The Shameful Jewish Silence of Complicity
There is a covenant of silence that American Jews participate in. I don’t know if Jews in other countries do it too. It goes like this: don’t ever mention the Holocaust. Don’t ever mention antisemitism. When oppression is discussed, you should listen silently, with attention and contrition on your face, and hope nobody mentions Israel/Palestine.
Any suggestion that Jewishness is anything other than wealthy, white, Christian (sorry, I meant Judeo-Christian) enfranchisement is gauche (even Jews of color don’t get a pass here).
Perhaps you’ll even get an explicit “well, anti-Black racism is worse/more important, because Jews can pass as white.” Though strangely, this critique isn’t leveled against white passing Black people, or other People of Color, at least not in intersectional spaces.
Maybe you’ll get a “well, Jews are wealthy, so…” (a qualification that is important for Jews, but not for wealthy People of Color, because … reasons). It’s also worth saying that I’ve never encountered a single proponent of this argument who is familiar with actual statistics on Jews and poverty.
Maybe you’ll even get “anti-Jewish hate ended a long time ago…” or “Jews were never oppressed.”
Now we’ve strayed into the realm of fact-free narrative, but that’s to be expected. The most extreme version is “a lot of Jews owned slaves,” which tends to slide quickly into “Jews were behind the slave trade.” That’s also fact-free, but now we’re getting to the heart of the problem.
Jewishness is viewed as a kind of uber whiteness, that is centering its own experience as a form of narrative appropriation.
Therefore, any anti-Jewish oppression cannot be mentioned, because it is a way to take up space from REAL oppression. In this conception, fighting against your own oppression constitutes oppressing others, because you are taking airtime away from those whose oppression matters more. Maybe it’s because other oppression is worse (and we’ll always find a way to say that the oppression of other groups is worse, even when the Jewish experience is extinction-level genocide).
Maybe it’s because there are more of them. There aren’t very many Jews, so perhaps it’s a dispassionate numbers game. I’d buy that if trans inclusion wasn’t a foundational priority in so many of these groups, with trans Americans being a smaller number of the population than Jews. It seems to me then, that this goes to who we care about, and not how many there are.
The fact-free narrative that lives behind Jewish silence, is the non-Jewish agreement that Jews are OK as long as we are quiet. It’s enough that we are tolerated. That we are allowed to live here, and worship in our Jew Churches. We should be grateful, and above all, quiet. Because really, we all know that Jews are the wealthy oppressors who run the banks. And the government. And Hollywood.
And yeah the Holocaust … that was bad. But get over it already! You Jews are in power, and you’ll be fine (except for the occasional genocide). Don’t you know other groups were murdered in the Holocaust also? Roma, and homosexuals, and differently abled people? What about them?! Donald Trump went with this argument, to almost no outrage, which is impressive considering he was by all accounts very good at generating outrage.
This is ultimately driven by a bedrock belief that Jews are suspect. Right now, that takes the form of uber whiteness. A generation ago, that meant non-whiteness. But both cultural ideas paint the Jews as a social out-group, to be silenced and marginalized on the basis of their supposed power. Because other groups are more important.
When we participate in this silence, we affirm this unspoken belief. It takes a lot of courage for any single Jew to speak up. You know what you will get. Eye rolls and allegations of white privilege — that cardinal sin. You will lose the battle for Jewish inclusion, which was tolerated until you opened your mouth. The problem is, you will lose the war if you don’t speak up.
If we want to participate in social justice work as ourselves, with our own history, knowledge, experiences, and yes – current concerns — we must speak up. We cannot let this fact free anti-Jewish narrative stand. If we don’t tell our own story, and fight for our right to do so, we will continue to be the villains, to greater and lesser degrees, of a non-Jewish story of who we are, what we are allowed to say, and even what roles we are allowed to play in the fight for liberation in our own country.