For the last few weeks, I have been diving into the issue of anti-Semitism in the Black community. Unfortunately, this is not a one-way street. Despite many Jews being at the forefront of both the civil rights movement of the 1960s and today’s BLM movement, anti-Black racism certainly exists in the Jewish community – and I would venture to say that it’s more common among Orthodox Jews than it is elsewhere.
First, I want to make a few points clear. The ant-Semitism coming from the Black community is far different from the racism coming from the Jewish community. Firstly, there are not many Jewish public figures who make blatantly racist remarks. There isn’t a vast swath of violence against Black people being perpetuated by the chasidic community. But just because racism doesn’t manifest itself through public figures or in violent outbursts doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist, and certainly doesn’t mean that it has no lasting effects.
Let’s start with where racism lies. During these COVID days, we have seen no shortage of videos depicting large gatherings of Jews, whether they be children’s carnivals or weddings, with no social distancing. In many of these videos, we hear the ironic “Black Lives Matter” chants and see the token “in memory of George Floyd” signs. The point here is that Mayor Bill de Blasio allowed public gatherings in New York City as long as they were BLM protests. All other gatherings were banned during the pandemic. But many used these loopholes as a way to go about their regular business. Want to have a wedding? Chant “Black Lives Matter” while doing the hora. Want to open up the park for children? Make sure there’s a George Floyd sign present.
However, many of the same people using the BLM platform as a means to congregate are the same people who refer to Black people derogatorily as “shvartze” or may even go so far as to use the “N word.” How can we be all up in arms when Black celebrities attribute historically anti-Semitic tropes to us when we are doing the same thing or at least allowing the same things to go on in our communities? To some of us, the BLM movement is just used to achieve a means.
And that’s the other problem with these scenarios. The “using.” When we take serious topics like the plight of Black people in America and police brutality, and only acknowledge them to improve our own personal situations, we are not only ignoring the issue at hand, but we are giving credence to the “silence is compliance” mantra. This would not be dissimilar to those who invoke Holocaust imagery and comparisons in order to push their own narrative, a tactic that we all condemn to the highest form when it happens. Aside from that, what kind of message are we sending to our children when the main focus of the BLM movement is to allow us to gather in groups amid a pandemic? We are simultaneously mocking the movement and using it to our advantage. What are children supposed to think? I will tell you what they come away with. They learn that we shouldn’t be sensitive to Black America. They learn that when other communities are calling out for a change, we should mock or ignore it unless it serves our purpose. They learn that certain communities are not to be trusted, and not just when it comes to social change. They are not to be trusted in business or as a tenant, or even as law enforcement. After all, their complaints are laughable. The protests do nothing to change the mentality that has been so engrained in our community for so long, so how could we ever get to the point where we treat black people as anything more than less than us?
If you’re wondering where I get the notion that there has been a sense of the fact that some in our community view Black people as “less than,” I could easily point to the Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yitzchak Yosef, who reportedly compared Black people to monkeys. I could point to the forum sections on many of the Jewish websites where one need only scroll through a few of the threads to see blatant racism. I could point to my own rebbe in middle school who told me that one cannot be an Orthodox Jew and not be a racist. He never even explained this. He just left it hanging, and let me, an impressionable middle-schooler, take that statement home to my parents and have them explain how wrong it was.
Now, let’s not get too far over the top with this. The racism doesn’t exist in every Orthodox Jew. On the whole, I think we are generally pretty level-headed with this topic. But please don’t blind yourself to thinking that it doesn’t exist in our community. It absolutely does. In fact, I would venture to say without any proof whatsoever that racism is about as common in our communities as anti-Semitism is in Black communities. Sure, the bigotry doesn’t manifest itself in violent outbursts, but it certainly does in how to do business and whether to consider someone trustworthy.
And this is one of those few times where I do consider the phrase “silence is compliance” to be accurate. No, it is not your job to go on Twitter and shout “RACISM” at random people. You don’t have to march in BLM protests, write to your elected officials, or change your profile picture to a black box. You don’t have to answer for or even give credence to the concept of “white privilege.” But when people with whom you are directly associated make bigoted statements or take bigoted actions, your silence is compliance. And it’s not so much compliance that are as compliant in the action as the person who did it. But you are compliant in the mentality outside our community that racism runs rampant within it.
After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, I wrote that if we want other communities to take anti-Semitism seriously, we have to be there to take a stand when racism occurs against other communities. It’s fairly obvious that we have more to do in our own community to combat racism before we tell others how to behave. This doesn’t mean you have to support the BLM organization. It doesn’t mean you have to buy into defunding the police. But it does mean that racial slurs have to stop being used. It does mean that we shouldn’t co-opt expressions and sentiments to meet our own needs. It means that when you see bias happening on our streets, you can’t stand by and watch. You have to take a stand. We need to do this not only because that’s what we want from other communities – to police the anti-Semitism within – but because it’s the right thing to do.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.