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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

Ijeoma Oluo, tone policing, and Jewish objections to BLM

When I finished reading So You Want to Talk about Race on December 31, the response I had drafted in my head was something about how I wish that the book had been available years ago when I first experienced my moment of awakening about race in 2015. I figured I would write about Oluo’s clear and compelling prose and how downright likable I find her. I expected to tell you that I dislike identifying a single or even a handful of resources to send people to, because I don’t want you to think of anti-racism as a task--nor a syllabus--to be completed, but that if I had to build a short list for white readers, this book would be on it. With chapters including "What if I talk about race wrong?", "Is police brutality really about race?", "Why can't I touch your hair?," and "I just got called racist, what do I do now?" this book is written with a wisdom and compassion that invites the white reader to think deeply about a number of different facets of racism and white supremacy.

Somehow, though, as I kept transferring “write Oluo response” from one day's to-do list to the next, the essay I needed to write changed. Maybe it’s because of the time I spent planning for the program with Professor Marc Dollinger in which we dug into the white Jewish impulse to insist Black allies (read: those who proclaim Black Lives Matter) explicitly denounce the anti-Zionism of the Movement for Black Lives’ (M4BL) 2016 policy platform and/or the antisemitism of Louis Farrakahn (and/or [insert other person of color who is perceived as a threat]) before we can support any part of that ally’s agenda / demands / outcry for human rights. Or maybe it’s because of the episode of Jews Talk Racial Justice with April and Tracie in which my podcast partner and I unpacked the questioning of the use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Or maybe it was the photos of Capitol Hill insurrectionists in tee-shirts that read “Camp Auschwitz” or “6MWE” (which means 6 Million Wasn’t Enough) juxtaposed with photos of visibly Jewish men in that same crowd or the fur guy with his police shield who turns out is a member of a prominent orthodox family in New York.

With all of those moments in my mind at once, it feels as though we white Jews don’t always appropriately assess the true threat to ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the conversation that starts with a white Jew asking (or stating!), “but is Black Lives Matter antisemitic?” I’ve been told stories of prominent Black intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, being told they need to denounce M4BL or Louis Farrakhan or both before they will be permitted to speak / receive funding / sit on a board / etc. I’ve heard through the grapevine that leaders of some synagogues want to “cancel” other synagogues for the installation of Black Lives Matter banners. All of these examples are versions of the same desire to require our would-be allies to pass a litmus test.

The reality of that litmus test is what causes some of Ijeoma Oluo’s clear and compassionate wisdom to bubble up for me. The chapter entitled “But what if I hate Al Sharpton?” is written about tone policing (i.e. “if only you would be less angry / loud / aggressive / or were somehow different we’d be able to listen to you”), but it is relevant to this litmus test white Jews have sometimes placed on their support of Black Lives Matter and other movements. Of tone policing Oluo writes: “To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them.” (207)

Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that antisemitism is okay. Antisemitism is ugly and dangerous. But the litmus test I’ve seen and heard some of my fellow white Jews apply reads more like tone policing than fighting antisemitism for two reasons: 1. anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment can be antisemitic, but they are not necessarily so, and more importantly, 2. all antisemitism is not created equal.

The antisemitism of the white nationalists who are trying to “take their country back” with violent insurrection at the Capitol building is not the same as the anti-Zionism of the Black and brown folks who feel a kinship with Palestinians and speak out about it. In the words of my former boss, “I think we should be able to distinguish between the type of rhetoric and lies that inspired the tragedies in Pittsburgh and Poway [and the Capitol] and the deplorable, but ultimately less damaging, insults in the remarks of a progressive Congresswoman. We should figure out a way to condemn both, but not condemn both equally.”

Oluo’s work continues to bear important relevance here. She says, “There will always be people within movements that you do not like. There will always be actions that people within movements take that you will not agree with…. But do not let your feelings about a person within a movement become the focus of your work toward fighting racial oppression.” (208) We can extrapolate from her excellent advice. The section of the 2016 M4BL policy platform that mentions Israel is approximately 300 words out of 40,000. If we let those 300 words become not just the focus of our work fighting oppression but the reason we choose not to join the fight, we have to really interrogate our motives. This becomes even more clear if we’re saying the expression of “Black Lives Matter” should disqualify a person or organization from interacting with (other) Jewish organizations, but find ways to justify, explain, or excuse the sometimes open antisemitism of (white) American Evangelical Zionists, Trump supporters, and other white political players.

Like racism, antisemitism is a systemic oppression (though it is not structural in the U.S. any more). Antisemitic tropes are passed down through the ether in the same way anti-Black stereotypes are. If our friends and allies have consumed some of them, we need to work to help them see it, not refuse to affirm their humanity until they do. It’s what we would expect if the tables were turned--and let’s face it, they often are. If Black-led organizations had a litmus test that disqualified allies if they ever expressed racist ideas, who among us would pass?

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