Speaking from my own small experiences with antisemitism, it’s imperative for American Jewish people to say #BlackLivesMatter and do something about it.
I’m not a Black person so I cannot speak to the Black experience in the United States. However, I can speak a little about my own experience as a Jewish-American.
I’m not religious, so I don’t have a lot of experience about what goes on in the religious communities. However, being not religious but Jewish by ancestry, and having an English last name, I can relate what I’ve seen and experienced as an outsider on the inside.
When I was young in the ‘60s and ’70s, I didn’t think about race or religion much. I wasn’t confronted with much, our neighborhood had few Black people, a lot of not at all religious Jewish people and White Christians who seemed to not care much about race or religion. There was one incident when a grade school friend repeated that her parents said they were antisemitic. We were about 7-years old. Neither one of us understood what the comment meant, but boy my grandmother understood it when I repeated it to her. She strongly advised me to drop the friend. I didn’t right away. She never exhibited any hate or malice but she soon moved because her parents wanted a “different neighborhood.” We did not keep in touch.
I first learned about the Holocaust, not in school, but at camp. I went to Jewish camp (not particularly religious) and they talked about it with us. Then, they reenacted a round-up of Jewish people using the campers as the victims, and even then, that seemed out of line to me. I was about 11-years old.
Even after learning about the Holocaust, I still hadn’t internalized antisemitism because there were no Holocaust survivors in my family, some of my ancestors came from the UK (probably via Germany but decades before the 1930s), and the others who came from Russia and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire escaped Eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I knew antisemitism was out there but being a Jewish person in the post-WWII USA, it didn’t seem to touch my life much. I’ll also note that it was probably, at least in part, because the economy was pretty good up until then.
In the mid-1970s, when I was a junior in high school a group of self-proclaimed Nazis threatened to march in my community. They targeted my community for including a number of Holocaust survivors. Again, I wasn’t too concerned because the threatening Nazis were a very small group of seeming misfits, and they never mounted the courage to make the march in my neighborhood, eventually moving the event to their own neighborhood. It was ill-attended and they looked ridiculous.
My first personal experience with antisemitism happened when I was living in a college dorm. My across the hall neighbor was a young man who came from the same neighborhood where the Nazis marched a couple of years before. He proclaimed himself a Nazi and liked to make general and vague threats to me from time to time. One afternoon, I had my door open as most of us did back in those days, and he attempted to physically attack me. His roommate quickly interrupted the attack and nothing serious happened except for the increase in my college stress level. Nothing happened to my attacker either. He wasn’t even reprimanded, but his roommate, an older grad student, kept an eye on him and him away from me.
I began my career in the 1980s, and I soon noticed more antisemitism. Now, I’m not going to argue that the American urban working world back then (or even now) was generally bad for Jewish people. It wasn’t. Many Jewish people were and are very successful in the USA. I think I chose the wrong career at the wrong company. They hired me but things went downhill from there. Having an English last name made things more interesting. I heard a lot of anti-Semitic talk that I might not have heard had my name been one traditionally deemed Jewish. The talk amounted to general complaints about Jews, snarks about greed and ugliness etc. The usual stuff.
There were also the direct comments from people who knew I was Jewish. I was told how very Jewish I looked. I was told to stop acting so Jewish. My ancestors mostly coming from the UK, my great-grandmother on my mom’s side quite the very proper British lady (who quietly sent her sons to break up the Bund in the 1930s), no Yiddish spoken in my home growing up, or in my parent’s homes when they were growing up, and very little religion of any kind, left me little to understand about those comments other than the gross sensitivity of White Christian America is to differences. If I got comments, I can only imagine what comments Black people get every day, when they’re not being slaughtered in the street by cops or seriously threatened and actually physically harmed by the KKK or neo-Nazis.
The key anti-Semitic incident in my career came in a surprising way. I didn’t have to speculate that it was caused by antisemitism because the person who did it told me. My boss, who championed the careers of others in my department, went out of his way to stall my career despite glowing reports about me from customers. Those he championed had more negative reports and that always irritated me but it was proof of nothing. A few years into my career as his employee, he told me he was anti-Semitic. A coworker said something nasty racist to me and I complained to him about it. He responded that it was my fault for being Jewish, and then oddly, confessed his own antisemitism. That explained a lot.
I knew better than to go to Human Resources, pretty sure they could not care less, but he did. I soon learned that he told a colleague what he had said to me and that person warned him he could be fired for it so he went to Human Resources to confess, I figured so as to beat me to a punch I never intended to throw. As predicted, Human Resources could not have cared less about him, but they cared a lot about me, and not in a good way. They called me in and threatened me, strongly suggesting that I not make a complaint (which made me want to). I ended up quitting not long after. Now, I have that “bounced around” resume employers don’t like. The antisemitic boss eventually retired with a big party and lots of accolades, but his pension was stolen by the company years before, so that’s some odd justice in a way.
In a later job, I did complain about racist comments made by other employees in the lunchroom toward the couple of Black employees. My complaints were passed off as trouble-making by that Jewish woman. I quit that place too.
A Jewish friend of mine had a strange incident in the 1990s with the police. This friend always says that from a distance, she looks like she might be Black and one day that caused her a problem. She was stopped by police while driving through an affluent, White Christian neighborhood. As she relates the story, when they saw her up close, they backed off, mumbled stupid excuses for the stop, and let her go on her way. She’s sure she was stopped for being Black and let off when the officers confirmed she wasn’t. That having happened to her, we could only imagine what might have happened had she been a Black person.
At this point, everything I’ve written must seem like much ado about nothing. My grade school friend simply moved. I was never seriously hurt, I have a job (of sorts) and now work with some very nice people, my friend was not seriously frightened or harmed, the Nazis never marched in front of the Holocaust survivors in my home town. My point is that these experiences that left me occasionally uncomfortable, and perhaps a little under-employed, are nothing compared to what Black Americans experience every single day. Black people are not simply observed by cops, but hunted and harmed for being Black. Black people are still red lined out of neighborhoods and the local Nazis don’t just march, they hunt and kill Black children claiming to stand their ground when it’s not even their ground and no one has attacked them. Black people often can’t get a foot in the door at the companies where I was hired but treated as very different and strange, even with my light skin, blue eyes and relatively white, religion-neutral background. My ex-boss didn’t have to be a rude racist to them because they never got the job to begin with. The white supremacist across the hall in college did a lot worse to them, if they even had the opportunity to go to college in the first place.
That’s why American Jewish people must say and observe and internalize that #BlackLivesMatter. We know a little bit about what it’s like to be treated like an outsider in the USA, our refuge from European antisemitism and Holocaust, and a little bit about what it’s like to earn less respect and security than what White Christian Americans deem themselves entitled. What we know a little bit about, Black people know a lot about.
What can we do? We can demand change in our neighborhoods and workplaces. We can press our own complaints to keep mounting the pressure for change. I learned only after my experiences that lack of complaint did me no good and made no positive change. No one accepted me because I didn’t complain. Things just got worse.
Also, we can vote differently. Well over 80% of American Jews are Democrats, but that’s not good enough. Democrats are not doing enough. They’re paying some lip service and engaging in some lackluster and often embarrassing performance art but they’re not defunding militarized and way over-funded police departments and they’re not reallocating that money to programs that help the community. We have to vote for people who will stand up and demand change not just because they’re Democrats and grandma and grandpa voted for FDR in 1932, or some rabbi somewhere said that this particular Republican candidate is or maybe good for Israel. We live in the USA, not Israel, and the Israelis don’t ask us for policy advice, and are the politicians really good for Israel when all they bring is more war and tools of war, and is what is or may be good for Israel, good for American Jews. Israelis have the health care we do not have, our money spent on arming them and their so-called enemies.
And, do not defend Trump or his administration. These people do not care about us. Ivanka’s questionable and possibly temporary conversion won’t protect you from the Trump incited hoards shouting “Jews will not replace us.” Trump has used antisemitic tropes too often for anyone to argue it’s all a misunderstanding. He’s signalling antisemites that their nefarious goals are his goals. So now it’s time American Jews more than signal to Black Americans that their goals, to not be killed or attacked, and to be given every right and opportunity as Americans, are our goals.