterosexual people of the dominant religion as the unspoken default.

 I went to hear Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s lecture last night on how to be an anti-racist. He said that we conveniently define racism in fluid ways (for example, as ill-intention, or negative stereotypes, or bad feelings) that seem to exonerate us from seeing ourselves as racist or acknowledging our failures to create truly equal spaces and opportunities. Likewise, to confront anti-Semitism it’s not sufficient to simply eschew negative attitudes toward Jews or to have Jewish friends; one must consciously strive to create an inclusive environment in which Jews feel welcome.

 In writing this, I am hoping that our school will be on the pioneering end of countering Jewish marginalization and that our Jewish and non-Jewish students at all grade levels will be able to feel that they are growing in a school environment that is sensitive and explicitly warm toward Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish creativity, and Jewish people.

 We cried out a year and a half ago. Now, in the wake of Pittsburgh, I find myself crying out again.

 Thank you so much for considering these thoughts.

Ana V.

Amherst, Massachusetts, USA


Last modified: 2019-05-13 15:12:23+00