From Genocide to Justice: How Ashkenazi Jews can be Co-Conspirators of Systemic Change

What does it mean for a community to go from the gas chambers of Auschwitz 76 years ago to the chambers of city hall, the arts, and academia in the U.S. today? Journeying from the bottom of the European caste system to the top of the U.S. caste system constitutes generational whiplash. Ashkenazi Jews (Jews forced to settle in Eastern European due to violence and segregation) are in a unique position to chip away at systemic oppression in the U.S.; we were once racialized as ‘other’ in Europe and subjected to systematic killings (pogroms), police brutality, unjust laws, poor housing, segregation and poor education. We are also in a unique position to utilize our white-passing privileges and economic stability to advocate for communities that are currently being impacted by modern caste systems, inequitable societal norms, and policies. We outline below how we can be co-conspirators of systemic change by utilizing our words, ways, and wallets. First, we provide a foundation to contextualize our argument.

The authors believe the key to our survival in the U.S. is through radical solidarity with other minoritized communities. At times, it may be easy to assimilate into American whiteness, move out of communities of color, send our children to private school, or remain silent when Black Lives Matter is not discussed in our temples. However, we also need to remember that white supremacy culture damages the Jewish community as evidenced by the Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego, the rise in Anti-Semitic hate crimes, and the rise of neo-Nazism. Rabbi Prinz, who spoke before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington (1963), warned us that the most urgent problem he saw as the Nazis took over his Berlin Jewish community in the 1930s, was not bigotry and hatred but silence:  “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” Furthermore, Rabbi Heschel reminds that we have an extra responsibility to ally ourselves with oppressed communities because we too were once enslaved as strangers in a strange land: “There is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

The two authors grapple daily with how best they can be co-conspirators in challenging systemic oppression and supporting Black, Latinx, and Asian-American, Jewish and non-Jewish struggles, especially with the knowledge that whiteness is conditional.

Lisa Mednick Takami’s social justice lens was formed by listening to the immigrant experiences of her parents and grandparents and hearing the stories of her great-grandparents who fled the Pogroms and religious discrimination of early 20th century Russia to seek a better life in Canada. As a white, cisgender, Ashkenazi Jewish woman, Lisa’s commitment to education and workplaces free of bias and discrimination emerged from her experiences of anti-Semitism and marginalization growing up. Lisa recalls that her first job after graduating college included a week’s training in Orange County; the supervising manager gathered the entire office for the sole purpose of telling an anti-Semitic joke. Seeking the voice and courage to confront microaggressions at work and not wanting to see herself or others subjected to this type of treatment in higher education or at work emboldened Lisa to pursue an education career grounded in equity, diversity and inclusion. Lisa is married to a Japanese shinissei entrepreneur, a new first-generation immigrant, and has raised two multiracial children who have navigated racism and anti-Semitism at school. Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world or Jewish social justice) and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness, performing good deeds) inform Lisa’s work both personally and professionally.  As an Anti-Racist, Lisa recognizes racial privilege as the stepping stone from which she works to enact social justice change.

Zack Ritter grew up hearing stories of a bygone Jewish civilization in Poland and the stories of Auschwitz survival from his grandmother, which in turn, taught him the importance of solidarity with oppressed communities, resilience and struggle. He knew his grandmother received $300 per month from the West German government as reparations, thus he always wondered why Black and Native communities didn’t receive reparations from the U.S. government. His father was born in a refugee camp in Germany and he taught him the importance of standing up for individuals being systemically oppressed in any given society. His mother was a high school educator in mostly Black and Brown communities and she showed him what it means to truly be in community with others, building life-long friendships with folks across race, class and gender. Zack recalls a stranger in Australia threatening to kill him because he was Jewish; luckily strangers stepped in to break up the impending violence. He sees his role as a white skinned privilege person to continually work on his internalized white supremacy and also push his community to do more, so that no one has to suffer like his grandparents did.

Malcolm X believed sincere white folks should work within their own communities to challenge systemic racism. In time, he hoped communities of color and white folks could team up and together create a roadmap “to the salvation of America’s very soul.” The authors, inspired by this vision, have compiled the following actions that sincere white folks may consider, based on three categories: Your Words, your Ways and your Wallet:

YOUR WORDS:

1)    Be an Upstander: Don’t be passive when you see, hear or experience hate. Say something and be an active bystander for others.

2)    Check your own biases and internalized white supremacy by reading books like Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. 

3)    Interrupt microaggressive actions and correct someone when they microaggress against you.

4)    Speak out in your social circles about our current racial and class caste system.

5)    Read and teach others in your community about how various white communities have benefited from the Black Civil Rights Movement (e.g. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 removed racist housing covenants and Affirmative Action benefited white women the most.)

6) Write and call your elected officials to challenge qualified immunity, improve mental health services, and challenge local prison practices.

YOUR WAYS:

1)    Join or support a civil rights organization such as the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, Resource Generation, Transgender Law Center, Everytown for Gunsafety. March in solidarity with others.

2)    Remember that not all Jews are white (e.g Ashkenormativity).  Be inclusive of Jewish communities of color when planning programming in Jewish spaces.

3)    Cultivate trusting relationships and educate yourself on the lived experiences and histories of communities of color, transgender folks, Muslim-Americans, disabed folks, and other minoritized groups.

4)    Attend neighborhood council meetings and advocate for equitable access to housing, healthcare, and a reduction in policing.

5)    Use the power of your vote to support affirmative action, diversity training in schools, rent control, and related economic issues that impact equitable racial outcomes.

6)   Critically analyze your workplace and advocate for policies that challenge systemic racism, sexism, transphobia, and classism.

8)    Resist the temptation of being defensive when talking about race.

YOUR WALLET:

1)    Consider investing in Black and Brown-owned banks. Many folks invest in only large white owned banks that have a history of causing harm to working-class communities.

2)    Consider patronizing a financial advisor who is not white so that your monies can help support communities of color.

3)    Shop at Black and Brown-owned markets and businesses so that your dollars can circulate in these communities. Purchase books by authors of Color.

5) Pool funds and start neighborhood-wide and city-wide reparations funds for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

6) Divest from stocks and/or businesses that you know actively support prison labor.

In the words of Arundati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Systemic change will not happen overnight, but with sustained collective effort, action and education, a kinder and more compassionate society can emerge.

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