Although I’ve always known my grandmother, Sara Atzmon, was a survivor of the Holocaust, it took me over 18 years to work up the courage to ask her about her experiences as a Jew in Nazi occupied Europe. As a child, I was terrified of knowing what my grandmother had gone through. On the other hand, as a student of Jewish history, I knew that these stories must be told to prevent their future reoccurrence. When we would discuss her experiences, I would ask about “the war”—always being careful not to ask about a specific incident, but allowing her to share what she was ready and willing to. One of her most vivid and often reflected upon memories was her recounting of the day the Nazi occupation force came to her rural farm to seize her and her family. She was always careful to note that the family who disclosed their Jewish identity was the same local farming family who had come by to sing them Christmas carols for many years. She made sure I understood that when antisemitism becomes promoted by the powerful (Nazis in occupied Europe) that the antisemitism of everyday “good” white Christians will surface for all to see clearly.
On August 15, 2017, the lessons my grandmother taught me began ringing in my ears so loudly I could barely hear myself think. With the election of Donald Trump, open and overt white supremacist demonstrations have once again become common place in the United States. I can see my Jewish friends across the nation begin to uneasily question our place as Jews in white America as I scroll through my Facebook feed. They have good reason to, as well. Despite a recent Pew Research study showing that 90% of Jewish Americans self-identify as white, white supremacists have clearly separated Jews from their socially constructed white racial category. For example, at the recent white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville Virginia, Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke told the crowd
the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause
while supremacist Richard Spencer taunted Charlottesville’s Jewish Mayor, Mike Singer, and asked the crowd how to pronounce his name. They answered by chanting “Jew, Jew, Jew.” Furthermore, a crowd of hundreds of white supremacists marched with lit torches, many of the participants proudly displayed swastikas and images of Hitler while they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (and English translation of the old German Nazi “blut und boden”). This recent uptick in overt and public displays of white supremacy begs the following questions: 1) Why are Jews targeted by white supremacists? 2) Where is the resurgence in white supremacy and racialized antisemitism coming from? 3) What can we do, as self-identified white Jews, to combat white supremacy?
To answer the first question, I turn to the work of linguist and cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, and sociologist, Joe Feagin. For the sake of simplicity, frames are worldviews that people operate out of in everyday life, and the white racial frame is the racial worldview that the vast majority of white actors in the U.S. and Western societies operate out of.
Central to the white racial frame is the view, or subframe, that most whites are virtuous actors. In addition, anti-“other” views are incorporated into this larger racial worldview—-taking the form of anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Latino, and others including anti-Jewish. In fact, almost immediately after terms like “race” and “black and white race” were developed by Europeans in the 17th century, elite white American men used these socially constructed categories to impose a non-white identity on Jews. For example, in 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, who governed the New Amsterdam colony described the first Jewish immigrants to the American colonies as “a deceitful race”—clearly separating them from the “virtuous” white Protestants whom were welcomed in New Amsterdam.
While racialized antisemitism has become less acceptable (yet still present and accepted in white backstage settings) after the 1940s fall of Nazi Germany—-leading most white Americans to impose an off-white identity on Jews-—white supremacists have held fast to this idea that Jews are non-white.
Now that we understand the links between white racial framing, white supremacy, and racialized antisemitism, we can move to a discussion of where this resurgence is coming from. Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey note the central role of elite white men in the production and reproduction of systemic white racism, systemic sexism, and systemic capitalism. This also holds true for racialized antisemitism—-a subframe in the larger white racial worldview that justifies and upholds systemic white racism. Today, elite white men, such as financier William H. Regnery II, continue to be at the center of the promotion of this white racial framing, much the way Peter Stuyvesant was in 1654—-complete with narratives of white virtuosity, and overt racialized antisemitism that work in tandem with various anti-“other” frames to reproduce systemic white racism. For example, Regnery has described his greatest political achievement as his discovery of white supremacist Richard Spencer! In addition, Spencer himself has noted that Regnery has played a “vitally important and indispensable” part in the formation of the so-called alt-right movement. Sadly, not much has changed in terms of the central actors who maintain and promote racism and racialized forms of antisemitism in the U.S. over the past four hundred years—they remain elite white men.
How can we combat white supremacy? My answer here is twofold.
1) As scholars of U.S. antisemitism, we must begin to focus on white, and particularly elite white, antisemitism—-a topic that is rarely discussed in studies of contemporary U.S. antisemitism in favor continued discussions of antisemitism in Muslim and black communities.
2) We must begin to work toward building coalitions with communities of color to combat white supremacy. This second goal will require self-reflection regarding the way we, self-identified white Jewish Americans, actively participate in, and passively support through our silence, white supremacy.
What do I mean by actively promoting white supremacy? I refer to the racist language and actions that some Jewish Americans engage in. For example, look to the AEPi chapter of the University of Chicago—a historically Jewish fraternity—and their leaked listserv emails in 2016. In these emails, that span from 2011 through 2015, these Jewish students sound much like white supremacists who do not target Jews. For example, these students planned to celebrate MLK Day at a fried chicken restaurant and regularly used the “N-word” as well as associated other slurs to refer to African Americans. They also regularly used labels like “terrorist” when talking about Muslim students. Yet, perhaps the most telling example of how their emails resemble old white supremacist rhetoric can be found in an email from July 2011. In this email, a member asks other members not to publicly use his newly given nickname because it has the N-word embedded in it. While he is careful to point out to them that he finds it “very, very, funny,” he also notes that it is “very, very, racist” and should be kept to private spaces (their backstage) unless “you need to satisfy your inner klansman.”
What do I mean by silence? I refer to the fact that there is often no outcry or action by leaders of the Jewish community when people of color are murdered by state officials, when Indigenous people’s lands and water are stolen by elite-white-male-owned corporations, and when the myriad of other everyday events occur which promote white supremacy and other aspects of systemic white racism in the United States. We must not be silent any longer and we must teach the next generation of white Jewish Americans to actively and openly engage anti-racist viewpoints and actions. Some groups, such as Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, have begun this work but need more active support from more Jewish Americans.
This is how we, as self-identified white Jews, begin to move toward dismantling white supremacy in America. This must happen now. By participating in, and being silent about, white supremacy, we are breathing life into it and spreading it. If we do not work against white supremacy, it is just a matter of time before our own white neighbors point us out as the local Jews.
Thaddeus Atzmon is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Texas A&M University. His current research focuses on the co-reproduction of systemic white racism and antisemitism in the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org