Today’s terrible news of the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, reveals that innocent African Americans, yet again, have fallen victim to unprecedented violence and hatred. This time, it took place in a church—a place of prayer, community and worship. I have written and re-written drafts of a call to action, but I have thus far held my tongue. I cannot remain silent any longer.
My father tells stories of his childhood in New York, of coming over on a boat after living in displaced persons camps in Europe. My father, the refugee, loved his dog and his overalls and all the ease of the DP camp in Föehrenwald much more than the hostility he faced when he arrived in the U.S. He tells me about the Jews that were already here when he arrived, and about his friends with numbers tattooed on their forearms. He tells me about the blanket animosity that came out about the shameful immigrant Jews versus those that were already here. And he tells me about Poland, how my grandparents wanted more than anything to return, and how they couldn’t because false rumors were spread. And systematic murder, even after 1945, and even after the Nazis, was still taking place postwar. My grandparents never returned. They died in America and were buried in Paramus, New Jersey of all places.
It shouldn’t take a memory like this in my blood—a memory of war in Europe, and long before that of centuries of systematized terror against what I call “my people,” as if my circle of love stops there—to recognize the pervasive terror that black Americans face today. (And I use the term “black Americans” because it seems evident that these individuals are being targeted by the color of their skin alone—whether African, African-American, Afro-Indian, Brazilian and beyond.) It should be apparent to everyone, regardless of background, that racism today is systemic. When an African-American church in South Carolina is fired upon by a white man in a hoodie while congregants pray; when black teenage girls are treated like discardable entities; or when black pregnant women are forced to lie face-down on the earth; when this is happening not in 1965, not 1958, not 1939—but today, on our soil, in 2015—then we, this prodigal “we,” i.e. the Jews of America, have a job to do.
We are supposedly the light amongst nations, right, some version of the chosen people? We are the ones who recognize suffering, displacement, racism, oppression and systematized terror, correct? Tikkun olam. But what can we know when we can’t totally recognize what we see? It has taken me over two decades to even start to chisel away at the racism that being an American has bred within me. It has taken over two decades of race studies in college and prejudice reduction workshops, diversity roundtables, endless consciousness-raising discussions and protests and still, I find, I remain stained by racist ideology. I’ve learned that it will take a lifetime to evaluate the culture that shapes me, to extricate myself from heavy and complex cultural leanings seemingly beyond my control. I continue not to be able to completely understand just how the color of my skin plays a role in my daily life—like today, when I snuck into a resort pool and used the hot tub, blended in, and even got a towel from the hotel because I looked like, based on the color of my white skin, I belonged.
I am worried about this country, and I am worried about “the Jews.” Whoever “we” are, whoever “we” have become, whatever it means to be a people when amongst us we are so very different —I am worried. What does it mean to be a Jew? Should we recall our heritage’s past of racism, suffering, Nazi oppression, and exodus from Egypt? Does being a Jew mean to understand, to empathize, to not hide behind the color of our white (only some of us are white, I know) skin and all it gives us? Are these the applications of lessons from the Torah? Yes. And yet America handed my family a serious racial golden ticket in the 1930’s and 40’s—some arrived legally, other did not—that took a past where we did not belong and were systematically forced from our land, into a future where we blended in amongst the upper echelon of a nation.
How is that? What a strange fate, no? America has held me and my family on high since the minute we arrived. Well, no, not the very minute. First we suffered through the process of assimilation, and the impossible mourning of our murdered relatives. But we adjusted to new languages, endured shiners and black eyes and horrible anti-Semitic slurs and then—poof—we became American. My uncle sails his boats on Nantucket and golfs at the country club that once prohibited Jews. My cousin is happy in his gated community by the sea in Florida, a white man amongst all the other new immigrants, and my father can sun happily outside in his neighborhood pool. They all made money, they all left those rough edges behind—and yes—they bear the marks of war from the inside out—but on the surface—well my cousins and uncles and aunts—my parents, my siblings and myself—we know that when we get pulled over by the police our voices will be heard. We know that we will not be mistaken for criminals just because of the color of our skin. We know that we can swim at the pool and not fear a broken jaw at the hands of the very men meant to protect us.
And these assurances continue. Yes. My synagogue has bodyguards. Yes. We have to have police watch as we pray. No. I didn’t say being Jewish is perfect. But being Jewish in America, for so many privileged Jews—it is from a perch. And for wealthy white American Jews in America, it is from a very cushy white perch. And I know some people hate Jews. I know that certain places in Europe aren’t so safe for us these days. I know anti-Semitism remains rampant. But I also know that from where I sit, here in a safe house in a safe neighborhood, that no one is coming to get me, that no one can see or smell the “Jew” on me, that no one wants to eradicate me from the face of the earth. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few years, but not today. And if they do come for me, I know the American legal system and government will protect me.
But the same doesn’t seem to be true for black Americans.
So, today I am going to leverage what I have, and pay attention to a nation that is bleeding. I am calling us to action. “Us.” “We” the “Jewish people.” I am begging us to take Torah and make it into life, to unveil the layers of our own racism, to be Jews, not just Americans—meaning Zachor, or “remember.” We will never forget. For me, I will attempt to understand systematized oppression when I see it and will stand up for the rights and protection of any oppressed Americans, and anyone else being treated unjustly by the laws meant to protect them. What this means is that I will understand that many black Americans are also Jews. What this means is noticing how often everyone in the room is white, or how often jokes are made that enforce a racist mindset. What this means is that I will gently and vigilantly begin to pick apart my consciousness, ask Martin Buber’s prodigal question, “Where am I?” and to push Hillel’s question, “If not now, when?”
When, if not now, will we begin to realize that we did get assimilated, we did rise, like thick white cream, to the top, and with that we drank the water of a culture that originated in racism? We, the (white) Jews of this country, rode in on the coattails of history and continue to benefit from how, when and where whiteness, as a race, and as a social commodity, was established. Up from slavery and in its wake, we wear our white and power-laden skin. We are part of the problem, every day, until we begin to complexify how we may, one day, become a real part of the solution. Black America is under terror. I see it, I fear it, I know this in my blood because I recognize this from another life, from before I was born. They? Us. If not you, who?
Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.