By Hava Liebowitz | Guest Writer
Hava Liebowitz is a white Jewish woman from South Carolina. She studied fine arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and got her start organizing with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. At SAIC, she was a student leader with SAIC Hillel and member of the Social Art Department and the Student Advocacy Alliance for Health and Disability. This fall, she relocated to New Orleans to participate in the Avodah Service Corps. She is an interdisciplinary artist, and much of her art is made through a queer feminist lens. You can connect with her at havaliebowitz.com or on Instagram @havaliebowitz.
In 2017, about 1,000 white nationalists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, chanted, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” They also chanted “Blood and Soil,” “White Lives Matter,” and “The South Will Rise Again.” They held lit torches and antagonized the counter-protestors, the local Jewish community, and people of color.
The weekend culminated in one of the right-wing protestors driving a car directly into the crowd, killing a counter-protester named Heather Heyer and injuring up to 35 others. The sitting President at the time refused to denounce the white nationalists (who had rallied in support of him) stating that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
The Hebrew month of Kislev began this year on the heels of election season. We now know that President Trump has not been reelected and will be succeeded by Joe Biden. Though relieved at the change of leadership, I know ousting this hostile administration won’t get rid of the oppressive elements in our society that gave rise to it.
A Brief History of Jewish Resistance
Chanukah is a holiday that comes not from the Tanakh but rather from events in 168 B.C.E. The Jews were besieged by the Seleucid Empire, a force of Hellenized Syrians who desecrated Jewish temples and required Jews to convert to worshipping Greek gods on pain of death.
Rather than submit, one band of five brothers called the Maccabees retreated to the mountains and then ambushed the Seleucids using guerrilla fighting. They were eventually able to negotiate religious freedom under the Seleucid Empire and restore their temples in Judea.
Like the various fascists and nationalists that succeeded them, the Seleucids saw any minority with its own identity and culture as a threat to their power and even to their existence. Thus, throughout history, Jewish people have played the role of the scapegoat.
This was especially true in Europe, where antisemitism became inextricably linked to Christian hegemony and colonialism. In the European imagination, Jews were the mysterious other that could be blamed for all of the wider society’s problems.
Jews were attacked on the basis of faith, cast as devil-worshippers or Christ killers. Then on the basis of race and nationality, they were cast as a foreign group who would supplant the European population and were at fault for plagues, famines, and so forth.
Finally, on the basis of politics, Jews were seen either as dangerous radicals or wealthy oppressors, undermining the society in which we lived. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once stated that “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”
A Precarious Kind of Normal
What does all this mean to us in the present day? As of data from 2018, Jews in the United States experienced more hate crimes than all other religious groups combined. This is particularly shocking when you consider that we are only 2.2% of the population.
Despite this, antisemitism is sometimes misunderstood or overlooked because it doesn’t always resemble the oppression experienced by other minorities. White Jews in America don’t experience the same discrimination in terms of employment, housing, and education, nor are our communities overpoliced.
This is because antisemitism is cyclical, meaning that there are relatively peaceful periods when Jews are more or less assimilated and accepted, followed by outbreaks of violence, swinging back and forth over millennia.
Usually the violence is met with enough opposition that a measure of safety is then restored, but sometimes a political shift to the far left or far right creates a hostile society in which Jews become second class citizens or are under outright genocide (think Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany).
This proximity to privilege yet vulnerability to violence puts our communities in a precarious position. I recall my own synagogue in South Carolina making difficult choices on security protocols.
I remember the harrowing summer when nine Black Christians were killed in Charleston by white supremacist Dylan Roof. Coming back from the vigil at the local A.M.E. church, my family told me about the new security measures our synagogue was taking including a new camera system and change of keys. I naively wondered, “What does this have to do with us?” Then in 2018, eleven Jews were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg by another lone white supremacist gunman, and it became obvious.
Our Interdependence Is Our Strength
When it comes to resisting white supremacy, our best defense is a good offense. Mobilizing quickly and having good foresight are crucial. In the book Emergent Strategy, activist adrienne maree brown suggests that organizers take notes from the way creatures in nature, like ants and flocks of geese, respond in formation to survive.
This can be done in many ways, both by people targeted by white supremacy and by allies. Educating about white nationalism, facism, and how these movements attract followers, fighting for more progressive legislation especially around gun control, and being in solidarity with the most marginalized are some actions that come to mind.
When white supremacy and antisemitism manifest as violent attacks, I am more strongly reminded of ecosystems and how the death of one thing quickly signals the death of another. Adrienne also encourages us to build critical connections over critical mass.
In this period of political transition, it’s important to strengthen those connections by making space for dialogue, educating ourselves, and being open to criticism so that when we act together, it will be second nature.