“We naturally want to look away from our ugliness. We paint over racist reality to make a beautiful delusion of self, of society. We defend this beautiful self and society from our racist reality with the weapons of denial.”
—Ibram X. Kendi, The Heartbeat of Racism Is Denial
I’m a white Jew, and for most of my adult life I’ve tried to distance myself from my Jewishness. Recently I’ve interrogated my motivations and started to reclaim my Jewish identity. This process has made me more conscious of the ways in which white privilege has shaped my life. It’s also helped me face up to my own complicity in racism.
Racism can only sustain itself through white denial. Those of us who benefit from today’s deeply inequitable society can’t continue life as usual if we’re honest with ourselves about the true costs of our privileges. We can’t bear to think of the people who are marginalised and dispossessed by the structures and policies that keep us comfortable, because that would reveal our complicity in systems of oppression. So we retreat into denial.
Denial takes many forms. Racism does exist, we might say, but since we aren’t racist it has nothing to do with us. Or we’ll use a smokescreen like “unconscious bias” to distance ourselves from systems that discriminate in our favour. Or we’ll proclaim our wokeness by checking our privilege, even as we cling to the myth that we achieved our positions in society through “merit” or hard work.
All of this applies directly to me. I’m a British, white, middle-class, cisgender man. My life has been shaped by racial and class privileges: financial security, elite education and access to well-paid tech jobs. It’s almost as if I’ve won the privilege lottery. Almost because I’m Jewish.
While I’ve only experienced anti-semitism on a few occasions, the lives of my grandparents were profoundly altered by it. My mother’s parents were Iraqi Jews forced to travel to refugee camps in the newly formed state of Israel in 1951, abandoning their homes and taking only the clothes they wore. My other grandfather, son of a wealthy Nuremberg toy-maker, escaped Nazi Germany for London in 1938. Thousands of miles apart, these events were both consequences of the global rise of anti-semitism as a political force. That force had the power to suddenly racialise my grandparents, who until that point occupied privileged social positions. They were fortunate to escape pogroms and the Holocaust and lead comfortable lives in Britain, enjoying the privilege of citizenship while unable to forget how quickly it might be revoked.
White Jews have a complicated relationship with white supremacy. While many of us carry intergenerational trauma from the anti-semitism of 20th Century white supremacist movements, our current position in the racial hierarchy benefits us at the expense of people of colour.
Present-day Israeli governments exploit this Jewish trauma through the claim that unconditional support of Israel is the only way to protect ourselves from persecution. This obscures Israel’s racist policies of exclusion and dispossession of millions of Palestinians, which former Prime Minister Ehud Barak called an “apartheid state”. To counter anti-racist opposition to these policies, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has aligned himself with anti-semites like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Trump ally Steve Bannon. To quote from a Washington Post opinion piece:
For Netanyahu… anti-Semitism no longer means evoking fear of shadowy Jewish power, Jewish exploitation of capitalist opportunity or an ethno-nationalism that refuses to see Jews as equal co-citizens. Instead, anti-Semitism is now defined as opposition to Israel’s current regime. To oppose Netanyahu personally, or to oppose the settlement project and the occupation of territories captured during the Israeli-Arab wars more generally, is for them the very essence of “anti-Semitism.”
Contemporary white supremacy—as represented by Netanyahu and his global allies—invokes the racist persecution that my grandparents escaped to demand that I unconditionally support the apartheid state of Israel. And it attacks me as a “self-hating Jew” if I dare to refuse. My distaste for the inherent racism in this conception of Zionism was one of my motivations for trying to disown my Jewishness. But my position became untenable when I saw how the same movement is invoking my ethnicity to silence democratic movements that dare to criticise Israel.
In the USA, the charge of anti-semitism is being used to silence Muslim women of colour like Rep. Ilhan Omar for pointing to the corrupt relationship between pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC and the unanimous support of Congress for Israel’s policies. Here in the UK, liberal politicians make a similar charge against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. They believe that his long history of anti-racist activism and support for the Palestinian cause is in fact motivated by anti-semitism.
The people invoking my ethnicity to attack figures on the left like Corbyn and Omar rarely address the rise of anti-semitism in contemporary right wing movements. Neither do they talk about other forms of racism like Islamophobia, which has become normalised in the so-called “war on terror”. But if we value social justice, we can’t limit our opposition to one form of racism. We need to oppose all forms of racism, including those in which the powerful are complicit.
I do not share the experiences of people of colour or other oppressed groups. On the contrary I enjoy a comfortable, privileged life. It’s easy for me stay comfortable while opting out of the political resistance that an honest reckoning with my grandparents’ history requires. But while I might choose to distance myself from the Jewish religion and ignore the way my ethnicity is being exploited to promote anti-Muslim racism, if a far right government takes power—which is looking increasingly likely in Brexit Britain—I’ll have no defence against being racialised as a Jew. My name, my history, my physical appearance would make it impossible to deny my Jewishness.
As a white Jew I benefit from white privilege while, at the back of my mind, I know that a resurgent neofascist movement could strip me of that privilege overnight. (Case in point: I still remember my Dad, about 20 years ago, advising us not to answer questions about ethnicity on official forms. “When the BNP come to power,” he said, “we don’t want them to know that we’re Jewish”.) This gives me a particular perspective on racism and white supremacy. I know first hand what it is to benefit from racial privilege. But the fact that my privilege is contingent—in a way that doesn’t apply to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—makes it easier for me to resist white denial.
That’s why I’m writing for the first time about being Jewish, as I try to reclaim that identity in an anti-racist way. I want to honour the experiences of my grandparents without endorsing the racism of present-day Zionism. But I also want to reclaim my Jewish identity without making the ridiculous “oppression Olympics”-style claim that this somehow negates the huge privileges I continue to benefit from. While my privileges could be revoked at any time, that hasn’t happened yet. I want to use them to help other privileged people face up to their complicity in racism.