I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.
As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.
In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.
Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.
The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.
The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.
One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.
It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.
The following is a transcript of the sermon delivered by Austin Zoot at Temple B’nei Israel in Kokomo, IN.
Purim is a rabbi’s dream holiday for giving in a sermon. It seems like every year, the values of Shushan can be applied to the world around us. This year is no exception.
The story of Purim starts with a man, Haman, who, as advisor to the king, wishes that every man bow before him. When a Jew, Mordechai, refuses to do so, Haman becomes furious. Rather than taking his anger out on the individual, though, Haman decides that it should be all Jews who are killed. He plans to destroy all Jews, because of his qualms with one he didn’t like.
When Hama approaches the king to tell him of his plan to destroy the Jews, he doesn’t identify the Jews by name. Instead, he tells the king that there is “a people” living in the kingdom who are different, who have their own customs and rules. He claims that they are responsible for the ills of the kingdom, that they are the problem that keeps the country from greatness. The King, knowing little about the “enemy” tells Haman to do as he sees fit, giving him keys to do as he wishes. This is a classic case of scapegoating. We see it in Shushan, we see it in Medieval Spain, we see it in Holocaust Germany. In every case, it was the Jews who were blamed for the problems of the entire country.
Well, that faceless enemy receives a face when the king discovers that Mordechai the Jew had once saved his life. Through an interaction that showed the honor and bravery of the Jews, the king was able to have an example to offset all the stereotypes, to have experience that would later call into question the detail-deficient claims of hatred that Haman levied against them.
Well, the one thing Haman hadn’t counted on was a Jew who had found some power. Esther, the queen, who had used her beauty and her bravery to gain some standing in the court of the king, was able to stand up for herself and for her people. She revealed her identity to the king in order to show that the faceless people Haman hoped to destroy. She was willing to stand up and risk her own safety, her own ability to pass, in exchange for standing up for those who didn’t have the same opportunity.
Listening to the story of Purim this year, it rings true in the political landscape of America. We live in an America where a leader attempts to convince us that it is because of “others” that things are bad. Immigrants from Mexico and Muslim countries are the problem, and that without them, our lives would be so much better. Well, the truth is, if we got rid of Mexicans and Muslims, the problems would still be here. Instead of trying to find solutions, we have found ourselves finding scapegoats.
In our country, we are more siloed than ever. Social media certainly doesn’t help. We spend so much of our lives talking to people who look like us, sound like us, act like us. We lose sight of the diversity in the world because we are so able to find communities that match our own identity. This leads us to have far less contact with the “others” that we are sold to believe are the cause for the problems we face. Yet, we know what it feels like to meet someone of another identity and learn that they don’t fit into the boxes we’ve established for them. We meet an individual who doesn’t match the stereotype, and we are forced to confront the fact that maybe we don’t fully understand this other, that maybe there is more to other people than their religion or their culture of origin.
Having been in this position time and time again, Jews have a moral obligation to stand up for scapegoats, both those we know and those we don’t. Many (not all, but many) Jews have the ability to “pass” as white, to choose whether or not to display our identity. We have an obligation to ensure that America does not become Shushan, that we do not allow the “other” to become a scapegoat for the problems that we are too lazy or too distracted to actually confront head on.
In that regard, we have three role models in the Purim story.
We must be like Esther, who used her little bit of power to stand up for others. She refused to sit idly by and watch as her people were destroyed. She used her voice to defend those who had no voice of their own.
We must be like Mordechai, and be good emissaries to the rest of the world. Mordechai was able to represent the best of Judaism, and serve as an example, showing the rest of the world the good things that Jews can do. By living ethical, moral lives, we can become examples of what it means for Jews to be productive and cherished members of society.
And, most underrated in the Purim story, sometimes we need to embody King Achashverosh. You see, when the king discovered the plot that had been created behind his back, he was able to learn, to broaden his understanding of those living around him, and to allow the space for the society to expand to include others. It would have been simple for the king to ignore what was going on, to hide behind the bureaucratic process. But instead, he acknowledged he didn’t know something before, and demonstrated a willingness to change his behavior when he had learned more. We have the same chance. As we continue to learn more about the people around us, we have the chance to adapt, and to expand the way we think.
Everyone’s favorite fun-fact about Purim is that God’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the Megillah, the story of Purim. The entire story happens without any divine intervention or involvement. The symbolism is quite beautiful. It would be easy to sit back and wait for God to swoop in and fix the world, to take the ownership away from us. But that isn’t how it works. Instead, it is on us to make sure that we are preventing the kind of scapegoating and blame that threatens our society. If we wait until someone else will save us, someone else will stand up for others, it may never happen.
May we stand up for others like Queen Esther. May we be good representations of our own people like Mordechai. And may we continue to change and grow as we learn more and know more like King Achashverosh.
Chag Purim Sameach. Happy Purim.
We have come to a boiling point in our nation’s history. We knew it was coming. The “America first” rhetoric that Donald Trump employed during his Inaugural address warned us that we would be turning our backs on the world, ignoring the rapid pace of globalization in favor of trying to get control of the minute details of citizenry.
Yet, this past week, when Donald Trump issued an executive order banning immigration to the country from several Muslim-dominated countries, we saw what it means to not only turn ourselves away from the politics of the rest of the world, but also the people in it. All across the globe, men, women, and children face persecution and terror, afraid for their lives and looking for a place to treat them with dignity and respect. Under a Trump administration, that won’t be the place founded on such ideals.
Nobody is naive enough to believe that these individuals should be let in with no vetting and with an issuing of a passport, $100,000 a-year job, and a brand new Cadillac. Of course we need to ensure that the individuals coming into the country have America’s best interests at heart. But we are a cowardly nation if we shy away from the hard work of that process in favor of the easier, scared answer of refusing them altogether.
America has never been a country based on fear. America was a nation founded on a set of values, built upon the notion of fighting for liberty and justice for all. Our ancestors were not given that gift as a birthright. No, they had to stand up and demand it, to declare their freedom, and do what it took to make it happen.
Now, we have to put our collective feet down and demand that our values be enforced. In the 1940s, when Jewish refugees arrived at the shores of America, they were sent away. America was too busy to care or too afraid of the repercussions. Those Jews were sent back to Germany to be tortured and murdered. Now, we have the opportunity to fix that mistake, to offer refuge to those who have no home and no safe place to call their own.
Trump has also threatened sanctuary cities, taking away yet another option for those in need of help. From near and far, this administration wants to make it abundantly clear that nobody is protected from harm in the US, that nobody has anywhere to seek shelter. That is not the America that I believe in, nor is it the America that we have fought so hard for over the past 250 years.
The fear is that Trump may be closer to getting his wish after all. When America abandons its values and the foundation upon which the country was created, immigrants will cease to believe that this country has anything to offer them. On that day, we will cease to be a global power at all. On that day, this country will become irrelevant. We won’t have to send people away; they won’t even want to show up.
America is built upon a foundation of morals, ethics, and strength. We do what is right, what is just, even if it is difficult. With an immigration ban, Trump is telling the world that we are too afraid to do the work to ensuring that our country can be both safe and welcoming, that we can be both a haven for the needy and defensive of our citizens’ health and well-being. If that is the case, maybe it is a Trump ban that we need, rather than a ban on the immigrants who are following in the footsteps of generations of those seeking a better life.
In 2016, hate was a concept. We talked about it a lot, but for me, I had the luxury of talking about hate directed at other people. I didn’t have to deal with the feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and fear myself until my own community was targeted yesterday.
Hebrew Union College has served as the home base for the education of Reform Jewish Rabbis for over a century, and Cincinnati has been the home to the College since 1875. On Tuesday morning, a swastika was discovered, painted on the sign on Clifton Avenue outside of the campus grounds.
The swastika, by all evidence, appears to be the work of a petty vandal, hastily drawn before moving on. No direct threats were made, nobody was harmed, no property was damaged beyond simply wiping away the symbol. Yet, Jews all over the country feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and fearful, that their place as American Jews has somehow been called into question. Facebook, in the last 36 hours, has been filled with unending posts of sadness, support, and determination. We say “Never again,” referencing the Holocaust and origins of the Swastika, and Jews all across the world are programmed to stand up for ourselves to ensure that we will never been attacked like we were back then.
For me, the hardest part was the inability to do much of anything productive. Sure, we can voice our displeasure, we can cry and stamp our feet and call attention to this injustice of it all. But an act committed by a silent criminal with no face is awfully hard to do anything about. We don’t know if this is a doodle by an ignorant punk or if this is a first step for a series of hate crimes. What we do know is that someone found the need to paint a specifically Jewish-motivated symbol of hate on our institution, and we cannot allow our fear to get the best of us.
The Jewish community of Cincinnati and America need to use this as a wake-up call. If we weren’t aware already, there are those who are intimidated by the presence of Jewish people and Jewish values in our country. My hope is that they are scared out of ignorance, not out of hate. Which means our job is to do two things.
First, we need to be educators. We need to be vocal about our Judaism, welcoming questions with sincere and kind answers. We need to tell others what we stand for and show non-Jewish America that our country is stronger with Jews in it than it would be if we weren’t here. We have an obligation to help demystify the “other”, to give an introduction to those who have never seen past their own identities.
Second, we need to be strong in our commitment to stand up for our values and stand up for ourselves. This first act is one of vandalism, but we don’t know what might happen next. This serves as a wake-up call for Jews all across the country to speak up for ourselves, to ensure that we continue to wear our Judaism with pride.
It would be easy to be afraid of going back to school after Winter Break. It would be easy to turn this small act of disgusting defacement as a threat, to scare us, to intimidate us, and to push us away. But what we have the opportunity to do now is to come out stronger, to show our Judaism and who we are as Jewish people.
The most beautiful thing has also come out of this dark moment. The administration of HUC as identified that support and offers of help and commitment have been rolling in, both from the Jewish community of Cincinnati and from the University of Cincinnati which is located just down the street. Members of the College Institute and the Cincinnati community at large have made it abundantly clear: HUC is here, HUC belongs here, and there are many people who will fight to make sure that remains true.
I am proud to be a student at Hebrew Union College. I am proud to be a Jewish member of the Cincinnati community. And I am determined to ensure that this city and this world knows what it means for Jews to be the agents of peace in all corners of the earth.