Opinion by Michael Rothbaum* – Haaretz
Just because white Jews are ethnically white doesn’t mean we, as individuals or as a state, should be ethically white. Adopting Trump and Netanyahu’s ethnic superiority and nationalism means sacrificing core Jewish values
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I’m worried for my people.
I’m not “worried” in a cynical way. I’m not saying I’m worried about them as a set up for an argument, just so I can make a point – what’s come to be known as “concern trolling.”
I love my people. And I’m genuinely concerned. They are me, and I’m them. If I’m trolling anyone, I’m trolling myself.
I love my people, and I’m worried about their assimilation. Not the assimilation of the boogeymen of interfaith marriages, or secular education. If we who are entrusted with leading the Jewish world present Jewishness as the engaging and vibrant tradition that it is, it will be irresistible to everyone from the pious to the secular. Non-Jews, too. When Jews live as loving and committed Jews, we light up nations.
My worry for my people is our assimilation into whiteness.
These days, you can see it everywhere. White Americans have historically raised themselves above the unwashed masses, the “tempest-tossed” immigrants. Today, a worrisome number of Jews have forgotten our own unwashed history, and are cynically calling for even the most desperate and terrified of refugees to “come here the right way.”
For centuries, white Europeans built power on ethnic superiority and nationalism. Today, the Jewish state of Israel seeks to do the same through an exclusive and arrogant “nation-state law.”
White leaders have expected religion to afford them honor and prestige, even when their actions violated timeless religious values. How can we explain a Jewish religious organization honoring a xenophobe like Jeff Sessions – with a plaque quoting Torah no less – as anything but are the actions of a people imitating whiteness?
How else do we explain the open-armed acceptance of thousands of Russians into Israel, and the continued suspicion brought down upon the heads of African Jews, whether by the Rabbinate or by the owners of a kosher winery?
How else to explain our insistence that every individual African-American leader denounce the vile hate-speech of a Farrakhan, but the absence of a similar litmus test for leaders of the Republican party – a party whose standard-bearer not only flirts openly with white supremacists like Alex Jones, but who can now claim numerous Nazis among their ranks as candidates for state and national office?
How else to explain this double standard for white people and people of color, except as an identification with whiteness?
I am not suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews “reject” our white privilege. Such a thing is not possible. In the U.S., white Jews are white. (Europe, as always, is a different story.) It’s a deal our ancestors made with this country, trading most of our outward expressions of Jewishness to become part of White America. Trading our weirdness for whiteness.
But just because white Jews are ethnically white doesn’t mean we should be ethically white. It does not mean we forget our tradition of standing outside the mainstream, of standing against Pharaoh, our tradition of iconoclasm, of walking with the poor and the sick, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the outsider.
That has been our holy mission for millennia, our Jewish heritage.
Whiteness is a poor substitute for that heritage. It’s not even a heritage at all. Unlike, say, Irish-ness or Polish-ness or Belgian-ness, whiteness has no history – except in relationship to its exercise of power over non-white people. Whiteness as a category simply does not exist in Torah (except, perhaps for Laban, whose name means “white,” and is known primarily for cheating our forefather Jacob out of his wages.)
When Jews, as individuals or as a state, exercise power in a way that trades on our newfound whiteness, we sacrifice Jewish values on the altar of assimilation into the dominant culture.
And, as we surely know, assimilation isn’t even a guarantee of safety.
There is a congregant in my shul, a survivor of the Kindertransport. He keeps a scrapbook of his days in Europe. In it, there’s a picture of his father proudly displaying medals for service to Germany in World War I. None of his father’s medals could save him from the savagery of hate and xenophobia.
When nations have turned on the Jews, none of our loyalty or history or war medals were of any value. Why should Jewish whiteness be any different?
Jewish assimilation is always conditional. Jewish whiteness will always be conditional.
In the mean time, Jews do have power, both here in the U.S. and in the State of Israel. I’m not ashamed of that. I am grateful. Jewish powerlessness historically results in violence against Jewish bodies. Those who lecture Jews about “turning the other cheek” are often from lands known for striking it the hardest.
But what do we do with that power? How do we use it ethically? Who do we identify with? Those who continue to be marginalized and oppressed? Or the white power structure?
In her famous Torah commentary, the brilliant Nechama Leibovitz looked at a text in Deuteronomy about the Israelites’ impending victory in the Promised Land, and explained it this way:
“Your ancestors had to deal with feelings of weakness and inadequacy when confronting the Canaanites. You will have to deal with the moral challenge of not abusing your superior power in dealing with weaker peoples.”
Will our newfound power corrupt our timeless moral mission? Are we doomed to emulate our former oppressors and model our behavior on their cruelty? Will our children have any desire to sustain a community that finds meaning in dancing around a milky-white calf?
I love my people. I’m worried for my people.
*Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Massachusetts. He lives with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, in Concord. Twitter: @rav_mike