Yom Kippur #TorahForTheResistance: Jews and Solidarity
This moment requires acting in solidarity — having other people’s backs and enabling people to have ours. As Jews, we need practice in both.
As white supremacy continues to reveal itself, from the highest offices of government to our local communities, solidarity among its targets is more important than ever. Yet the obstacles to building together feel more insurmountable than ever.
For those of us who are Jews with white access — who are, on one hand, targeted by white supremacy through anti-Semitism and, on the other hand, benefit from and uphold white supremacy because of our whiteness — figuring out how to fight in solidarity can be a significant challenge.
Part of this challenge comes from our confusion around the conditionality of whiteness. Who is considered to be white has expanded and contracted over time to keep power in the hands of the most powerful. The United States in the 20th Century was a time of an expanding whiteness to include Italians, Poles, and European Jews. Yet now we are in a moment where whiteness is narrowing. For many Jews this contraction is deeply felt.
At the same time, Jews are facing difficulty in discerning levels of risk from rising anti-Semitism at a time when racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Islamophobia continue to put so many in grave danger.
Yet there’s another, more hidden challenge that we’re up against, and it’s one that I’ve been feeling acutely over the last year. Part of our Jewish community’s stumbling block to solidarity and allyship comes from the stories we tell ourselves, and how those stories shape us as a people.
Our Jewish communities tell and retell stories of overcoming obstacles, of finding our way to liberation against all odds and of defeating our enemies in order to survive. And indeed that is part of what makes us strong, rooted and proud. But with this story comes another insidious story: that no one ever has our back. We are told, explicitly or implicitly, that we can only truly trust other Jews, that non-Jews will throw us under the bus when given the chance and that we are alone in this world. This story makes us fearful, suspicious, walled off and isolated.
But this story isn’t the full truth, and the half-truth isn’t serving us.
In reality, Jewish history is as complex as our texts. When we look across time and across the globe, we find that our history is filled with stories of both solidarity and allyship as well as persecution and isolation. There are times of connection and mutual thriving in our history, and times of hostility and violence. Indeed, there are countless metanarratives through which to understand the history of the Jewish people. Why have we chosen the one in which we are always on our own? And, more importantly, how can we make a better choice?
When we believe in the story of an isolated people, we cannot see the allies in front of our noses. We feel completely alone, under attack, and stand poised with weapons in hand. In this political moment, Jews — and especially Jews with white access — risk running in terror toward the false protection of the powerful. In the United States, this can look like sidling up to white supremacists and right-wing extremists in government under the guise of protection or (for white Jews) attempting to disappear into the seductive blanket of white access . In moments of terror, we sometimes feel like we must take whatever we can get. This is what happens when we are not trained to see real allyship and when our stories of solidarity have been both hidden from us and trained out of us.
We need to tell those stories we haven’t been telling– the ones in which we, Jews, have had allies.
Let’s teach each other about the mayor in Chernovitz (Romania, now Ukraine) during WWII who saved the 19,000 Jews of his town by refusing to put them in a ghetto or deport them to the camps.
Let’s learn more about Albania, where the government refused to hand over any of its Jewish population to the Nazis, and where over 2,000 Jews sought refuge in cities and rural areas, protected through the war by local Albanians.
Let’s tell stories of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the head of the Islamic Center of France during Nazi occupation, who provided forged identity papers to over a thousand Jews and hid Jewish families in the Paris Mosque.
Let’s look around at what’s happening today, and see the non-Jews who stood watch over the synagogue in Charlottesville this summer when white supremacists stood across the street threatening the congregation with assault rifles in hand.
Let’s share about the coalition in Durham just a few weeks ago that brought together Trans, People of Color, and Jewish organizations to boycott this year’s Pride events due to anti-Semitism, transphobia, and racism.
Let’s reflect on the internal education done by the March for Racial Justice committee to learn about Jewish observance and history and the pivoting they did to extend the march an extra day so that Jews could participate.
Let’s tell the stories of Muslim leaders and community organizations who were first responders to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries earlier this year, offering material support and manual labor to rebuild.
We shouldn’t overlook the smaller stories, either. Some years ago I was in a leadership development program and invited all the participants, Jewish and non-Jewish, to my house for Shabbat dinner. When Friday morning rolled around, someone I hardly knew at the time, Lisa Anderson, presented me with a bottle of wine. She couldn’t make the dinner, but was moved by the open invitation to take part in our ritual, and wanted to offer sweetness in return. I had tears in my eyes as I took the wine, knowing immediately that she was an ally to me as a Jew. Sure enough, in the years since, Lisa has been one of my staunchest and unrelenting allies against anti-Semitism in all its forms. Sometimes allyship is a public demonstration; sometimes it is an invitation made and a gesture returned.
What would be different if we start from a place of abundance, if we believe that our neighbors have our backs? Who would we invite in? What kind of genuine support could we extend if we felt supported? And if we were to allow ourselves to experience the allyship of others, could it help us to learn to be better allies ourselves?
When we fail to take in the allyship of others, our own perception of solidarity becomes twisted. Jewish communities miss the mark on showing up for our non-Jewish neighbors in part because we often practice a kind of sacrificial allyship, in which we support other communities without seeing the support we are receiving or could receive ourselves. We often make sacrifices not asked of us while failing to hear the real requests coming from those whom we are ostensibly supporting. Over time, this one-way practice can build up resentment on both sides, unknowingly setting up a fragile powder keg of emotions.
There have been countless times when Jewish communities have missed the mark with Black and Brown communities, immigrant communities, Muslim communities and Trans communities. There have been countless times when we as white and/or cisgendered and/or American Jews have harmed Jews of color, immigrants and Trans Jews in our own synagogues and organizations, and put people in grave danger. There have been an infinite number of opportunities passed by to truly show up against racism, transphobia, xenophobia and misogyny.
So we must be humble with those who have missed the mark in showing up against anti-Semitism. We know all too well that being an ally is not easy and that our potential allies may need education and support to understand how anti-Semitism operates. We know also that this task of opening ourselves to be allied with is complicated by those moments in which our communities have missed the mark in allying with others.
This is a season of turning. Let us turn to the people around us and see them for what they are: allies. Or perhaps potential allies. What if we opened ourselves to the people in our lives and in our social justice movements that are ready to join with us, ready to fight against anti-Semitism alongside the fight against racism, sexism, transphobia, and xenophobia? What if we created the conditions for real solidarity?
We have so many stories in our history to guide us about Jews overcoming trauma and turning not to oppressive rulers, but to solidarity instead: Jews who survived Nazi occupation and went on to teach at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) throughout the American South, Jews who joined with Muslims and Christians in Iraq and Algeria to organize against the European colonial regime, Jews who lived through pogroms and went on to lead the U.S. labor movement. These are stories of race traitorship and true solidarity that we have at our backs and can draw on. There are probably beautiful stories from your own experience that you can build from too.
Solidarity is not easy. It is challenging, it is trying, it is facing disappointments in each other and fighting to connect with one another again and again. But figuring it out is necessary. This moment is too dangerous to go it alone.
We are all in need of practice. Let’s practice extending and receiving support. Let’s practice recognizing when people show up for us. Let’s practice humility. We can learn together.
Now, while the Book of Life is open, let’s reflect on that openness and carry it with us into the new year. What could grow from us amplifying the alliances we have and honoring them? What would be possible if we joined with our neighbors to build solidarity from the rubble around us? What could true safety feel like?
Contributors to this piece include: Helen Bennett, Koach Baruch Frazier, Dania Rajendra, Keren Soffer Sharon