I was drawn to a New York conference called “Organizing for Social Change: Fighting Racism and the Politics of Division,” because it was one of the only multicultural conferences I’d ever seen where Jews were to be included as Jews. Clues to me that this gathering (sponsored by the North Star Foundation) would be different included the facts that the advance listed Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) as an active player in the conference planning, kosher meals were offered and the title of a series of workshops on “People’s Histories” included “Jewish-Americans” as one of the choices.
Speaking on the opening panel, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Executive Director of JFREJ, asked the audience of nearly two thousand, “Will those who feel comfortable standing up and identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual, please do so.” From the crowd, about 150 people rose and the auditorium filled with applause. Then, she asked “Will those who feel comfortable identifying as Jews, please rise.”
With a bit of shuffling and hesitation, Jewish women and men stood, comprising 30 percent in an auditorium of 1500 people, and once again the room rippled with applause. For some of these Jewish activists, it was the first time they had ever identified publicly as Jews. “I never identified as a Jew before,” one woman said later on in the day. Her voice trembled and she began to cry. “I don’t know what being Jewish means to me.”
As for me, standing in the doorway with a lavender armband identifying me as a member of the “crowd-control team,” I was caught off-guard. Although I work professionally in the Jewish world and identify strongly as a Jew, I had come to this conference with my karate school, the Center for Anti- Violence Education/Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts, which had been asked to help with security for the conference. And even though I had brought a stack of LILITH flyers, I deposited them quickly, put on my armband and joined my friends from the Center. Without really thinking about it, in this environment, I wanted to be identified with a multi-cultural organization, not a Jewish one.
And yet, all the while, my Inner Jew was lurking and listening, cautious, and afraid. “Remember, this conference is being held on shabbas,” she whispered. “Don’t forget, anti-Semitism is out there. Don’t forget, scratch a goy and you’ll find an anti-Semite.”
I wanted to quiet that scared, mistrustful voice which carried the historical memory of an oppressed people long enough to be able to look at racism, my own racism and my privilege as a white woman. Long enough to be able to ask myself whether my discomfort was coming from my intuitive sense’s picking up undertones of anti-Semitism or whether I didn’t feel “at home” in this multicultural, multiracial environment because “home” had meant for me “white, middle class Jews.”
Throughout the two-day conference I moved back and forth between identifying primarily as “white,” as “Jew,” and as “woman.” I felt compelled to identify myself as “white” to acknowledge both my skin-color privilege and the racism that people of color face everyday. I agreed with Cornel West, Director of the African American Studies Program at Princeton University, opening speaker at the conference, who said: “Whiteness is a construct. They were Sicilian. They were Irish. They were Yugoslavian. They became white when they came to America and met me.”
” I wasn’t the only Jewish woman at the conference faced with the question of how to identify myself in this multicultural environment. When Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz spoke, she identified herself as a Jew and a lesbian but did not use the word “white.” Afterwards, a woman expressed her anger at this. “I don’t care if you’re a lesbian or a Jew, you’re a white woman,” she asserted. Another panelist, Don Kao, Director of Project Reach, pointed out that even as an Asian he had to identify himself as a man having male privilege.
Kaye/Kantrowitz responded to the woman’s criticism by saying that that her focus on her Jewish and lesbian identities was not meant as a form of “opting out or getting off the hook,” but a way of explaining her connection and commitment to the struggle. “The numbers of Jews here is not accidental,” she noted. “We are not here in spite of our Jewishness but because of it.”
For some Jews, the conference became a way to connecting with their Jewishness. Maria Brettschneider, a Jewish feminist activist and political philosopher, felt a real hunger for knowledge from the Jews who attended the workshop on Jewish-American history. “Here were people ranging in age from 20 to 60, who had been doing multicultural and anti-racism work for years, who felt at a loss when it came to a sense of their own history as Jews.” My feminist Wild Woman was also at the conference, watching and waiting. She began to growl with rage at the workshop on Project C.U.R.E. (Communication, Understanding, Respect, Education), a joint African American/Hassidic project in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The four male speakers. Dr. David Lazerson, Mr. Richard Green and two teenagers, talked about and showed videos of the basketball games and rap music which brought African-American and Hassidic boys together.
My feminist Wild Woman noted: if boys do it, it’s a political coalition complete with government funding; if girls do it, it’s nothing. An African-American woman in the audience pointed out that the girls in her community enjoy basketball as much as the boys, “So why aren’t girls included in the project?” Mr. Green replied that the organizers wanted to respect the gender divisions within the Hassidic community and that, although it was a problem, gender inequality was not the battle they were choosing to face. “Were there any projects just for girls from both communities to come together, separate from the boys?” I asked. The answer was no.
It was a hard conference for me, as I moved from feeling defeated to compassionate to angry to optimistic. At times, I was angry that more Jews weren’t there, willing to join with others to work towards social change and an end to racism. At other times, I was angry that the people I met, including Jews, had so little understanding of Jewish history and the manifestations of anti-Semitism. I was angry when I felt that women’s issues were left behind and angry when gay/lesbian issues were left behind.
But I also felt hopeful and energized to see thousands of people from a range of ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds come together for a weekend of workshops, lectures, discussions and performances. At one point J was sitting in the auditorium, two rows behind the headphones hooked up for Spanish translation, in front of the woman signing in ASL on the stage before me, a row behind a woman in a wheelchair, watching a multi-ethnic group of teenagers perform an improve skit about violence and fighting between different cliques at a high school. I left the conference reaffirmed in my belief that the best way to work on both racism in the Jewish community and anti-semitism in other communities is for Jews to be an integral and active part of multicultural and anti-racist organizations, conferences and communities. It’s not easy, and as Cornel West told participants: “the examined life is painful, risky and full of vulnerability”—but it’s worth it.
Jewish Groups Can Organize Against Racism
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) was formed in 1990 in response to the increase in racial and ethnic tension, violence and economic disparities within New York City. Working collectively, it aims to “establish a clear and outspoken Jewish presence” in the social justice movements and to “enlarge and strengthen the community of Jews who are actively working for racial and economic justice.” Here are some suggestions adapted from their literature:
1. Joint programs.
Contact a local church, advocacy group, community organization or student group to see if they are interested in working on a joint program. Multi-racial, multi-religious coalitions offer important resources of people, time, money and moral support. Decision-making should be shared and events should take place in both or a variety of locations. Possible activities or topics include: community issues such as education, health care, affordable housing, biased violence , etc., an educational series and cultural events.
2. Financial decisions of your group/synagogue.
Even small synagogues operate in part as businesses. Make sure that your synagogue is using its business role in a proactive way to confront racism. Options include:
• Whenever possible, purchase goods and services from businesses with good labor practices, including minority and women-owned businesses.
• Make sure your synagogue’s investments don’t promote racism abroad or at home. Invest at least some of the synagogue’s reserves in community development banks, credit unions or loan funds.
• Review synagogue hiring practices. Ensure that there are no discriminatory practices: i.e. can service workers advance, gain skills and better wages?
3. Workshops, discussion groups and speakers.
Many Jews express a hunger to respond to and examine race relations and racism in a Jewish environment. Anti-racism consciousness raising groups, reading groups and speakers are some ways that Jews amongst themselves can share concerns, develop a better understanding of racism and build skills to confront racism and racist institutions. JFREJ offers workshops and a Speaker’s Bureau, especially on issues of racism, anti-semitism and Black-Jewish relations. JFREJ is available to help plan and arrange such events and to help develop ideas into full-scale action strategies.
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
200 West 72nd Street #49, NY. NY 10023 (212)721-3585, FAX: (212) 721-3798