“He who takes one life, it is as though he has destroyed the universe and he who saves one life it is as though he has saved the universe.” — Talmud
I am a second-generation Jewish American, raised with dual realities; being part of a people who has been murdered, oppressed, exiled and hated throughout our history and being a white, middle class American with privileges that my black and brown neighbors do not enjoy.
Though my grandparents’ arrival in America was greeted with antisemitic racism, European Jews were increasingly accepted as “white” in American society; proving the social construction of race; those in power decide who is and isn’t acceptable. After the atrocities of the Holocaust, antisemitic sentiment seemed to diminish; Jews entered society more fully, going to universities with former Jewish quotas, entering professions previously unattainable, even becoming elected officials, and enjoying new-found privilege unknown to our ancestors.
Yet, my parents instilled in me the idea that we are not truly free while others are still oppressed. With our historical trauma at the forefront of our psyches, many Jews have been propelled by the memory in our DNA to show up for justice and freedom for everyone. Jews have been at the forefront of every social justice movement.
Even so, it’s easy to become complacent, forget the daily reality of people of color, float by on white privilege that many aren’t even fully aware we have. I once brought a non-white friend to a Jewish event, and she confided afterward that it felt uncomfortable to enter a room full of white people. My unspoken reaction was that it wasn’t a room full of white people, it was a room full of Jews! I grappled with that over the next several months, realizing my identity as an oppressed minority held the duality of also being a white person in America, and though I identified as oppressed, I lived with everyday privilege that I was just waking up to; the privilege of not having to worry about being shot by a police officer for a traffic stop, the privilege of being able to walk down an empty aisle in a store without suspicion being raised, the privilege of growing up in comfortable suburbia, the privilege of not losing multiple family members to the horrors of the prison system. And on and on…
In the last three weeks, America has been experiencing a profound moment of awakening. White Americans are suddenly confronted with the level of privilege they enjoy in contrast with the state-sponsored terror Black Americans experience daily. George Floyd’s death, so vividly shown to the world in the midst of a pandemic that was already disproportionately killing people of color, was a breaking point.
Amidst the sorrow, anger and rage, there is also the excitement of hope, the power of the people reclaiming what is theirs, and momentum for change that only crops up once or twice in a generation. A Jewish sage named Hillel said, “If not now, when?”
I encourage all to find strength and teachings from your own backgrounds and histories; the commonalities where your people may have been oppressed, the teachings from your cultures that encourage showing up for what is right, and the deepest commonality of all; that of our shared humanity. Grab this moment and find the courage to step forward and help propel the momentum of this movement. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, only some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”
How to do this? Follow the lead of the Black community. There is amazing, energetic, coordinated, intelligent leadership being displayed; if you are white or a non-Black person of color, I encourage you to get behind these young leaders. Another Jewish teaching says, “If you can stop your household from committing a sin, but do not, you are held responsible for the sins of your household. If you can stop the people of your city from sinning, but do not, you are held responsible for the sins of the city. If you can stop the whole world from sinning, and do not, you are held responsible for the sins of the whole world.” (Shabbat 54b).
If you are looking for a local way to get involved, consider joining Vashon-Maury SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). Contact email@example.com.
If you want to make change by electing new leadership for this country, please join us at Indivisible Vashon. We have many opportunities for action; contact firstname.lastname@example.org or go to indivisiblevashon.org.
Whatever you do, please do something. Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.”
Antisemitism did not, after all, go away as it seemed when I was younger; it went underground, but is rapidly resurging. Hatred towards any group is all part of the same disease; we cannot root out hatred towards one group until and unless we eradicate all forms of hate and all oppression.
If not now, when?
Suzanne Greenberg is the president of Vashon Havurah and a leadership team member of Indivisible Vashon.