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‘Not OK’: People of color remind distraught Jews hate never ended

Robin Washington

Two weeks after the Hamas attack in Israel, the shattered sense of safety felt by Jews around the world hasn’t gone away.

It’s the same ever-present insecurity felt by many people of color in the United States — including Jews of color.

“I always feel like there’s a bright pink, fluorescent target on my back. I’m Black. I’m a woman. I’m Jewish,” said Debrosha McCants, a mother of grown children in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

The difference, she says, between Jews of color and those who appear white — or who have embraced whiteness — is that people of color cannot hide from racism.

“I often talk to white-passing Jews who say, ‘I don’t wear a kippah, I don’t want people to know I’m Jewish,’” McCants said, using a Hebrew word for a yarmulke. “Because I’ve been Black my whole life, I don’t have the privilege to hide who I am.

“To Jews who just walk through life,” she continued, “I say, ‘Well honey — welcome to my world.’”

McCants’ comments recall the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, when Black people responding to the innocent question “How are you?” answered, “I’m not OK.”

Jews echo that answer in the current crisis.

“No, things are not OK,” said Harriette Wimms, a Maryland clinical psychologist and the convener of the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project. “Just as we had video footage of George Floyd begging for his life, we have video footage of the atrocities that happened.”

To those who might quickly discount the comparison of one man’s murder to the brutal massacre and kidnapping of hundreds, it wasn’t just Floyd’s death Black people were reacting to. Rather, it was the Black lives still not mattering, after centuries of murders and dehumanization, dating back to the Middle Passage.

The analogy doesn’t apply completely. When Black people said they weren’t OK, they weren’t saying everything was just fine before Floyd’s murder. It just took that atrocity for the rest of the world to finally ask.

Conversely, many Jews thought they had escaped the oppression of the past until the attacks brought them back. For American Jews in particular, it was a reminder that comfort was illusory, belying the myth that each ethnicity would get its turn at full acceptance. First the Germans, then the Irish, then the Italians, the story goes. Jews, Blacks and Hispanics would surely get theirs.

But it didn’t work that way. Even as Jews were admitted to the club, antisemitism didn’t go away and, in recent years, has increased.

For my personal take on comfort, I’m reminded of a speech about the concept of “arriving” — achieving professional and financial success — delivered by former U.S. Appeals Court Judge Alcee Hastings.

Speaking to a convention of Black journalists, he said, “If you’re Black in America, you never arrive.” Even for those on prestigious newspaper editorial boards, I recall him continuing, “You may think you’ve arrived. But before you entered the room, the decision was made. And after you left, it was changed.”

Few people knew it at the time, but Hastings was just about to be impeached and removed from the bench, after which he was elected to Congress and served 28 years until his 2021 death. So he very much knew what he was talking about.

Am I buying into conspiracy theories? Or race paranoia? Years of too much evidence tells me I’m not. Decades of personal experiences of racism and antisemitism tell me I’m not.

Perhaps Jews thought overachievement would overpower hate. But if so, why take off your yarmulke? Maybe Jews in Israel thought overwhelming force would protect them. But children, Israeli and Palestinian, dead from rockets and terrorism and retaliatory bombs, horrifically lay waste to that folly.

So must Jews resign ourselves to trauma, as Black people have done continuously for years? Not quite. Recognizing injustice doesn’t mean accepting it and giving up the fight.

It means keeping up the fight — not through violence — but rather by living key Jewish values: Do good, seek justice and walk humbly with God.

Robin Washington, a former managing editor of the Banner, is editor-at-large of the Forward, where this article originally appeared.

Hamas, Israel, Jews of color, opinion, racism