Friday, January 18, 2019

In Relating to our Black Allies, Jews Need To Stop Being Babies

Every toy for babies is basically the same.

There is a button to be pressed, or some other simple action -- a bop or a shake or a slap.

The toy emits a sound, squeak, or noise.

The baby is happy beyond belief, and presses the button again. The sound repeats, and the baby is (somehow) just as ecstatic as the first time. Rinse, wash, repeat forever.

Sometimes I feel like, in our relationship with the Black community, the Jewish community remains in infancy. Because we are constantly behaving like babies, and we need to cut it out.

Here's the play: we find a Black person. We ask them to condemn antisemitism (Farrakhan is always a good target). They comply. We are delighted. We press the button again. They make the condemnatory noise again. *clap clap clap*. Oh, what could be more fun? And again and again and again we go, pressing the button on our fabulous condemn-antisemitism toy.

Until eventually, our partner doesn't want to play anymore. Maybe they're concerned at the disproportionate attention Black antisemitism seems to receive. Maybe they want to talk about something other than antisemitism. Maybe they just don't like being used as a toy. So we press the button, expecting to hear the delightful sound of a condemnation of antisemitism, and ... it doesn't come.

And then, like a baby, the tantrum begins.

"How could you not condemn a monster like Farrakhan?" "Don't you care about Jews?" "If anyone asked me to condemn a racist in my community, I wouldn't hesitate!" Bawl bawl bawl.

A moment's reflection shows how juvenile these demands are. There are plenty of actions by the Israeli government I oppose as wrongful or even (in some cases) prejudicial. And I condemn them, often. But I would not accept anyone's entitlement to have me do so "on demand", like a speak-and-spell, any and every time I wished to present myself in a public space. That sort of behavior -- and it does happen (remember Matisyahu in Spain?) -- is rightfully deemed antisemitic. So we should understand how our parallel demands in the Black community are rightfully understood as racist.

In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell recounts an incident where Rep. Charlie Rangel was asked on television to condemn some antisemitic remark by Farrakhan. He did so, while also expressing frustration at the sense that Black Americans "have to carry around their last statement condemning Farrakhan" like a passbook in order to be accepted into civil society. Yet this is the effect of our infantile mode of relating to our Black peers. Whenever they swing into our orbit, we reach out and press the button, waiting for them to say those magic words for us.

I'm not saying that there is no antisemitism in the Black community, and I'm not saying there aren't Black people who really do apologize for Louis Farrakhan's antisemitism. This post isn't about them. This post is about people who know full well that Farrakhan is an antisemite, and have never given any indication they think otherwise, but just resent being asked to say so over and over and over again.

So to be clear: What makes a Black person an ally to the Jewish community is not that they stand ready to be pressed as a button whenever a Jewish person needs to hear the comforting sound "Louis Farrakhan is an antisemite." That's an unreasonable, frankly infantile demand. But too often it seems characteristic of how Jews relate to those in the Black community we wish to see "allyship" from.

There's one other element of this analogy that I think it's important to bring forward. The reason babies love these toys is not just because they appreciate the sounds that they make. That's part of it, but just as important is the toy's testament to the baby's ability to manipulate the world around them. They can tell that when they push this button, that results -- and for an infant who generally can't really cause things to happen in the world (no matter how much they might want to), that's a really nice feeling.

When it comes to antisemitism and eliciting a response to it, Jews are in a similar boat. We very much want people to respond to our calls; to condemn antisemitism when we ask them to. But for the most part, the world doesn't listen to us. When we, say, ask Mike Huckabee to not make gratuitous Holocaust comparisons, he flatly rejects the demand and snarls that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have." Like infants, Jews are constantly made quite aware that we are for the most part sitting at the mercy of people bigger and stronger than we are.

So, when there is a spot in the world where, when we say "condemn antisemitism!", something actually happens, there is something understandably exciting and delightful about it. It is an exercise of power by people who typically feel powerless.

A similar dynamic explains why sometimes there might seem to be outsized attention to Jewish racism. For the most part, condemnations by communities of color of racism instigated by White Americans fall on deaf ears, for it is a feature of Whiteness in America that they are if they wish impervious to such demands. And likewise, it is a feature of Jewish vulnerability that we are not so impervious and that therefore at least sometimes, in some spaces, we can be compelled to answer. That, I imagine, is a delightful rarity. So perhaps it's understandable why those attacking racism so often seem to draw from the Jewish well.

But if it still feels like an exploitation of Jewish marginal status, that's because it is. And likewise, the reason we're able to get some Black leaders, some of the time, to condemn antisemitism on cue is because of racism. The comparative vulnerability of a Black American versus a, say, Mike Huckabee means that they have to be responsive to these sorts of demands in circumstances where others don't. The constant call to "condemn antisemitism" exploits that vulnerability -- which is to say, it exploits Black marginalization. And that exploitation is reasonably resented.

If the only way we relate to our Black allies is by asking them, again and again, to condemn antisemitism, we don't actually have a relationship as allies. We have a relationship that could be fulfilled by a tape recorder. True allyship is bidirectional. It involves giving as well as taking, and it involves learning new things, not just repeating the same homilies over and over again. Most importantly, a genuine allyship involves trust -- trust to know that one's partners oppose antisemitism even when they're not saying out loud. Trust that they've got your back even when they're operating in precarious circumstances, where sensitivities are on edge and tensions run highest.

And unfortunately, right now, it seems that trust is lacking. Can that lack be laid entirely at the feet of the Jewish community? No, it can't. But do we have our share of the blame? Yes, most certainly.

I get, obviously, why it feels good to hear Black people condemn antisemitism. And I get the social conditions which make it easier to focus on Black people who do or don't criticize Louis Farrakhan compared to tackling the far more entrenched, but far more dangerous, iterations of antisemitism in Congress, in churches, among Soros-conspiracymongers and White supremacist murderers.

But such pleasures are cheap, and we are not babies. It's time for the Jewish community to grow up.

2 comments:

Suzanne S said...

Yes to this. The best analysis I've read on this subject.

Unknown said...

Babies?

Some of these "allies" spew JVP anti-ADL, pro-BDS, ugly SJP style antisemitism and are doing their best to separate themselves from the Jewish community rather than fit in. In fact, their rhetoric on "white Jews" mimics that of Farrakhan, so I would think asking them to distance themselves from him and those who support him (like WM leaders) is legit. Here's Farrakhan on "white Ashkenazi Jews", David.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=459&v=3AJJS7Tdqa8

I'd say you failed with this essay. Try again, Ace?