On white supremacy and JOCSM in Jewish communities: an al chet kavanah

This is the kavanah I gave on Yom Kippur 5780 between the al chet we do for racism and the one we do for Palestine/Israel. Our High Holiday prayer community is a collaboration between Fringes: a feminist, non-zionist havurah and Tikkun Olam Chavurah.

Download Al Chet Kavanah by Elliott batTzedek

Al Chet Kavanah

Elliott batTzedek / Fringes: a feminist, non-zionist havurah

in our community on Yom Kippur we did an al chet for racism and then one for Palestine/Israel. In between those I gave this kavanah.

That we, as Jews, are here together to denounce as serious sins white supremacy in both the U.S. and Israel, and are doing so in 2019, means we are balancing on a thin bridge in a most-difficult time. This last year has made it beyond urgent that we learn everything we can about racism, white nationalism, white supremacy, anti-semitism, and the cost of speaking up about Palestine.

To be a human being with any sense of morality this  year has been hard, to be a Jew has been harder, and to be a Jew of color, particularly a Black Jew, has been uniquely heart-rending, as they’ve been pulled into existing conflicts between Jewish institutions and the Black community:

  • Dr. Angela Davis was denied a civil rights award in Birmingham, her hometown, mainly because of her support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in Palestine, and the pressure to rescind the award came very heavily from the city’s Jewish institutions
  • Dr Mark Lamont Hill, our neighbor just down Germantown Ave, was fired from CNN for supporting Palestinian rights, and his job at Temple University was also challenged, largely by wealthy Jewish alumni donors
  • Beloved author and activist Alice Walker published a poem that is just blatantly Jew-hating, and when challenged revealed beliefs that are such classic anti-Semitic tropes it is difficult to reconcile her art and intelligence with such hateful ignorance

 And of course, before any of these happened, a white nationalist walked into one of our communities, a synagogue many of us could have been in that day, and started murdering and for the entire US Jewish community the world stood still.

In my prayer community, Fringes: a feminist, non-zionist havurah, where we do text study rather than a torah service, we went into 5779 with a plan to read and discuss an article every month about racism and white supremacy. Through these months of discussions we slowly came to a few clear—or, rather, more-clear—understandings, and these shaped the al chet we just said and the one we are about to say. I want to expand on the those concepts just a bit to bring all of you into the conversations we had.

First—to the constant question of “are Jews white in an anti-Semitic world.”  Two answers, one fairly clear, one many-layered. The more-clear answer—in the U.S., a country inseparable from its racial power structure, white Jews are white. Jews of color are not white. The more layered answer, in the face of the murders at Tree of Life synagogue, is that we need to understand the difference between white nationalism and white supremacy.

White supremacy is the very air we breathe in this nation. It is structured into every law, every custom, into every single part of our lives. White people don’t choose to be white supremacists because they don’t get to choose. Jews who are white benefit from white supremacy every day of their lives, even when their jobs schedule trainings on Yom Kippur and even during the dreadful October – December christmas plague.

White nationalism, on the other hand, is a specific political movement. All white nationalists support white supremacy, but white nationalism is overall a small percentage of white people. White nationalist theory is absolutely based in the most crass possible anti-Semitic stereotypes. White nationalism is a group one does choose to enter, and it is dangerous and terrifying. So yes, white Jews can benefit from white supremacy even while they can be the target of white nationalists. This isn’t really that hard to understand, not for a religious civilization that invented an entirely new way to print blocks of text around other blocks of text to contain the complexity of our understandings of another block of text hand-written on animal skin.

Jews of color are also targets of white nationalists while being in every part of their lives oppressed by the structures of white supremacy. This is true in Jewish communities in the U.S., and in Israel. Jews of color who try to make homes within Jewish institutions face suspicion, assumptions that they aren’t really Jewish, armed guards at the door who don’t want to let them in, and the sickly sweet paternalism of constant fluttering attention which pretends to “welcome” them but really turns them into interesting, exotic zoo animals on display.

My own broader Jewish context —Jewish Voice for Peace and their anti-zionist havurah movement—have pushed me to adopt a new frame for confronting racism, one that attempts to confront the fact that oppression within the U.S. Jewish community is both about whiteness and about Ashkenormitivity—the assumption that Ashkenazi Judaism is the only Judaism, or only one that matters. JVP’s vocabulary for this is what they call JOCSM, which stands for Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrachi Jews. I’m assuming, my community here, that the JOC part of this acronym is clear. Sephardim are Jews whose families originated in Spain and Portugal, and then went into diaspora across southern Europe, the Levantine, and Central and South America. Because they were living in Dutch and Portuguese colonies in the early 1600s, Sephardi Jews were the first Jews to establish communities in North America. Mizrachi as a catch-all category of Jews from Asia, Arab lands, and north Africa, was invented in 1944 in Israel to group together all non-Ashkenazi Jews and establish them as permanent class of second class citizens—within Israel they are often called simply “Black” in the most offensive terms. Mizrachi Jews in Israel are the largest population group but are ruled by a powerful white minority —just another reason many of us are comfortable using the term apartheid when we discuss Israel and Palestine.

There is an inherent tension within the group JOCSM, as many Sephardi Jews/Jews of Sephardi descent come from mixed race families, like mine, but still personally benefit from white supremacy within the U.S. power structure, and many Jews of Color are culturally or religiously Ashkenaz. Nonetheless the grouping is very useful helping those of us who fall under the JOCSM umbrella to find one another and in our differences build a vibrant community of beauty and resistance. Because such a community exists, for example, when the Alice Walker ugliness hit there were voices of Black Jews that were being shared and lifted up, as their voices were the ones that needed to be centered, ending the pointless cycle of white Jews and Black activists circling around and arriving nowhere new.

I also want you to know—without going into a complicated historical argument (ask me later, I’ll send you the brilliant article) —why it is that nearly all U.S. Jews know NOTHING about Sephardic Jewish language, religious life, or histories. That we don’t is no accident, but a series of conscious choices by members of the top echelon of Jewish public figures. One example—in 1926 a study of “Oriental” Jews was commissioned by the Bureau of Jewish Social Research and carried out by Louis Hacker, later dean of Columbia University. His report began by claiming that Ottoman-born Jews were “almost as alien to their Asheknazi kinsmen as are the negroes to the average white Southerner.” When Sephardi Jews objected to a series of demeaning articles in the Forward based on this “research,” they were told the time was not right for them to respond and that the  leading Sephardi scholar who wrote long refutations couldn’t be published due to his “European English.”

In the words of Devin Naar, who wrote the long article from which I learned this story, U.S. Jewish life has a white supremacy problem, both here and in our defense of white supremacy in Israel. To name the damage done in our al chet is a good way to open our hearts to the realities of these problems. With those open hearts, and after Yom Kippur, here are a few other suggestions for what each of us can do:

  • Stop pretending that there are no Jews of Color. Stop, please, the assumption that all Jews of color are converts. Maybe try assuming, as reparation, that any person of color in a Jewish space is more Jewish than you are.  Never ever again say “Jews” when you only mean “white Jews.” Stop equating Judaism with being white.
  • Stop equating Judaism as a whole with Ashkenazi Judaism. Stop saying “bagels are Jewish food” when they are Ashkenazi Jewish food. Stop assuming Yiddish humor is the same as all Jewish humor.  Love and embrace your Ashkenazi culture if you are Ashkenaz but name it for what it is. Learn that you are neither the whole of the world nor its center.
  • As an offshoot of that, stop using the Holocaust as THE one and only defining Jewish experience—it is a defining experience for Yiddish-culture and Ashkenazi Jews, but not for all other Jews. My ancestors’ trauma was being forced to flee from Portugal and at some time being forced to convert, or at least pretend to convert. Like the Holocaust, that trauma is still coming down through the generations. It counts. Count it.
  • Recognize that our ignorance of Sephardi Jews is the result of choices that we are morally obligated to now un-make. Go and learn.
  • By moving towards an honest assessment of power in Israel and Palestine, work to heal splits between Jews and Black and Muslim activists in the U.S., for we need one another to confront the immense and urgent danger of fascism and climate disaster.

And also, between these two al chets, hold this bit of history in your heart. In Birmingham Alabama, on April 28, 1958, 54 sticks of dynamite were placed outside Temple Beth-El in a bombing attempt. The building and all the lives in it were only saved when the burning fuses were doused by heavy rainfall. While this attempted act of terrorism wasn’t officially solved, Birmingham police know that the bomber was Bobby Frank Cherry, who in 1963 bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four girls, all of whom were friends with young church member and Birmingham resident Angela Davis. Her parents were vocal civil rights activists and raised their children to be outspoken. Young Angela won an American Friends Service Committee scholarship to study at a heavily Jewish school in Manhattan, and from there went to Brandeis University, becoming, along with her Jewish peers, a Communist activist. She learned to speak out against the oppression of any and all people, leading directly to the award first given to her then withdrawn this year. Hold this story, for ultimately we have only one story—the story of justice and injustice. Where we fall in that story is a choice we make.  

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