As an American Jew, I am of two minds when it comes to America.
Like nearly everybody that went through the public school system in this country, my social studies education was taught through a white supremacist lens— not overtly or intentionally but white supremacist all the same. All my life, White Supremacist meant to me KKK, Nazis, people who hated Jews and Black people and anyone not Aryan, the Confederate Flag— you know, that evil Other that we could feel so good not to be a part of. But of course, now I (and hopefully the collective WE) understand that white supremacy is more than just a label for a hate group. It’s an entire system of systemic racism that views the world through a white lens, regardless of religion or ethnic background or racial identity.
I, also, at some point, developed the belief that being patriotic meant having high expectations for your country and pushing it to do better, be better. The rally cry that went up at the 2017 Women’s March and at countless other marches and protests was “Dissent is Patriotic.” Our country was literally founded on the basis of dissent.
So, as an American Jew, I hold two truths in my hand.
One is the truth that my family surely would’ve perished in Russia and Europe if not for the opportunity to emigrate to this country rumored to have streets paved with gold. There’s more to this truth but that’s a story in and of itself.
The other is that this same country is also the cause of perish, anguish and pain both in and outside of this country.
Still, for so many, America continues to be a place of refuge for so many that come from places that are comparatively worse. Comparatively. That’s the key word, I guess. Yes, America is better than living in a war-torn country. Yes, America is better than raising your children in a refugee camp. I hope so, anyway.
Having helped to start up a refugee resettlement organization, which subsequently helped a Syrian family find a foothold in America, I feel supremely embarrassed and mortified at our collective treatment of refugees in this country.
And I feel even more shame and mortification when learning the things I didn’t know as I undo years and years of a white supremacist education. Not just our collective behavior as citizens of this country but at my own individual mistakes and misguided attempts to do good in this world. I cringe now, 20 years on, at the white saviorism that was at the heart of my determination to become a public school teacher.
At the heart of dissent is the belief in the IDEA of America. The general premise was promising. The execution failed miserably— full of ironies and hypocrisies and short-sightedness and greed and a real lack of humanity.
The more I understand what it means to be a racist country, the more I understand that there is no way to undo centuries of trauma. What’s ridiculous is that as a Jew, I should’ve understood this from the very beginning. Trauma runs through the blood of Jews around the world. Ask any child of a Holocaust survivor.
We can’t undo it, and I don’t believe we can fully redeem ourselves. And so, the only thing to do is to start from where we are and go forward from there.
So, where to start? If you’re like me, you start by figuring out how to deal with feelings of guilt—because you know, Jews and GUILT, amirite?.
In The Anatomy of White Guilt, the author offers this quote: “Theologian Letty Russell writes “The poor do not ask us to feel guilty, for they can’t eat guilt. What they ask is that we act to address the causes of injustice so they can obtain food.” (Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective).”
I don’t think there’s any kind of linear fashion in which to do anti-racist work, nor does it have to be done step by step. Alongside this grappling of my guilt is my commitment to finding my lane, my job in our collective anti-racist work. The marches and the protests are great but the behind-the-scenes stuff is important too— the policy-making, the voter drives, the education, making reparations, providing childcare and food, writing letters, phone banking, all of it. It matters.
As an American Jew, the truth I hold to be self-evident is the spirit of Tikkun Olam. It is my guiding principle, even if I make missteps or just do it wrong, Tikkun Olam provides room for growth through learning and doing.
The Anatomy of White Guilt (PDF Download), found at Racial Equity Tools, a wealth of resources.
How To Be an AntiRacist by Ibram X. Kendi
My Body is a Confederate Monument by Caroline Randall Williams