I’ll never forget the first time I was told that my minority status didn’t count. I was a senior in college- finishing up a certificate in women’s studies and taking a seminar entitled: ‘Economic inequality and cultural diversity in the women’s movement.
Sitting in a circle with other students, black, Latina, Asian-- some even openly gay (still a big deal in the early ‘90s), I was shocked to come to the realization that no one considered me- a white Jewish girl from Long Island- to be a marginalized member of society.
As a Woman’s Studies minor I was fired up about the patriarchy and the struggle women had (and still have) achieving equitable pay and professional advancement. And as a Jewish kid who had spent a fair amount of time explaining Judaism to people who had never met a Jew before I couldn’t fathom how these other students- didn’t see me…a woman….and a Jew….as a minority. All these years later, I am still figuring it out.
On this Rosh Hashanah Eve, as we celebrate the five thousand seven hundred and seventy seventh year of life, Jewishly speaking, it is an opportune time for all of us to re-examine how we as a collective see ourselves and how we are seen by those on the outside looking in.
For just as we pray to God to be written in the book of life It is only after we critically examine our lives, taking responsibility for our actions and our ‘selves’ that our requests might be answered.
When God declares in the book of Deuteronomy:
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life if you and your offspring would live.” (30:19) God is speaking to us as a collective as much as he speaks to us one on one. Perfection is not expected. It is clear that we will confront challenges and that from time to time- we will also be led astray.
That struggle to ‘choose life’ in the most idealized sense is what the journey of life…is what Teshuvah… is all about. And the journey of the Jewish people…is a complex story indeed.
What IS our story? As a people….Jews have survived inquisition, expulsion, amalgamation and attempted genocide. For many hundreds of years we were required to live in ghettos and shtetls. We were denied access to secular education and most professions. And while there were wealthy, successful and powerful Jews who were merchants, jewelers, doctors and advisors to kings, for almost 2000 years, to be a Jew was to live in a state of powerlessness and marginality.
And yet, our people –a remnant spread far and wide- continued to ‘choose life’. In many ways, it was that minority status--that oppression that unified us. Our traditions, our language, our prayers, our stubbornness and our faith gave us fortitude in the face of even the most disastrous calamites.
This is by in large no longer the case. Of course anti-Semitism is present in the world. But especially here in America, Jews typically experience a level of acceptance and success never before realized in our history. We live where we want, are well educated, And have the freedom to create our own professional paths. Even in a place like San Antonio where we are a fairly small minority the news that we ‘are Jewish’ is far more likely to be greeted with interest or surprise rather than animosity.
And when we do experience blatant anti-Semitism such as the graffiti and vandalism at Rodefei Sholom and Agudus Achim just over a year ago or more inadvertent manifestations such as inappropriate remarks made in the school hallway or at summer camp, we are shocked and dismayed….not afraid. And those who are ‘in charge’ bend over backwards to rectify the situation. We EXPECT to be respected and included.
“This is confusing,” Professor Marc Dollinger of San Francisco State University explains: “because we live with two competing truths. We are a people who have survived attempted genocide. But we have also gained more power and ‘Privileged Whiteness’ than ever in the history of the Jewish existence.”1
You heard me correctly. Dollinger said ‘privileged whiteness.’ But he is not speaking specifically about the color of our skin- about race-but about a social construct that seems tragically fixed in our world and is currently a topic of passionate discourse in the halls of Academia today.
In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig explains:
There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race “real” in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would
remain constant across boundaries. Yet, a person who could be categorized as black in the United States might be considered white in Brazil or colored in South Africa......2
From a sociological perspective then, “WHITENESS” is not a classification specifically of the color of our skin but is also a category of power and privilege. To be WHITE is to be considered part of the social, academic and economic elite. To be WHITE assumes that one has certain access, privileges and power that others do not possess. This notion undoubtedly complicates the conversation about race and privilege for many groups and individuals. But when it comes to the Jewish community it presents a unique series of challenges.
A lot of Jews, particularly Ashkenazim whose ancestors came from Eastern or Central Europe are Caucasian. We are white. Yet the story of our people-- the generations who traveled freight class to Ellis island or the Port of Galveston working in sweat shops or peddling their wares across the country is not one of white privilege. It is one of poverty and struggle and discrimination. Until quite recently (from a historical perspective) we were not only a minority in terms of size, we were a minority in terms of status.
But this reality shifted some time during the post-World War II era. By 1960 quotas for Jews had more or less disappeared.3 We buy homes in the suburbs and send our kids to private university. We don’t just assimilate, we begin to ‘fit in’. More and more we are part of the general power structure. We are part of the elite. This means that with each subsequent generation the internal sense of ‘otherness’ fades.
So now, more than a generation later, many of our children and our grandchildren have not internalized the reality of the Holocaust. And the birth of the State of Israel- the miraculous outcome of the ’67 war; they are ancient history. They cannot envision a time when Jewish people lacked access. And that comfortable underdog sensibility that has been a perpetual aspect of Jewish identity for millennia does not suit our current reality.
And so we are confused. Our history tells us we are an oppressed minority. Our reality reflects a community that is- by and large- a flourishing perpetuator of the ‘status quo.’ And this, whether we like it or not, can effect our credibility As the warriors for Tikkun Olam- we so desperately want to be.
This plays itself out most traumatically on the college campus. Jewish kids have historically been deep in the mix when it came to Civil Rights, Feminism, Anti-Vietnam protests. And many Jewish students today are deeply committed to conversations about race, about LGBTQ rights, about mental health, the environment. Yet, conversations about intersectionality, social constructs and the politics of ‘race and power’ have changed the definition of liberalism. And when the Palestinian/Israel conflict is mixed into the conversation our Jewish kids who dare to enter the fray feel woefully unprepared.
After all, we teach our kids to love the Promised Land for what it has accomplished in the region and the world. The promise of Zionism was that we could control our own tomorrow And not have tomorrow be controlled by someone else. And that promise has been fulfilled. Israel is the only place, we know, that will always take us in. It is a miraculous country built with grit and sacrifice and ingenuity. A state created in some sense because of what ‘others’ did to us systematically.’4
But we tend to avoid the more complicated aspects of this narrative. For many in the world, the ‘purity’ of our victimhood dissolved the moment we took control of the destiny of others regardless of the necessity to defend our own right to exist.5
No longer seen as the underdog but as the power player in the region Israel is accused of apartheid and genocide and of systematic racial discrimination. We know that this is not true but we cannot readily explain why it is completely false. On the most visceral level, we cannot fathom how a people that has been persecuted for so long by so many could suddenly be seen in such a light.
The reality is, we do have influence and affluence and power. And Jewish history has shown time and again that the assumption of power has been mandatory for the sake of our very survival.6 But, I am sure you would all agree- survival is not enough.
There can be no question that we have a right to exist as a religion, as a culture and as a people. We have a right to a State of our own! Nevertheless we owe it to our children, and to ourselves to better understand the ever-changing narrative of the Jewish people. Otherwise, our kids, if they don’t have answers may turn away from Israel. The narrative too complicated to unpack, the pressure too uncomfortable to bear.
When it comes to choosing life, we must aspire to do better and readily admit that Israel- 68 years young – has much to learn. We should not dismiss all criticism of Israel as racist and bias.
To admit that Israel struggles with human rights violations and must continue to confront the social and economic injustices within her boarders is not to declare she shouldn’t exist. It is to declare that Israel is ‘choosing’ life every day as a very real, very imperfect modern Democratic state with struggles and successes very similar to our own in the United States.
Back in ’93 as a senior in college I did not fully grasp the complexity of the maneuverings and politics of the Middle East, just as I did not fully understand how as a woman and a Jew- my whiteness could be seen as a threat to others. To understand that these two perspectives are now so completely intertwined takes getting used to. But is very important that we DO make an effort to make sense of this new power dynamic and recognize our confusion.
I know that I do not have all the answers (and even if I did, one sermon wouldn’t begin to even scratch the surface.) Yet through education, sharing and dialogue we can complicate the narrative together.
We must discussing the challenges of race and class that exist here in America, and in Israel as well.
We can acknowledge the complexity of the situation in Israel. How Israel has a right to defend itself and its people- and that this creates incredible ethical challenges when we also desire to treat ALL human beings with respect.
We can clarify that there are governments in the Middle East that do not want Israel to exist and emphasize how they undermine peace and cause their own people to suffer as they vie for power and influence in the region for themselves.
And we can educate ourselves by engaging with a variety of organizations- each with different missions and therefore different points of view.
Organizations such as AIPAC AND JStreet- working on the ground here in the United States to inspire Americans to maintain a passion for and commitment to our homeland.
And IRAC… working within Israeli society to improve its foundations of justice and equality for all. And so many others….
Jews will always be a minority in the world. But we have a unique place of power and privilege that requires us to choose life in an incredibly complex way. Fulfilling God’s command to live a life of good requires us to look more critically at ourselves – to acknowledge how our status has changed and to confront the realities we face in America, in Israel and in the world at large with a mix of humility and pride.
The Jewish people are a special sort of survivor- we are a nation committed to using power and privilege for good. We are a people committed to repairing the world. And we are a religion that recognizes human imperfection yet strives to choose a life that will bring blessing to us all in the end. So may we each in our own way choose life and blessing in the year ahead….AMEN.
1Professor Marc Dollinger, AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium 9/7/2016
2Race and Racial Identity Are Social Constructs, New York Times, 9/6/16
3Dollinger, AIPAC lecture
4Prof. Ken Stein, CIE lecture at Temple Beth-El, SATX 8/23/16
5Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Ethics of Jewish Power Today, GA 2000
6Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Ethics of Jewish Power Today, GA 2000