Working for Racial Justice Starts with Healing the Trauma of Historical Anti-Semitism
Talya Gillman on the urgent but slow work for racial justice, the unexamined wounds of anti-Semitism, and the benefits and challenges of "ancestrally designated best practices for survival."
Lots of positive feedback from last week’s post — thank you!
I decided to stay in the zone and address this topic from another vantage point: that of activism for racial justice within the community. Talya takes a sort of therapeutic approach, which is much more interesting to me than platitudes coming from a lot of other sources. Bottom line: We need to have more dynamic conversations about these topics.
Speaking of dynamic conversations. Check out my mini op-ed in the Seattle Times about the importance of teaching journalism in school as part of the language arts/social studies curriculum. There is much more to say about this (media accountability, the weird binary that people resort to when they talk about “Fox versus CNN” right before saying “But I watch everything,” the recent Pew finding that 56% of adults get their news from social media…) but that’s for the book.
And thanks to readers/friends who think to send along stories of interest. Here is one about how a video played at the January 6 rally in DC is an exercise in fascist propaganda. In all the chaos of the riots and impeachment I wasn’t even aware of this video. I’m very cautious about making Nazi comparisons, but omg.
As a follow up to this interview, read Carin Mrotz’s piece about how fighting anti-Semitism aligns with fighting racism. I think it’s empowering. She makes the point that we often call upon the image of Heschel marching with King. But is the most compelling image we have of solidarity really from half a century ago?
Finally, Purim! I came upon this excellent resource, The Megillah Project (h/t Kavana), which seems to have a wide selection of approaches to the holiday and story. For next week, subscribers are encouraged to send shoutouts in honor of their personal Jewish heroes.
Hey, tell me what you want me to write about. Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Working for Racial Justice Starts with Healing the Trauma of Historical Anti-Semitism
Seattle activist Talya Gillman works for Citizen University and has worked for Jewish Family Service, University of Washington, and Repair the World. She received a Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize for emerging Jewish educators and is completing an M.A. in Transformational Leadership through Seattle University. Talya organizes with anti-racist and immigrant justice community networks locally and through Tzedek Lab nationally, and she served as an AJWS World Partners Fellow doing harm-reduction work with Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust in Mumbai and supporting ATZUM’s anti-trafficking work in Israel.
I want to start with your take on how the Jewish community is and should be working with the racial justice movement.
The racial justice movement and the community organizing that’s fueling it is about Black, Native, and other communities of color claiming priorities that all Jews can relate to: safety, dignity, and self-determination. It’s about seeing and acknowledging the overt, subtle, and structural violence, trauma, and barriers that have targeted people of color for centuries, and undermine access, resources, and basic day-to-day freedoms. It’s about recognizing and deconstructing what created and perpetuates those realities — and it’s about actively building different kinds of relationships, systems, and culture that, together, actually support holistic healing, health, opportunity, and well-being with and within communities that have long been denied them.
Research has shown that Jews of color represent at least 12-15 percent of American Jews. So for those of us in the other 85-88 percent — Jews with white skin — racial justice is not only about identifying with other (i.e. non-Jewish) targeted groups and showing up to learn and help “them” — it’s also about honoring, committing to, and working toward policies and practices that can ensure the safety and well-being of our own Jewish siblings who are targeted by both racism and anti-Semitism.
So, Jews’ involvement in the racial justice movement is a moral and religious imperative, and it’s about affirming and holistically strengthening Am Yisrael. And it’s about liberating our own selves from the forces that isolate us from one another that suggest it’s either “us” or “them,” that try to convince us that safety and well-being are a zero-sum game.
What is really heartening to me is that more people are talking about this. One part of me was half energized, half cynical about the number of statements that different Jewish organizations put out over the summer after the murder of George Floyd. I think that that feeling of cynicism or disappointment has kind of been something I've continued to feel — and this isn’t unique to the Jewish community at all — but there was sort of like the wave of black squares [on social media profiles], followed by little concrete or substantive commitment by many of our Jewish institutions or members to create concrete racial justice, as defined and led by those who experience it.
But I do have to sort of check myself in that assessment, because I think there really are continuing to be conversations and efforts springing up to some extent in our own community here, but also across the country — building on organizing that’s been happening, in pockets, for years. It’s important to ask: why have the folks who have been asking for racial and social justice so often been isolated or silenced? The good news is that Jews with white skin are feeling called into this work. The inclination to pay attention, to learn, and to discuss is so crucial — and for that to be matched with concrete commitment, whether that’s in the form of dollars, advocacy, protest, working toward institutional transformation, or other efforts that reflect real, material investment that supports BIPOC safety and self-determination. And I think it’s important to remember just that social transformation is both urgent and also slow.
I think it’s important to remember just that social transformation is both urgent and also slow.
I do think that for white Jews who are just leaning into this conversation, part of it starts with us getting really curious about what our operating assumptions are about the conversation and also the history that we don’t know or that we’ve never been taught. I think that can be a hard thing to do, because as somebody who grew up in the Jewish community, I feel really aware of and proud of how assertive we are in making sure that our own history is taught on our terms. It’s a preventive measure, to both teach rising generations and to sensitize people in ways that lessen threats against Jews. But this typically hasn’t been possible or allowed — for so many reasons, in so many ways — when it comes to how racism exists in America.
What misconceptions do you come across?
I watched this movie, Judas and the Black Messiah, over the weekend. It’s about Fred Hampton, who was the chairman of the Black Panther party in the sixties in Chicago. I somehow absorbed growing up that Malcom X and the Black Panthers and all of these other organizers were, like, radical and violent and kind of terroristic — the subtext being that “radical” was inherently bad, dangerous — and watching this movie kind of revealed to me this whole scope of history and nuance that nobody had ever talked about or taught me. And it just was sort of another reminder of how much of how limited and biased the history that so many of us are taught is.
I don’t mean, “wow, I watched this movie and now I know everything about the Black Panthers,” as much as, “wow, this is something that was maybe one line in a history book.” And within that one line there was a very specific flavor to it. It’s not just a replacement narrative as much as revealing there’s so much more to the story that so many of us have been denied. As a community that cares so deeply about study, understanding, and memory, let’s seek out that which we were never taught and let’s ask ourselves why that was the case. Who and what has it served? In this case, it has upheld a racial hierarchy that’s used to enable and justify inequity and violence against Black people.
One of the things that I’ve observed and encountered through organizing over these last few years is this perception that racism is interpersonal and sentiment-based. That can definitely be a part of it, but it’s such a bigger and multi-dimensional reality. It’s a tangled web of ideas about superiority and inferiority based on race, inequitable institutional and organizational structures and policies, interpersonal dynamics, and internal wounds. This is what it means for racism to be systemic.
Those of us who have white skin within the Jewish community and don’t experience overt racism, it’s an opportunity to really get curious about what it means for racism to be systemic. And if it’s systemic, then we all exist within this system. So what does that mean about the roles that we play, even if they’re passive? What are the realities that people of color are experiencing that we’re not experiencing, and what opportunities do we have to really show up and listen to those stories in the ways that we so earnestly want non-Jews to do with and for us? How can we practice that ourselves?
We say at Citizen University, where I work, “We’re all better off when we’re all better off.” When people targeted by racism have safety, opportunity, and resources, society will become safer, healthier, more connected, more vibrant for all of us.
There are people who are calling for radical change. I’m concerned that radical change is going to backfire, that it’s going to end up being “bad for the Jews.” On the other hand, I think we do need radical change. How can our community bring these two sides together so that we can actually make progress?
It wasn’t until I was an adult in anti-racist community spaces that I was asked to think about what the idea of “radical” really means. It always carried this connotation of risky, extreme, maybe violent. But as it turns out, an important part of the word’s definition is “of or relating to the origin” — getting at the root (the shoresh!) of the issues at hand. Radical in the context of racial justice is about seeing and healing the foundational issues and dynamics that created and have perpetuated racism in all its forms for so long. If we think about it that way, the sense of “us versus them” may diminish.
I think the issues that we need to work on as a Jewish community are twofold. One, understanding, recognizing racism as systemic and all encompassing, not just interpersonal and sort of attitude based. Part of that means getting curious about history that we were never taught. The other part of the issue, I think we need to work on recognizing the ways that racism plays out within the Jewish community itself. I mean, even figuring out how to talk about these things in a way that ensures people feel recognized and not invisibilized is really tough.
What complicates our abilities to engage in anti-racist work, as Jews who have white skin? In addition to exploring “whiteness” — what that means and looks like in our lives — I think another really important starting place is to try and understand the lingering effects of anti-Semitism on us and within us. That’s not easy to do when anti-Semitic threats are active in real time, but it wouldn’t be easy to do even if that wasn’t the case.
One of the central ideas of anti-Semitism is that Jews are so bad, so evil, malicious that we shouldn’t even exist; that we should be eliminated or assimilated. That dynamic has resurfaced over the centuries in extremely violent and also subtle ways, and as a result of the trauma, our people developed what therapist and healer Joanna Kent Katz calls “ancestrally-designated best practices for survival.” That phrase is so, so moving to me. What are the best practices that our ancestors and elders have creatively and courageously accumulated over time, to help us protect ourselves and keep ourselves safe?
One of those is to be hyper-vigilant about anti-Semitism, and in a lot of ways that has served us really well. It’s prevented violence and harm and has secured resources and, you know, any number of things. But if we’re always operating with that same degree of hyper-vigilance all the time, it clouds our ability to see and discern between things that are truly anti-Semitic, things that feel uncomfortable, things that are more nuanced, that we in our heightened state might be able to grapple with.
I’ve realized in the last few years that the narrative that I was taught was, “This is what’s happened to us, and we’re never going to let it happen again.” But nobody in the time of my growing up and going through our Jewish educational system was talking about, “this is what’s been done to us has done to us.”
Nobody in the time of my growing up and going through our Jewish educational system was talking about, “this is what’s been done to us has done to us.”
Part of this work is loving ourselves enough, not only in the ways that we’ve become accustomed to practicing, but also to get curious about the wounds that we carry and how those affect how we understand the world around us. I think one of the central best practices is this idea that it’s really important for Jews to be good. Our history has taught us about how important it is to care about others. In light of the trauma that we’ve experienced and the anti-Semitism that’s unfolded through the centuries, we have a responsibility to be good and to do what’s right.
One of the things I hear more and more is that structural racism actually doesn't exist. “No, we know what oppression is.” How do you address this challenge?
Yeah. Well, two things come to mind. One is, you know, where’s that narrative coming from and who and what is it serving? The other thing is, if you were to look at the indicators of health well-being and opportunity within this country, you can see that there’s inequity there that cuts across race, whether it’s incarceration and who is criminalized and who is not within our society, to educational outcomes, to access to food and, you know, basic resources to housing discrimination, to voter access. I mean, there’s tons of information and indicators out there that demonstrate that those resources and opportunities are not accessible in the same ways. They’re actually actively denied to Black people and Native people in really distressing ways. How are we taking the initiative to really inform ourselves about what the problem is?
I was reading your The Cholent from last week, “Is the Left Going to Lose the Jews,” and I think one of the things that was mentioned in there was cancel culture. It’s so interesting, because that’s something that I’ve experienced within our own community for just wanting to talk about these things. Relationships that I’ve had with people in positions of authority have become really complicated by what I feel is like an earnest desire to talk about difficult things. But because of some of the factors we’ve been talking about, it’s been really painful. I don’t want to suggest that I, or any of my peers who are involved in this organizing, are perfect. We certainly have a lot of learning and growth to do in terms of all of this as well. But the message that I’ve received is like, you’re being disrespectful, or you don't understand, or, you know, you need to stop.
This really bothers me. Even if I don’t fall into the same camp as people, when I see that they’re being pushed to the margins of the Jewish community, at that point I start to have trouble. How have you dealt with that?
Well, in thinking about the piece from last week, there have been so many times where I’ve felt like the Jews are losing so many of us because of the push back or the inertia that is sort of imposed by coming to the table and staying at it, even when it gets hard to grapple with these things. But I don't think we have a choice. I’m not trying to represent my myself as perfect or all knowing, but I do want to learn alongside, and I want to unlearn the things that are toxic or causing harm. And I want to do that with my beloved people. In my heart, there’s such a deep love for Jewishness and our people.
And I feel like as somebody who grew up going to the Jewish Day School and Hebrew High and working at Beth Shalom and Hillel and the Holocaust Center and JFS, I really tried to take the lessons I was learning about ethics and being a moral person seriously. And those lessons, which my Jewish community taught me, have led me to a place of starting to see and hear stories and realities that I wasn’t supposed to within the Jewish community itself.
Something that Rabbi Weiner said in that piece was that Peter Beinart kind of called this one or two decades ago. If we teach about universal, humanistic values, eventually those values are going to kind of come out on top of the Jewish values. They might be aligned in a lot of places, but when they’re not, Jewish values are going to be compromised. This seems like exactly what is happening.
I’m really interested in not getting stuck in the binary of either humanistic or Jewish. I don't think it’s either/or. And I think that there are Jewish people around the country who are really committed to maintaining an integration of those things, where ritual and celebration and Torah are a deep part of their lives and are what’s fueling their being in the streets or lobbying or agitating or whatever it is.
I’ve seen signs that even the mainstream Jewish community, though, is starting to open up. I think people don’t want to talk about things because they’re threatening and challenging, but then like once there is a tipping point, the door opens and everyone’s like, “Oh yeah, duh, of course we believe in this.” How do you imagine opening that door more widely for people? And how do we bridge that with the people who feel things are going too far?
This is just my opinion, but it seems like starting with curiosity about the wounds and inherited trauma and activated experiences of anti-Semitism, that actually is the starting place. Because if we’re sort of always in this tensed-up body mode, it’s really hard to open ourselves up to new information and different paradigms. The challenging thing is for Jews with white skin, we live in a society that’s regulated by white as the norm. That on a very basic level is white supremacy. So if we’re living within a white culture and our patterns of behavior sort of shaped by that, then as Jews with white skin we need to recognize and unlearn those patterns of whiteness, some of which include defensiveness, rationalizing, intellectualizing, distancing ourselves. All of those patterns often play out among white people when they’re asked to face the realities of racism.
I wonder if we can talk about critical race theory, because this is controversial.
I remember a few years ago when intersectionality came to the fore, and within the Jewish community there was so much uproar. I kind of wonder how many of the people who are expressing outrage about this concept have actually watched or read Kimberle Crenshaw’s work. The thing that people are responding to isn’t actually the thing that she is teaching or saying. This is why it ties back to addressing the wounds of anti-Semitism, because I think it’s that self-protection response that makes it hard for us to really practice curiosity. [We need to] put our agenda aside a little bit. I don't think any of us would feel comfortable with on a non-Jewish person telling us about anti-Semitism.
Can you explain what you mean?
So, there are Black thinkers out there who are talking about what their lived experiences have been, you know, personally, on an individual level, on a familial level, but also on a peoplehood level. There’s such a common pattern of questioning them and critiquing the frameworks that they're putting out there. When non-Jews do that about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust, we don’t stand for that. So if what we expect from non-Jews is earnestness, compassion, empathy, solidarity to fight anti-Semitism, how can we not embody that same inclination ourselves when Black people are trying to teach the world about realities that we’ve not been exposed to — because they've been erased or diluted?
If what we expect from non-Jews is earnestness, compassion, empathy, solidarity to fight anti-Semitism, how can we not embody that same inclination ourselves when Black people are trying to teach the world about realities that we’ve not been exposed to?
When we think about, like, who writes the textbooks in our country: They’re not multi-racial groups of people. So, part of the pain of all of this is just waking up to how much we've been denied in what we’ve been exposed to. And it feels threatening when things like critical race theory or intersectionality come up, because they're so unfamiliar. But if we really commit to trying to understand them on the terms of people who are experiencing the things behind those frameworks, I think they'll feel less threatening and more clarifying and more helpful to us all.
I think the issue of intersectionality is that the intention was absolutely good and made perfect sense, but there is this pattern of conflating Zionism and whiteness and colonialism and vilifying them. I think that’s a real question. People need help with it; how do we address that problem?
I think this is kind of an emergent; it’s not like what we do is a recipe. Like, if we take this step, then X will happen and then Y and Z, and then, you know, we’ll be in a better place. I think it’s much more organic and evolving than we’d like it to be. That’s kind of why I say, what would become more possible if we worked on recognizing our own tendencies and patterns within these conversations as Jews with white skin? What if we just like practiced unclenching our bodies a little bit? How could that help us practice curiosity more? How could that help us expose ourselves to more voices that are out there with a greater willingness to learn from them, not just to debate or refute, but to really find something new? I know that that feels so unsatisfyingly limited, but that’s the most tangible thing I think is possible in the immediate. How can we prepare ourselves to be good listeners and absorbers and critical thinkers as it relates to racism, which is something that we have really haven’t had to do until recently. So it’s a new skill set.
The issue of discomfort is an important one. One of the things I am trying to do is to invite people to push back, to talk across the divides in our community.
Well, that’s really the point. I don’t think we ever want to be a Jewish community where everybody believes the same thing. But when it comes to racism, it’s not an opinion. There are facts about what people are encountering living in this country that we would never accept for ourselves, because you know what it’s like to be bearing the brunt of violence and oppression.
There are facts about what people are encountering living in this country that we would never accept for ourselves.
And again, back to narratives. It’s easy to grow up and realize Thanksgiving wasn’t just turkeys and pilgrims, but it’s harder to grow up and be like, “Oh, my entire life is actually affected.” It’s not just like one day a year when I have to think about things differently. And look at the last four years. No one believes anything anymore. All those things that anchor us to reality have been blown apart.
At the Aspen Institute [a sibling organization of my organization, Citizen University] there is something called the Better Arguments Project. To have better arguments, they teach that we should engage history, emotions, and power dynamics. If we can learn how to bring those dimensions to a given conversation or a given argument, and if we can develop the tools and the skills to stay at the table — in light of uncomfortable history or unfamiliar history — and if we can understand the emotional texture of the experiences that people or the circumstances that the arguments about kind of involved, then that might offer us a new way of really having constructive conversations and learning from each other.
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This week’s parasha is Terumah. Laws have been given. It’s time to build the mishkan.
Candlelighting is at 5:22 p.m.
Thank you to Karen Treiger who has been a real friend to our family and found small but meaningful ways to be supportive of us during these times. —Tzipporah Polinsky-Nagel