Reflections following the, now forgotten, Briahna Joy Grey’s tweeter storm over the alleged whiteness of Jews.
Briahna Joy Grey, a left-wing activist and a former aide to Bernie Sanders, asked in one of her regular podcasts, if Jews are white. She didn’t just ask it. It was the title of her February 25th podcast “The Debrief.” This may seem a simple matter to a non-Jew, but it is anything but. While Judaism as a way of life and a system of values has no interest in people’s skin color, Jews have complex relationships with the subject. Therefore, there is a lot of genuine discussion to be held here. However, asking if Jews are white is probably the worst way to open any discussion on the matter.
|Briahna Joy Grey|
When it comes to the physical, physiological, facts on the ground, melanin; Jews are shades. A range of different shades of skin color from black to white, mostly shades of brown. But at the social level things are complicated. Complicated by the different experiences Jews and other minorities, had in Europe and North America. While in both continents there were lengthy periods of intolerance and violence towards many of these minorities; there were still differences. Differences that are known, but not so easily understood.
Jews are one of many marginalized European and Middle Eastern communities that made it in the USA. An America that for the greater part of its existence, being white was one of the highest social statuses. Succeeding in such America was not a given. It was a tough struggle against intrench prejudices. Prejudices that originated in the world they left behind. A world that punished them, violently and brutally, whenever they tried to improv their situation. And even when they didn’t.
The America they came to was doing the same thing. Not to them. To African Americans, and to Native Americans. (As well as visiting this mistreatment on Hispanics and East Asians populations). On one hand the Jewish experience in North America did not include the systematic abuse perpetuated on African Americans and Native Americans. On the other hand, the ideas that justified this mistreatment were similar to those that justified the systematic abuse Jews have suffered from in Europe. And in this new home Jews were viewed in ways that were not far removed from those European perceptions. Those were, and are, the same European misperceptions. These are ideas that got them [us] killed in countless pogroms and persecutions. American Jews never lost sight of the fact that no matter how successful they are, those ideas are alive and well all around them. And occasionally produce murderous violence against them. This is why those differences are insignificant for Jews. Yes, murderous violence is not as recurring as on the “Pale of the Settlements.” At the same time, it is not that far behind.
However, for African Americans those differences are very significant. They saw the Jews take the white only sits on the bus, drink from the white only fountain, and enter the white only stores. And most importantly, Jews could vote, while African Americans were prevented from that. And of course, as mention previously, Jews in the USA did not have to worry from lynch mob as much as African Americans had to. From an African American pov Jews were on the white side of life, enjoying a degree of safety unavailable to most, if not all, African Americans. Europe, a continent on the other side of the ocean, was irrelevant. This does not dispute the fact the Jews were discriminated against in USA. Not to mention the confidence by which antisemite agitators such as Henry Ford, Charles Coughlin, and others, could spread their hatred. The difference is that the oppression of black people and Native Americans was official policy in both state and federal levels. That allowed private initiatives among white Americans to create lynch mobs, and other forms of murderous violence. This also inspired discrimination against Jews. But it was mostly a private initiative. In stores that decided not to allow Jews to enter, private clubs, etc.
These differences are why African Americans experienced Jews as white. The threat to their lives was, and is imminent. Any pause that could be given would be considered luxury. And in many ways, it is. This is why Briahna Joy Grey, found it so amazing that Americans don’t consider Barbara Streisand white. For her it was amazing. But for mainstream America, an openly Jewish person is not white; even without the traditional dress. Knowing that makes her amazement understandable. And to be clear, I don’t think all African Americans see the Jews that way. I’m sure many understand the complexities of the Jewish situation. At the same time, I’m sure Briahna Joy Grey views are not uncommon either. But they all share the same experiences, current and historic. And because of that the outrage, justifiable without a doubt, has to take a step back. And not just because of that.
What both sides need to know, and internalize is that the similarities between the oppression of Jews in Europe and Afro-Americans in the USA, does not always have a mutual healing effect. On the contrary, in many cases it hurts and enrages. And it even frightens. And that is probably the worst thing of all. Briahna Joy Grey’s podcast, and the tweeter storm that followed, is a good example. Because when Jewish identity is discussed by non-Jews troubles begin. And the rise in hate crimes against Jews demonstrates that; as it always did. Challenging the identity of Jews is done in two known ways. The first is challenging their loyalties to the countries they live in. Are they true Russians, Germans, Pols, Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians, Americans, etc. or something else? With National Socialism challenging their very place in the human race. Each case was a precursor of atrocities. And in many instances, the engine of those atrocities. Asking if jews are white, intentionally, or unintentionally, challenges the current and historic roll Jews have in the cause of civil rights. Intentionally, or unintentionally, it challenges their loyalty to that caus. A cause their lives were and are dependent on. Therefore, the outrage Briahna Joy Grey received wasn’t just unavoidable. It was also an expression of survival instincts kicking in.
And just as the harsh Jewish experience created survival instinct among Jews. So did the African American experience. An outrage like this, justified or not, can kick start their survival instincts just the same. And what good would that do? Creating a shouting match between two communities that have no interest in oppressing each other? Both are deeply wounded. Those wounds need healing. Rage, no matter how justified, does not heal.
Briahna Joy Grey may not have intended to challenge Jewish identity, but she internalized and used the language and tools of oppression. And we, as Jews, must never rule out the possibility that we have done the same. I’ll be surprised if we hadn’t.
The second constant feature of hatred of Jews was labeling them with whatever is considered the worse possible evil of the period. This is what Batya Ungur-Sargon tried to explain to her in the preceding discussion in her other podcast “Bad-Faith”. In Medieval Europe Jews were falsely accused of being Christ killers that drunk the blood of Christian children for Passover. In Nazi era Germany, we were labeled a sub-human race bent on conquering the world. (Who in their right minds would want the headache of managing the entire world?). In Soviet Russia, Zionists, a euphemism for Jews, were capitalists, the most corrupt element of any society according to Marxist ideology. In the western world, rightwing antisemites see the Jews as Bolsheviks. Today we are considered nonwhites by white supremacists, and whites by far left (supposedly) anti racists that see whiteness as the evilest thing there is. So, when she later asked if Jews are white, people got mad. But we can do the same kind of mistake. And like it or not, we have internalized some of the ideas of white supremacy. As most of the world did.
This is a living historical legacy that does not get its due attention. Today the ideas of white supremacy are recognized as evil, stupid, and oppressive. They were like that all the time. But so much was invested in spreading them, in arguing for them, and in living by them that they were internalized by people world over. It took centuries for the ideas of tolerance and mutual acceptance, to gain the resources needed for spreading all over the world. This made it possible for them to challenge, and expose, the corrupt, immoral and evil nature of white supremacy. There is still a lot of work to be done on this in order to undo that evil. And it cannot be done adequately while ignoring that antisemitism was spread and internalized in the very same manner. And the same goes for the fight against antisemitism. This is why we, as Jews, must cleans ourselves from this poison. We must do so for our own best interest. And not just as a result of a concern for our own image. The two struggles are still connected like conjoined tweens. Just, not identical conjoined tweens. And that is another reason to take a step back. And we have internalized some of those ideas. Just as many African Americans internalized the ideas of Antisemitism and Jew hatred.
Internalizing ideas of white supremacy does not mean that Jews want to be white. This insensitive equation/ slash accusation, is a part of the package of misperceptions when the issue of Jews, race, and color, is raised. Jews don’t want to be persecuted and discriminated against. That means been accepted by the general society. And for many decades this meant, unofficially, be seen as white. Today it means having non-Jews stop defining Jewish identity. But the result of the previous condition was that Jews have internalized, to a degree, ideas and perceptions that came from white supremacy. As did a lot of other societies that lived under the shadow of the globally dominated white Christian European culture. There were other contributing factors. The desire of individuals to imitate elements from any successful culture. And the lack of any counter ideology, active among those ethnicities and religions that could challenge the evil of white supremacy. Such ideologies rose to prominence, only in the last 100 years. Jews in this regard are no different than many others. For non-Jews to focus only Jews, that is not just hypocrisy; it is antisemitism. It creates the false impression that Jews had a more significant contribution for slavery and racism in North America than others. And that is a demonizing blood libel that exonerates the main perpetrators. That said, again, we did internalize the tools of oppression of African Americans, and black people in general. In cleansing ourselves from this evil, we take a major step in defining our identity, our fate. This is another way of keeping non-Jews from defining our Jewish identity. And that is another reason for the rage to take a step back. Jews, like many others, had lived for centuries under the shadow of the white, European Christian culture. A global culture that believed and practiced the ideas of white supremacy and antisemitism. Today that shadow is substantially diminished. It gives us, Jews, the opportunity to let our own true self to shine. In order to that we need to find it. Rage is not exactly useful for that purpose.
Another reason to take a step back is humbleness and humility. Yes, the question of whether Jews are white shouldn’t have been asked. But it comes from an insensitivity we are equally able to practice. And most likely do. And despite the wounding effects of the differences between the two repressive experiences; the struggle against the ideologies that motivates them is the same struggle, because these are the same ideologies. We all need to understand that a part of the internalization of tolerance is giving the benefit of doubt to those that outrage us. Unless negative stereotypes were deliberately, and constantly, defended and advocated, the rage had to subside quickly. As I hope it did; though that may never be known, since the events in the Ukraine have taken center stage, and pushed everything else to the sidelines.
We, as Jews, must understand that when it comes to conversations about race, we can make the same misjudgment. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if we don’t. The benefit of doubt gives everybody the room to discuss both racism and antisemitism. And that discussion is necessary, especially if it wounds. As it clearly does.
Finally, any outrage is self-consuming. And when it is justified, we are less aware of it. And even the most justifiable outrage does not justify a shutting off of opportunities for constructive communication. No matter how narrow they are.
As I was writing this piece, this forgotten episode made a comeback. Following the twitter storm, Briahna Joy Grey gave an interview on that experience to Coleman Hughes. I didn’t get to see it, because I was working on this. And because I’m a bit of a technophobe. But the add to that interview includes an incomprehensible quote, probably from her.