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Clergy Column by Rabbi Jeremy Morrison

 

How Our Pursuit of Racial Equity and Justice Is Interwoven With Our Struggle to Uproot Anti-Semitism

The American Jewish Committee’s annual study of the state of anti-Semitism in America, which was published in October, reports that we are living in a period of rising anti-Semitism, and there is data that indicates a worrying, and increasing, gap between Jews’ concerns about anti-Semitism, and those of the general public. As we approach Yom Hashoah/ Holocaust Remembrance Day (26 of Nisan/April 8), it is an appropriate time to provide an overview of how we, as a community, have taken actions during the past year to counter anti-Semitism locally and in our state.

Many of us were engaged in the efforts to determine the curriculum guidelines and content of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). We lobbied for the elimination of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel content, and for the inclusion in the curriculum of Jewish narratives and of a definition of anti-Semitism. The State Board of Education made its final decisions about the curriculum in March. I want to express gratitude for the dedicated work of Maddie and Jeff Carmel, Joanne Donsky, Barb Windham and other members of our Jewish and Israel Advocacy Committee, the work of Lauren Janov, the guidance of Amy Gerstein and the leadership of several Beth Am congregants who are board members of the Jewish Community Relations Council. I, too, played a small role in our advocacy. Although there were differences among us as to tactics and goals, the final version was a much-improved curriculum from what was first presented in 2019. We will remain vigilant as the ESMC is implemented in every school district in California.

A less visible effort, but potentially one of great impact, is an improvement to our education program. For the first time at Beth Am, we have incorporated Facing History and Ourselves’ Holocaust and Human Behavior curriculum into our youth education offerings for our 7th graders. Through readings, primary source material and short documentary films, this semester-long course explores the complex history of the Holocaust and prompts reflection on our world today. Facing History and Ourselves is a remarkable organization that uses lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. This effective curriculum is the gold-standard in Holocaust education for adolescents and teens.

Congruent with these initiatives is our strategic prioritization of our racial equity and justice efforts. This multi-faceted work, which is not new at Beth Am, but to which we are re-dedicating ourselves in new ways, will be an ongoing and long-term initiative.

There are many reasons why our pursuit of racial equity and justice is interwoven with our struggle to uproot anti-Semitism and, admittedly, this can be hard to understand and difficult to articulate. If we recognize that our security as Jews in America is inextricably linked to the safety of all peoples, then it is dependent on us to build alliances with other minorities in this country in order to create a society free from anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry.

This reasoning has become ever more trenchant during the past 30 years: a period in which White Nationalism has made its way from the margins of American political life to its center, a fact never more visible to us than on January 6, 2021. To White nationalists, Jews are a separate, and evil race, a powerful and often unseen force responsible for White dispossession. Erik Ward, the Executive Director of Western States Center, an organization that works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy, writes, “Antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism… It is the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism.”  

Ward, who is Black, has investigated White supremacism and its descendent, American White Nationalism, throughout his career. His work has led him to this conclusion, “I discovered that Antisemitism… is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.”

Ward’s statement compels our attention. Here is a Black leader saying that anti-Semitism is a pernicious obstacle to his sense of freedom, his ability to live in peace in America.

I would suggest this corollary to Ward’s conclusion: the obstacle to our ability to live in peace as Jews in this county is structural racism. Perhaps it is easier to understand how our pursuit of racial equity and justice intertwines with our fight against anti-Semitism if this reasoning is expressed like a solution to a logic problem or a mathematical equation that goes like this: White supremacy is the polar opposite of anti-Racism. Anti-Racists stand in opposition to white supremacists. Since anti-Semitism fuels white supremacy, if we partner with our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) allies to dismantle a caste system premised on skin color, a caste system in which we are all enmeshed, then our efforts will go a very long way towards eradicating anti-Semitism.

Sut simply, reductively: anti-Racism work is good for the Jews. White supremacists promote a conception of justice that is a zero-sum game of either/or:

  • With us or against us.
  • Pure or impure.
  • European or non-European.
  • Non-Jew or Jew.
  • White or Black.

Beth Am’s pursuit of Justice is not zero-sum. It’s not either/or; it is both/and. We are a community willing to grapple with both/and.

We need to contend with anti-Semitism and we have access to high-quality healthcare, education and jobs. We are threatened by anti-Semitism and when needed, we can count on fair treatment from our justice system. There is anti-Semitism in America and most of us, not all, but most of us do not fear gun violence and the police when we leave our homes. We are living in a period of rising anti-Semitism and we, collectively, have access to and wield financial and juridical power. When we are threatened, fearful, worried, attacked, we know who to call: we have allies who will stand shoulder to shoulder with us when we confront hatred and bigotry.

We have the security of privilege. Whether we earned it through hard work or have been granted it solely because of the color of our skin, most of us benefit from privilege: a word which might simply be best understood as a synonym for power.  Our task, then, is to wield our power to address racial and economic injustice in America.

I hope you will join with me for the virtual South Peninsula Yom HaShoah v’Hagevurah Service of Remembrance, on Wednesday, April 7, 7:00 PM.

L'shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy Morrison

This column is adapted from a d’var Torah that Rabbi Morrison delivered on Friday, February 12, 2021.

Tue, September 21 2021 15 Tishrei 5782