By Jonah Boyarin
Originally published on jewschool.com August 17, 2017, and reproduced with permission.
Jewish fear is American Neo-Nazis chanting “Blood and Soil” on American soil.
Jewish fear is that buzzing feeling in our bones that won’t let us sleep at night, because we don’t know when it will come next.
Jewish fear is American Neo-Nazis chanting “Blood and Soil” on American soil. In living memory, that chant (“Blut und Boden”), and the fascist ideology that birthed it, organized mass movements of German Nazis, and Polish, Lithuanian, Greek, and other European Christian collaborators to murder a third of our people. In living memory.
Jewish fear is googling “Blut und Boden” and knowing that some of the top hits will be contemporary calls for the extermination of my people. It is clicking on a Bustle article entitled, “What Does ‘Blood & Soil’ Mean? Charlottesville Protesters Heard This Disturbing Chant,” and not seeing the words “antisemitism” or “Jews” mentioned once. It is the Charlottesville police declining to defend Charlottesville’s synagogue from armed neo-Nazis.
Jewish fear is receiving death threats targeting me as a Jew who writes publicly. It is how terrifyingly common that is, all the more so for those who, unlike me, are multiply targeted for being female, gender-queer, and/or Jews of colour.
Jewish fear is the casual ease with which people compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany, without imagining those comparisons to be triggering to Jews, because they think antisemitism is over and unrelated to other systems of oppression. It is also Trump egging neo-Nazis on.
Jewish fear is not the same for every Jew.
Jewish fear is smiling at a stranger on the street, getting a cold stare back and my thoughts immediately going to: is it your yarmulke, is it your nose, knowing that back then, Jews with a “good appearance” (i.e. Aryan-passing) were slightly more likely to survive. Knowing that we have been taught to hate and fear our own noses, to surgically smash and alter them to feel safe and beautiful. That when my father’s study partner went hiking recently in upstate New York he was shot at in the woods by strangers because he was wearing Orthodox male clothing.
Jewish fear is not the same for every Jew. My own experience is shaped by being white, cis-male, traditionally observant, and of Ashkenazi heritage. Some of us descend from generations of Jews who have suffered from long centuries of European Christian violence; some of us descend from generations of Jews who for centuries on end received comparatively better treatment from their North African or Middle Eastern Muslim neighbours and rulers, only to have those relationships shattered by European Christian colonialism and imported antisemitism; others of us may have non-Jewish ancestors of various heritages in the recent or distant past. Some Jews, like me, are light-skinned, with whiteness that largely protects us from American state violence; some are Jews of colour, multiply targeted by the intersections of racism and antisemitism, and if they descend from Middle Eastern or North African countries, Anti-Arab racism and/or Islamophobia. Some Jews are increasingly afraid to walk the streets in Trump’s America if they are women, or visibly gender-or-sexuality queer.
Jewish fear is antisemitic conspiracy theories alive and well in 2017
Jewish fear is the risk of white Jews feeling so triggered and alone that we forget that the neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville to defend the memory of Black slavery, or that Charlottesville itself sits on land haunted by white genocide and expulsion of indigenous people. It’s white Jews caught up in whiteness, and terrified by the idea that any Jew might be vulnerable, forgetting or denying that Black Jews exist, that Black Jews stand doubly threatened by neo-Nazis who envision an America bereft of Black people and Jews. It is white Jews, afraid that any critique of Israel bears a hint of or is a prelude to attempted genocide, reflexively defending Israel’s state violence toward Palestinians or rejecting the Vision for Black Lives wholesale over its single paragraph of critique of Israel.
Jewish fear is antisemitic conspiracy theories alive and well in 2017: Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “Jew will not replace us,” holding up signs about overthrowing the “Jewish media,” called to action by the Daily Stormer to “Unite the Right…[and] End Jewish Influence in America.” In America, where ruling-class, white Christian Henry Ford popularized the fraudulent antisemitic conspiracy theory book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an adapted version of which could still be found on Walmart’s shelves in 2004. In America, which used racist immigration quotas in 1939 to turn away the S.S. St. Louis and its 900 German (overwhelmingly Jewish) refugees, back to Europe and the Nazis, who used antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish wealth and control to justify their acts of genocide.
Jewish fear is all the well-meaning and ill-meaning friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who talk about how Jews are good with money. It is the way that Jewish wealth gets highlighted as Jewish/Jewish poverty gets invisibilised, while the overwhelming Christianity of the ruling class in this country goes unmarked. It is Jews structurally set up to be urban landlords to working-class tenants people of colour, with all of the on-the-surface exploitation that entails; while white Christians ruling class members own the luxury towers, the banks, the suburbs, whose operation runs smoothly and goes unmarked as exploitative.
Jewish fear is we are still alone.
Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behaviour of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.
Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.
Jewish fear is I ask a dear friend of mine, a white man of Christian heritage, to learn about antisemitism, and he ignores me; I ask him a second time, and he evades; I ask him a third time, pained and confused, and our relationship badly falters. (He later apologizes, reads up, and reopens the conversation, for which I am sincerely grateful.)
Jewish fear is time and again when white Christian male violence has come for us, we have stood alone.
Jewish fear is we are still alone.
Jewish love is we are never alone.
Jewish love is our deep lineage of resistance to abusive systems of power.
Jewish love is we have each other. We have our ancestors/those who did Jewishness before us and our descendants/those will do Jewishness after us. We have a sense of being that stretches beyond immediate time and place, that broadens and deepens our capacity to love, care, and take action for all living things.
Jewish love is we have others, too. We live in an unprecedented time of possibility for close connection between Jews and non-Jews.
Jewish love is that Hashem chose us with love (הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה). Jewish love is connecting those words to my heart, spirit, and flesh with the utterance of my lips and with my tefillin.
Jewish love is our foremothers / aunties composing tkhines and other prayers to say in times of joy and plenty as well as prayers to say in times of fear and hardship, as well as love songs, and play songs, and songs of loss, and songs to pass the time. They bequeathed them to us in Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Hebrew, and other Jewish languages. Jewish love is learning those languages so we can honour their gift and resilience.
Jewish love is we have others, too.
Jewish love is our deep lineage of resistance to abusive systems of power. It is the passion and chutzpah of a young, Yiddish-speaking Clara Lemlich, who in 1909 incited the “Uprising of the 20,000, the largest strike by women workers in the United States to that time.” It is one-third of Ashkenazi Jewry belonging to the Jewish Socialist Bund or the Communist Party during the interwar period. It is the Mizrahi Black Panthers fighting white supremacy within Israeli society, in solidarity with Palestine. Jewish justice is, to paraphrase Dr West, what Jewish love looks like in public. It is generations of Jewish radicals committed to a fight for a better world, to this present day.
Jewish love is the unshakable dignity with which my severely disabled brother is treated by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish organization which cares for him. They have inherited a worldview from their ancestors that recognizes that my brother’s innate worth does not depend on his ability to produce.
Jewish love is true ahavas yisroel, building an accessible, beloved Jewish community that centres the experiences and leadership of Jews of colour, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews, and honour our diverse array of diasporic Jewish traditions, which are resources and options for Jewish life today.
Jewish solidarity is solidarity of non-Jews to Jewish people.
Jewish solidarity is also solidarity of Jews to other targeted peoples.
Jewish solidarity is Jewish rabbis and rabbinical students laying their bodies on the line.
Jewish solidarity is also solidarity of Jews to other Jews, particularly multiply targeted Jews: Jews of colour, Sephardi Jews, Mirzrahi Jews; female Jews; gender- and sexuality-queer Jews; disabled Jews; poor Jews, and others.
Jewish solidarity is non-Jews checking in with the Jewish people in their lives right now to see how they’re doing, to see if they can provide some harm reduction by offering to lend an ear, bring over some homemade soup, or take a shift at work. It is also white Jews checking in with the people of colour, Jewish and non-Jewish, in their lives to offer the same.
Jewish solidarity is white Jews organizing our communities to support Black, Brown, and Indigenous-led organizing, recognizing that this country was founded on and continues to organize itself around anti-Blackness and indigenous genocide.
Jewish solidarity is Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) in NYC showing up effectively for decades in feminist, anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic coalitions, building long-term relationships with sister organizations led by people of colour, immigrants, and Muslims; and those organizations now stepping up with JFREJ’s guidance to study and resist antisemitism.
Jewish solidarity is Jewish rabbis and rabbinical students laying their bodies on the line and “Standing Against White Supremacy in Charlottesville.”
Jewish solidarity is Linda Sarsour helping raise over $100,000 from Muslim communities to repair Jewish cemeteries.
Jewish solidarity is non-Jews reading the writing (see below) of Jewish anti-racists in response to Charlottesville — reading and then lifting up those Jewish voices within their non-Jewish communities. It is Christian heritage friends of mine who have studied antisemitism when I ask them to, and have integrated resistance of antisemitism into their everyday interactions and their liberation work.
Jewish solidarity is naming the way that contemporary American neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and KKK feature a range of antisemitic language and behaviours that draw directly from German WWII Nazi ideology and goals, while also moving carefully because articulating this connection is terrifying and triggering to many American Jews. It’s acknowledging that Jews are responding to this difficult balance in a variety of ways.
Jewish solidarity is the Jewish self-defence clubs that Jews formed in Poland to protect our communities from fascists and the police who actively abetted them. It is German Christian accomplices like the White Rose who resisted the Nazi regime. It is Goodman and Schwerner going down South with Cheney to break Jim Crow.
Jewish solidarity is naming the ways patriarchy underpins anti-Jewish violence and all other forms of structural violence, and committing to feminist transformations of our communities.
Jewish solidarity is white Jews showing up for racial justice.
Jewish solidarity is Linda Sarsour helping raise over $100,000 from Muslim communities to repair Jewish cemeteries, and JFREJ and Jewish Voice for Peace defending her from right-wing attacks for her solidarity to Palestine.
Jewish solidarity is solidarity for Palestine that follows the lead of Palestinian civil rights leaders and includes Jews in our vision of collective liberation. It actively resists Christian Western imperialism and structural antisemitism. It centres the voices of Palestinians and Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews.
Jewish solidarity is non-Jewish organizers of the March for Racial Justice scheduling their action for the anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, learning that they had excluded many Jews because this date falls on Yom Kippur this year, and modelling open-hearted, creative accountability in response. It is non-Black Jews learning about the history of anti-Black violence in this country, including the Elaine Massacre.
Jewish solidarity is non-Jews taking responsibility for educating and organizing their people. It’s anti-racist community organizing that studies antisemitism and Christian hegemony and integrates that analysis into all of our people’s movements. The more our movements do that, the more we will effectively resist systems of white supremacy and capitalism, which are interdependent with structural antisemitism.
Everyone is accountable and no one is disposable.
Jewish solidarity is white Jews showing up for racial justice. It is moving our dominant American Jewish communal institutions and the state of Israel away from apathy, isolation, and complicity by building long-term, generous, mutually accountable relationships with communities of colour, Muslims, queer people, and Palestinians as our comrades in collective resistance of Christian white supremacy. It is moving our communities towards justice with fierce love, knowing that everyone is accountable, and no one is disposable.
Jewish solidarity is part of collective liberation.
Acknowledgment: I extend my heartfelt thanks to Nadav David, Elana Baurer, Jessica Rosenberg, Rebecca Ennen, Helen Bennett, and other dear comrades who encouraged me and helped shape this piece.
Jonah Sampson Boyarin is a Jewish educator, activist, Yiddish translator, and writer.
This article was produced with permission from the author. The original can be found at Jewschool: Progressive Jews & Views, here. Visit the website for a full list of resources used to compose this article.
This article has been published in the AJDS magazine Just Voices, Issue 14, Nov. 2017: Antisemitism.