Responding to Grass-roots Racism & Anti-Semitism

By Cherie Brown

[Dear friends, You are about to read notes and comments by Cherie Brown, about dealing with what might be called “grass-roots racism and anti-Semitism.”  She is the director of the National Coalition-Building Institute. She is also a member of the Board of The Shalom Center.  Beyond that, her own words will say who she is better than anything I could add --  AW, ed.]

Friends,  You may be aware of a few recent incidents in Washington, DC:  

1) A local African American city council member, Trayon White,  said the recent bad weather in DC was the fault of the Rothschilds [a wealthy European Jewish family].

2) He was challenged about the anti-Semitism in his remark and he then apologized to the Jewish community for his  unaware comment.  He was subsequently invited to attend a Unity Seder and was then invited to a special tour with a local rabbi of the U.S. Holocaust museum.  A  Washington Post reporter followed him on the tour, writing down every question/ comment  he was making.  And because of that--the council member abruptly left the tour early which then increased the upset of some local Jewish leaders.

3). After days of continued negative Washington Post articles about all of this --A support rally for this city council member was held on the steps of the City Council--- organized by a local Latino leader.   The Latino leader was also a paid consultant in the city and apparently  close to the mayor.  

The rally ended up  including a Nation of Islam supporter who at one point stood next to the Latino organizer  with a bullhorn and , without challenge attacked a Jewish city council member-- calling her a "fake Jew" and also calling Jews "termites". The Latino leader was criticized in the press and the mayor was asked to fire him.  Shortly after these calls for the mayor to fire him--he resigned.

All of these incidents were widely reported in the Washington Post with lots of meetings held afterwards with local Jewish leaders to try and deal with the ensuing upsets.

Last night the D.C. Mayor, Muriel Bowser,  held an invitation only, closed to the press  session for about 40 community and faith leaders in the city. The event was organized by the Office of Human Rights here in the District.  The evening was called:  A Listening Lab.   The director of the Office of Human Rights is a longtime ally of NCBI and we have an NCBI team housed at the Office,  leading NCBI workshops in the city.  

I was asked to co-facilitate the session last night with the Mayor and our NCBI trained leaders facilitated small group table discussions.  As a part of the evening-- I spoke for about 15 minutes about principles and  practices for dealing with intergroup tensions around  anti Semitism and racism.  My talk follows. 


There have been so many painful moments recently that have ripped our community apart, with pain and strong accusations flying back and forth.  There has been racism.  Anti  Semitism.   Islamophobia;   And gay oppression. What are the practices we need to put into place to make sure that these incidents don't drive a wedge between our peoples?

 There are 5 principles I want to offer us tonight to guide our work.

1). No matter how unbearable it gets --- We have to stay in the room!  There is no other good choice.  After one of my dozens of trips to Israel, I was leading a session in Boston with an Arab man, addressing a group of 500  -- modeling being Allies for each other's people's.  

At one point in my talk,  I said I was proud of Israel.  I never got to finish my talk.  A Palestinian woman started shouting at me from the back of the room: “How dare you say you're proud of Israel.”  She continued to scream out awful things about what Israel was doing to the Palestinian people.  Some of the things she said I agreed with. Many of her points I did not.   But I did not interrupt her. And she kept screaming at me for 15 minutes.  My insides were on fire. 

But I knew if I went back and forth refuting her, we would be in a losing battle. Fifteen minutes is a very long time when someone is attacking your people, but at the end of her speak-out, she looked up at me and said, "You're the first Jewish person who’s ever listened to me.  Can we meet for lunch?".  The room was electric.  Nadjua had come to the US because her ears had been impaired as a result of Israel's bombing at the time in Southern Lebanon. She and I met for the 3 months she was in the U.S. and as a result of that relationship building, we led the first ever dialogue between some members of the Israeli Knesset and the PLO when it was still illegal for them to meet.

I knew there would be intense emotions flying in that session, and we made one requirement of each participant:  that they had to sign a piece of paper that no matter how much they disagreed with what the other side was saying, they would stay in the room till the end of the session.

This work is not easy.  But if we abandon each other when harsh things are said-- we will never ever move forward.  And God knows the oppressive forces in this current period want nothing more than that  we remain divided.

2) We need to understand the specifics in what causes each other pain.  This work cannot just be about standing shoulder to shoulder singing Freedom songs.  Many of our peoples have had devastating histories and we need to be willing to learn about each other's trigger points.

A number of years ago, the African American Center at an East Coast campus had invited a controversial speaker to campus.  During his talk he was alleged to have said, "The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist."  A Jewish student in the audience stood up and said he was proud to be a Zionist.  That student was slugged, and it was the lead story on the 6 o'clock evening news that night. 

The campus administration was in a panic and invited my organization to campus to lead a workshop for Black and Jewish students and faculty.  I arrived on campus and NBC, CBS and ABC camera crews were setting up for the session.  I informed the TV crews  that the session was closed to the press,  but I invited them back at the end to interview the students and faculty who'd attended the session.  At one point, we taught the NCBI Controversial Issue Process where the group chooses a painful highly controversial issue they don't agree about and then learn how to listen to the heart- felt concerns on each side of the issue.

 The issue the group chose was:  Should Controversial Speakers that include hate speech in their talks  be welcomed on campus?  The group was evenly divided.  This, I might , continues to be one of the most contentious issues on campuses and communities across the U.S.  today.

An African American student spoke first.  "Do you think we're stupid?  Do you think we can't listen to someone and then discern what in their message we think makes sense and what doesn’t. Stop insulting us and telling us who we can and can't listen to.  That's racist."

A Jewish student spoke next.  "Don't tell us to just trust you. Our whole history is one of being told we are safe and then when it's too late to leave, we've been gassed, endangered with pogroms, and, to make it worse ---- a lot of the hatred toward us now gets put into code words so people don't even know they're being anti-Semitic.  We can't trust you without more basis for the trust, and knowing you will speak out against anti- Semitism." 

Then it was time to generate a reframed question taking both sides’ concerns into account.  The question they came up with was:  How can the African American community on campus have full self determination to decide who they listen to while the Jewish community on campus gets concrete proof that they have allies who will speak out about anti-Semitism?  

They ended up deciding to launch a Black-Jewish coalition and invite controversial speakers that both groups struggled with to a private meeting away from media attention  and teach each other the meaning of the more hurtful messages.  The students and faculty were further ahead now than before the incident. That Black-Jewish coalition sustained itself for many years. We don't need to be so afraid of the painful mistakes we make.   We just need a mechanism to use these mistakes to teach each other about our histories and the painful code words used against our peoples.

3) We need our allies to hold firm, to not get confused, to not collude with the pull to choose sides-- no matter how hard it is.

I was at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban South Africa in 2001, right before September 11.  Durban was an amazing place to be with 10,000 anti-racism activists from all over the world. Durban was also a very painful place to be a Jew.  There were people wearing buttons saying Hitler didn't do enough of his job.  There was a cartoon being passed around the conference depicting a man with a beard and a long hooked nose with  blood pouring from his hands. These cartoons were very similar to those used in the Middle Ages to incite violence against Jews.

When the head of the conference,  Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, was shown these anti -pictures, she responded, "If these cartoons are being passed out here in Durban, then I'm a Jew". The next day, the headline in the daily Conference Newspaper read, "Mary Robinson , " I'm a Jew".

 On the last day of the Conference, Fidel Castro had been invited to address the group.  Mary Robinson was introduced first.  At least half of the stadium hissed and booed her simply because she had taken a stand earlier in the week against anti Semitism.  I was  heart-broken.  These were my people—anti-racism activists from all over the world --and they were not prepared to stand up against anti-Semitism.  I went to Durban with a 100 person international delegation, United to End Racism.   Black members of our delegation kept coming up to me all week saying-- We don't know what to do.  We want to stand up for Jews but as People of Color,  we don't want to abandon our Palestinian brothers and sisters.  And the Jews in our delegation kept coming up to me saying we don't know what to do.  We don't want people to think we hate Palestinians because we care about Israel.  I kept responding-- I don't want you to choose. I need you to be for both peoples. 

Otherwise the oppressors win.  

And because of these highly divisive ways that our peoples get pitted against each other, it is sometimes very hard  to be for both peoples.   And yet, that is EXACTLY what we are now being called to do.  And my fourth point.

4). There is a systematic mechanism that pits our peoples against each other.  Anti Semitism, for example  gets used to divert the work of all progressive movements.   Let me give you an example.  At the Creating Change Conference a few years ago, a national gathering on  Gay Liberation,  “A Wider Bridge,” a group  that highlights gay activism in Israel, was invited to the Conference.  Some insisted A Wider Bridge  should be uninvited because Israel, they claimed, is so oppressive.

So the group was uninvited.  Then others said-- Why are you inviting groups from all other countries, even those with horrible human rights violations, and only excluding this one group?  So they were re- invited.  During their session, several members of A Wider Bridge, one wearing a Yarmulka, was beaten up,  The police had to be called.  Here was a conference devoted to gay liberation work and its agenda was completely derailed by anti Semitism. 

We need to understand the specifics of how this divide and conquer mechanism operates.  Otherwise all of the listening we hope to do will not succeed.

My colleague Aurora Levins Morales, a Latina Jew, says it well:

She writes, "The oppression of Jews is like a pressure valve, redirecting the steaming rage of working people away from the 1% who own the wealth.  For Jews to be blamed for oppression, some of us must be seen to prosper, must be well paid and highly visible, positioned as the public faces of an inequality we might help to administer but usually do not own. “

The purpose of oppressing Jews is not to crush us day by day.  It's to have us available for crushing.  To be the bone they throw.  Nobody sees the owners.  They hire us to be their faces.  They send us to collect taxes. They appoint us as judges. Long before they let us live in their neighborhoods, they let us manage some of their inner-city buildings.  Most of the people who manage those buildings are not Jews. But there are just enough Jewish names to keep everyone confused.    And then they keep telling stories of how all Jews are greedy. And how we control everything.

When the New York Senate cut $500 million from the budget of the City University of New York last year, they did not tell the working class people of color who study there that the reason  they now can't afford to go to College is because the board overseeing  City University doesn’t want to continue funding public universities.  Instead, the  reason they gave is that the Jews were upset by things taking place on campus. 

We can't fight against this lie, against the ways our peoples get set up against each other, unless we see it in broad daylight-- right in front of our faces.  So let's not just blame the messengers who are making the mistakes.  For they are also  shedding a light for all of us on the places we all need to work. Anti-Semitism and the intersection of anti- Semitism and racism is not new. What is new is that it's now out there, being talked about, being written about.  So now we can do something about it.

5. One more important point about how we get pitted against each other.  Because so many People of Color and so many Jews are out there in the trenches, fighting every day for social justice--our struggles sometimes show.  The anti-Semitism that some Black or Latino people  have often gets pointed out. And the racism that some White Ashkenazi Jews has also gets pointed out.   The anti-Semitism and the racism of White Gentiles often stays hidden and unexposed.

When the Klan marched around a synagogue in Charlottesville on Shabbat, terrifying Jews and shouting out, "Jews will not replace us" -- not nearly enough mainstream press attention was given to the anti -Semitism in Charlottesville.  So yes-- we need to correct our mistakes.  We need to hold each other to a high level of accountability. We need to require each other to speak out against anti Semitism, racism, and all oppressions.  But let's not forget that intense forces now are trying to pit us against each other and keep us confused about each other.  We cannot let that continue.

May tonight be a night we commit ourselves to stay in the room, no matter how unbearable it gets, teach each other what causes one another  pain, hold firm as Allies without taking sides, and fight with all we have against those forces that want to pit us against each other.



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