The Fight Against White Supremacy Must Include Battling Antisemitism

11 mins read

Still reeling from the antisemitism boldly on display at the Jan. 6 insurrection (not that you would know it from the news coverage), the Nazi symbolism exhibited this past weekend at CPAC and Hyatt’s tepid response to it is almost too much for me to bear. As I metaphorically rip up my Hyatt membership card, I find myself again wondering why we constantly wind up back here. And why we feel prohibited from discussing this issue with others. Nearly every Jewish person has struggled with a reluctance to say,Look at Charlottesville, look at the white supremacists marching and chanting, Jews will not replace us!” — all the while being appalled that those chants and torches were not the headline. Think about the Camp Auschwitz T-shirts swarming the Capitol and the 6MWE (6 million wasn’t enough) logos. We want to scream it from the rooftops. But we don’t. 

We police our words and actions all of the time so we are not perceived as competing for concern or resources with other targeted groups. We are also told, even by other Jews, that we must be quiet and let other minorities lead because most of us have white privilege. And while we acknowledge that privilege, we know that throughout history, our skin color has never really protected us. Despite all this, we stay quiet, and because we don’t yell loud enough the white supremacists keep winning in their attempts to make us irrelevant in this battle, and we’re helping them by allowing our concerns and fears to be minimized.

Take the Holocaust, the “final solution” to the “Jewish question.” The vast majority of Jews know that in addition to six million Jewish people, five million non-Jews were murdered for not conforming to a cruel notion of a superior race. And yet, we are reminded — sometimes scolded by well-meaning Jewish allies — that it wasn’t just about us. In conversations about the Holocaust, it is often Jewish people reminding non-Jewish people of the appalling death toll of other victims. In my experience, and particularly since 2016, I have reminded people of the five million to explain why everyone, not just Jews, should care about white supremacy and Nazism. It’s like the well-known Martin Niemöller poem: “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Unfortunately, well-known or not, the poem does not seem to have had an impact on how people approach activism or how they rationalize staying silent in the face of attacks on minority groups. All too many people think “the bigots just hate Jews, so I am cool” or “and we won that war, so that’s been fixed.” I have always felt that those five million victims have gone unrecognized but not because Jewish people have hijacked the narrative. Rather, the failure to educate non-Jews about the true toll of the Holocaust has led to a lack of understanding about how terrible the history really is, and that they, like the Jews, would have been at risk — and still are.

Now this is my experience, and most of my connection to the Holocaust is the Jewish experience, family and collective. That so many people don’t even know about the scope of the Holocaust is a compelling reason to push the antidote to hate — education. For starters, this lack of knowledge means we must ensure that the Holocaust is taught in every curriculum and that the story is told accurately.

Indeed, one of the reasons antisemitism is so dangerous right now is the overwhelming reluctance to recognize it on its own as a real and credible threat, and not just to Jewish people since all targeted groups suffer when white supremacy rises. A lot of that reluctance is antisemitic in and of itself, built on the theory that racism and hate is a product of power, whether real or perceived, and that Jewish people hold too much power to be harmed. This is a fallacy consisting of lies told throughout history about Jews controlling wealth and power and in the current day through the narrative of conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who threatens all Americans by holding a seat in Congress. The danger also arises because, as noted above, a lot of Jewish people themselves minimize antisemitism, often in a well-intentioned way to be an ally, or because they have been shut down by others when they try to discuss their fears and concerns about being a targeted minority. As a result, many Jews don’t even feel comfortable discussing the Holocaust as what happens when antisemitism goes unchallenged. 

But antisemitism cannot go unchallenged because we know all too well that while white privilege may be the rationale to downplay antisemitism, it does not protect us against what the white supremacists want for us – extinction. Even if racism can otherwise be reasonably approached as a system of power, the perceived power of Jewish people is illusory; the white privilege on which it is built historically has not canceled out the murderous hate aimed at Jews. If anything, it becomes the rallying cry of this hate, as the erroneous perception of Jewish power goes beyond any rational discussion of white privilege.

The Holocaust was a direct result of virulent antisemitism, and it is fair to teach the Holocaust in that manner and to view it as a crime against Jewish people. Doing so isn’t meant to exclude other victims. Similarly, we can talk about antisemitism — no, we must talk about antisemitism — as its own issue. There is no such thing as less important hate, yet when we dare speak of thousands of years of persecution, including present day, antisemitism is treated with less gravity (all while we apologize that we aren’t trying to imply that hate against others isn’t equally important). White supremacists are capitalizing on this dynamic — they know that this country overwhelmingly does not view Jewish people as being in danger. They bank on the same theories that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Jewish people make great scapegoats. But not if we don’t allow it. 

But first, we have to be able to talk about antisemitism. As Jewish people, we have to stop apologizing for our experience. If anything, our shared experience as targets of hate should unite us or at least help us develop a strategy against hate. I would never ask anyone to minimize their experience. (Imagine asking the author writing in support of gay rights to be sure to include Jewish people because we had it “just as bad.”) I only ever minimized it to myself, because I lacked a safe place to disclose my discomfort at bringing up antisemitism.

Writing this is scary. Most readers will not know my heart. They may not understand that I am not saying that fighting antisemitism is more of a priority or that the Jewish experience is worse than anyone else’s. What I want heard is this: We have a crisis on our hands, but we also have the opportunity to educate people and stamp out antisemitism — which, I humbly offer, would go a long way towards winning the war on racism.

We aren’t fine and don’t feel safe. That doesn’t stop us from being allies, but since we can’t use our shared experiences to bridge gaps and unite against a common enemy, our ability to be a more effective ally is negatively impacted. Mostly, we just want to be able to speak up about antisemitism without fear or pressure, because no one else is.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak outBecause I was not a socialist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —Because I was not a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —Because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemöller

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Michele Alexander is a mother, wife, lawyer, New Yorker and Solid Gen Xer who rages against white supremacists and cyclists who break traffic rules.

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