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Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism

Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward published in the Summer 2017 issue of Public Eye magazine.

Over the past year, as antisemitic speech and acts grew in frequency and viciousness, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. As a committed Jew endeavoring to be an equally committed antiracist, I found myself struggling to hold both the reality of White privilege and the reality of antisemitism at the same time. I am fully and completely convinced that White privilege is real and that I benefit from it. And so I denied or downplayed antisemitism. Without making the choice consciously, I seem to have decided that for me to talk about antisemitism as a real threat I would somehow deny the benefits of White privilege for myself and other white-skinned Jews.

When, earlier this year, JCCs around the country were forced to evacuate, week after week, my 3-year-old nephew was among the thousands affected. It happened three times. A dear friend of mine from childhood saw my sister’s posts about it on Facebook, and called to commiserate. “What can I do for you?” she asked. I felt embarrassed. My friend is first-generation American. Her parents were born in India. She is Muslim. With all of the anti-Muslim rhetoric we’ve been witnessing of late, it felt wrong for her to be comforting me. I was playing oppression olympics, and I figured she was winning, so I should just suck it up.

Another Jewish antiracism activist suggested I read Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward. I decided to share it with my fellow travelers in the monthly article discussion group.

And then a bunch of White Nationalists descended on Charlottesville, VA. Officially, they were protesting the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in what is now known as Emancipation Park. In reality, emboldened by a sympathizer in the White House, these White Nationalists were there to show their strength and numbers and, frankly, to terrorize black, brown, LGBTQ, and, yes, Jewish Americans.

All of a sudden my discomfort and this article seemed all the more urgent. My friend Molly and I had been talking for a while about the possibility of Jews United for Justice co-sponsoring my monthly discussion group. This seemed like the right time to try out a collaboration.

Molly and her colleague Bennet recruited a skilled facilitator, J, from their networks, and the four of us sat down to figure out how we could facilitate this conversation.

We decided it was important to share at least parts of the Vice documentary of the events in Charlottesville. Watching the torch walk with hundreds of angry white men chanting “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us,” and the key subject of the film tell the reporter that they needed a leader who was "more racist than Donald Trump" and wouldn't "give his daughter to a Jew," seemed an important shared experience—especially for folks like me who may have been poo-pooing antisemitism--for whatever reason.

We worked together to select quotes from the article to share with our participants, provide tips for table facilitators about addressing different underlying assumptions, and questions to generate conversation if it was slow to move.

After all of that preparation (much more than I usually do for my meetings of 5 - 10 participants), all of a sudden it was the evening of September 18, and the room was filling with the 40 registered participants.

I opened the evening with a quote from 1963 from Baltimore Hebrew’s own, Rabbi Morris Lieberman:

“Because I remember the 6 million… I must speak, and our congregation must speak and must act as a congregation, as a holy instrument of Divine Purpose, as twenty million fellow Americans suffer in our country because of a Nazi-echoing philosophy of racial superiority.”

I went on to make a distinction that Lieberman did not, between White Supremacy and White Nationalism. White Supremacy is the belief, however subconscious, that white people are superior to others. When it gets baked into our laws and policies (think unfair housing practices, red lining, the GI Bill being unavailable to Black vets), it becomes systemic. We all (white, black and brown) can and do participate in White Supremacy, often without realizing it. White Nationalism, on the other hand, is the conscious, active desire to create a national identity out of whiteness. White Nationalists often want to remove people of color from “their” country, or want to create a new whites-only nation.

This distinction is important not merely for semantics, but also as a means to find the psychological space that can allow me (and others like me) to hold the reality of contemporary antisemitism at the same time that I hold the reality of White privilege. I can benefit from the privilege that White Supremacy has bestowed upon my white skin even as I am threatened (and afraid) of White Nationalists who believe that I am not, in fact, white, because I am Jewish.

The conversations that evening went the way Molly, Bennet, J, and I, and our additional pinch-hitting facilitator, Adina, expected them to go. And they also did not.

In his article, Eric Ward tells us that he gets pushback when he talks about antisemitism. That pushback, he reports, primarily comes from left-leaning people in the Northeast. He says:

The resistance I have encountered when I address antisemitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast seven years ago, and from the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that a well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the antisemitism?,” what I am often really being asked is, “Why should we be talking about antisemitism?”

Indeed, I saw myself in this quote, with my oppression olympics, my discomfort when my friend called to offer comfort when Jewish children were being targeted by hate. And in my table conversation that evening, there was some resistance, some hesitation to acknowledging how widespread the evidence of antisemitism really is. And as we confront the growing pile of evidence, for me at least, it created a kind of paralysis.

There were Jews present that evening, and throughout the country, who take a “we have to take care of our own, first and foremost,” approach to antisemitism. I do not subscribe to that kind of libertarianism. Indeed, Rabbi Lieberman’s quote from 54 years ago tells me why I cannot.

Still, the question framed in the facilitators’ guide remains: How do we confront privilege, in particular if we hold white privilege, if we are also feeling afraid?

I asked that of my table mates on Monday, and one of them asked it back to me. My answer? Step one is that I have to stop approaching reports of antisemitism with skepticism. I have to stop trying to turn it into oppression olympics. Step two is embedded in the article itself.

Ward points out that he does not fight antisemitism for any personal connection to Judaism or the Jewish community. He fights antisemitism because that is what it takes to fight White Nationalism and, ultimately, White Supremacy. He writes: antisemitism fuels White nationalism, a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power, and fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up. To refuse to deal with any ideology of domination, moreover, is to abet it. Contemporary social justice movements are quite clear that to refuse antiracism is an act of racism; to refuse feminism is an act of sexism. To refuse opposition to antisemitism, likewise, is an act of antisemitism.

In short, I am exceedingly grateful to Eric K. Ward. This article, this reality he lays out, allows me to hold my antiracism and my shock and dismay and fear at contemporary antisemitism at the same time. I am hopeful that with his insight, I will transform my impulse to stage oppression olympics (in which I must always lose) into its true opposite: solidarity.

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