Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On the Jewbook Blackout

Some of you might be familiar with the term "Jewbook". Those who aren't might worry that it's an antisemitic slur and, in your defense, it initially started out that way as an antisemitic label for Facebook (because of Mark Zuckerberg, obviously). But now it refers to a cluster of Jewish groups on Facebook which have fostered a unique and surprisingly vibrant space for young Jews to sort out questions of identity, talk politics, crack jokes, and simply live Jewishly with other like-minded peers.

Right now, though, much of Jewbook has shut itself down -- a blackout in protest of racism within our communities. The immediate instigating event was the vicious blowback against a column by Nylah Burton urging (what she calls "functionally-") White Jews to not refer to themselves as White-passing. This didn't come out of nowhere, however -- there were antecedents (this roundtable of Jew-of-Color perspectives at HeyAlma alludes to some).

Nylah is an African-American Jew, and the argument she made in her ill-fated column was that White-passing refers to a specifically African-American condition vis-a-vis American White supremacist structures that doesn't track onto the American Jewish experience. The problem isn't that American Jews don't experience antisemitism; it isn't even that pale-skinned Jews are perfectly and unambiguously White in the American context. The problem is that White-passing is a specific term regarding a situation where one carries White privilege unless and until one's "real" racial identity is revealed -- and that isn't typically the way antisemitism operates in America. To the extent I enjoy White privilege in America, that White privilege doesn't usually go away if someone "finds out" I'm Jewish. I might experience (more) antisemitism in that circumstance, but whatever racial prerogatives I enjoy will largely (not entirely) go unchanged.

As you might imagine, the intersection of Whiteness and Jewishness is an arena I have thoughts on (on that note, I'm not sure I ever announced on the blog that the linked-article was just accepted for publication in the Association for Jewish Studies Review). I have thoughts on the degree to which American Jews are White, and I have thoughts -- indeed, somewhat sympathetic thoughts -- on why American Jews today often resist that label.

But the issue here is less the specific contours of that debate -- on which Nylah and I have had some fruitful exchanges -- and more the way Nylah and other JOCs were treated as second-class Jews in its conduction. Consider the condescending tone taken by Micha Danzig in his response -- one which carried more than a whiff of sexism, but which also seemed to suggest that in speaking about Jews Burton was an outsider talking of people not her own. But of course Burton is just a Jewish as Danzig is or I am; her vantage on the state of Jews in America is as authentically Jewish as anyone else's. The irony is that one of the most common refrains from JOCs regarding how they're excluded in Jewish spaces is people -- with varying degrees of explicitness -- questioning whether they're "really" Jewish.

I've written before on how one of the burdens of being Black and Jewish (and I suspect this applies to other cases where one social identity one possesses is stereotypically thought to be incompatible with another) is that one has far less room to "play" with one's Jewish identity than do White Jews. I don't mean "play" to connote anything frivolous -- rather, I'm talking about the full range of ways one can "be" Jewish, from wholly consistent with popular stereotypes of what it means to be Jewish to wildly subversive. I can do things that don't track the dominant perception of what it means to be Jewish and never have my Jewish identity questioned. But when non-White or non-Ashkenazi or otherwise non-normative (within the American context) Jews try to do it -- e.g., by contesting a communal view about Jewish racial identity -- they're not just rejected on substance, they aren't even recognized as leveling the argument as Jews.

The (well, a) sad thing is that I first started hearing about Jewbook because it was thought to be a particularly important space for Jews who -- for whatever reason -- didn't have the standard or stereotypical Jewish background to create and live out a Jewish community. Nylah herself wrote about that quality, and she's not the only one.

I might be a bit too old to really appreciate Jewbook like some of the younglings do (ugh, it kills me to admit that). But I can appreciate that we as Jews have an obligation to put in the work to ensure our spaces our welcoming and inclusive of all Jews. First and foremost, that begins by believing the testimony of JOCs when they say that, right now, it isn't. They're not out to "get us". They are us -- or part of us, anyway. They have no reason to speak out about feeling excluded in Jewish spaces save for a genuine desire to be part of those spaces.

Whether on Jewbook or in the outside world, working towards a genuinely inclusive Jewry is a responsibility we have as Jews, to Jews. Fundamentally, when JOCs say they aren't respected as equals in the Jewish community, I credit that testimony. Honestly, I'm not sure what incentive they'd have to lie about it. So now it's on all of us to put in the work -- and make no mistake, it will require work -- to make it so.


Frozen Koi said...

I think I found two typos. One in paragraph 5 in the line that reads "of course Burton is just a Jewish as Danzig", an 's' might be missing from "as Jewish as".

Then in paragraph 8 the line "ensure our spaces our welcoming and inclusive" I think it might be "are welcoming".


Unknown said...

Nylah does not have Jewish parents. She was not raised Jewish; she was raised as a homeschooled Fundamentalist Christian. And she has not converted to Judaism. By the standards of at least 99% of Jews she is _not_ Jewish.

Only a couple of years ago, she got infatuated with Judaism as a reaction to the Christianity and her mother whom she was disgusted with.

So how _exactly_ is her vantage on the state of Jews in America authentically Jewish?

In many ways, she's the Jewish Rachel Dolezal.