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29 November 2023

Lessons of growing up black and Jewish

Many Jews of colour interpret Zionism through our experience with racism, and we recognise the supremacist logic that underpins it.

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

I wanted to begin this essay with a story about my major coming of age experience as a young black Jew. The political moment is such that Jewish histories, narratives, feelings, reactions, experiences, ideas, identities and more are at the centre of most media reporting about what some are calling a war and many of us are calling a genocide. So I tell the story in the hope that I am planting seeds for the end of a discourse and politics that centres Jewish voices and Zionist ideology at the expense of Palestinians.

When the Second Intifada started in the West Bank and Gaza in September 2000, I was an 18-year-old second year university student who was still new to regular participation in Jewish religious life. I grew up in a family where there weren’t a lot of Jewish traditions, especially after my grandfather died and any Passover traditions we did observe died with him. But as a black child, I was steeped in the narratives of Exodus, and I was named Chanda Rosalyn Sojourner after the American abolitionist Sojourner Truth. I took the lesson of honouring the sojourner in a strange land quite seriously.

It was in this context that I attended a peace vigil organised by a new friend: a Palestinian German who also happened to be president of the Harvard Society of Arab Students (SAS) when the Intifada began. The peace vigil was largely unremarkable; nothing controversial was said by any of the speakers, who instead hoped for peace. My friend, the president, called for a moment of silence for all those who were dead. We bowed our heads.

The moment was disrupted by a woman who began yelling. I don’t remember her words exactly except the phrase “you people”. And whatever it was she said, it established her in my eyes as a fellow Jew. I was filled with shame and with anger. How could any of us disrespect the dead like this? My best recollection is that I felt responsible for her behaviour, and I approached her to intervene. She, a white woman, looked at me and said, “You Arabs don’t want peace.” I was disgusted by her premises: the erasure of my Jewishness and the racist claim about Arabs. When I explained that I too was Jewish, she seamlessly proposed instead that I was self-hating.

That was my entrée into black Jewish adulthood: at a peace vigil organised by Arab students, I was too brown-skinned to be visibly Jewish and was told that only a self-hating Jew would attend a peace vigil with Arab students. In hindsight, this was a preview of some elements of what life would be like in the post-9/11 world, where I would regularly be taken for an Arab on the street and felt my safety was constantly in question because of it.

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In Jewish spaces my presence was always a question mark too. My skin colour meant I did not fit into any preconceived categories. I experienced a profound ideological disconnect between the Judaism I found at Hillel, the Jewish campus organisation, and the lessons I had learned in a family of white Jewish labour organisers and black civil rights activists: enacting solidarity at all times, and identifying and struggling with the oppressed – honouring fellow Sojourners. In Jewish spaces I found that the primacy of Israel and Zionist ideology was preached side by side with otherwise progressive values; Palestinian humanity was nowhere to be found.

I believe millennials such as myself were the last generation to experience this kind of propaganda without challenge. Younger millennials and Gen Z Jews have rejected compulsory Zionism in large numbers, and it is under us that the Open Hillel movement has shifted the conversation. Millennials and Gen Z take seriously the lessons we were taught about equality. We are also the most racially diverse Jewish generations in US history. Many Jews of colour interpret the language of Zionism through our experience with racism and colonialism, and we recognise the familiar supremacist logic that underpins it.

And we have community, so we are resilient against the accusation that rejecting Zionism means we reject Jewishness and Jewish well-being. Instead, our vision is expansive: we believe our diasporas should be safe everywhere that we are. In the wake of centuries of pogroms and the Holocaust, Europe and its former settler colonies have failed to confront and address the anti-Semitism that informs the belief that Jews are not safe anywhere but Israel. The Hamas attack of 7 October has eviscerated the idea that Jews can find refuge in a Zionist state whose existence requires the subjugation of non-Jewish Palestinians, among other non-Jews who make up the population.

An ideologically coherent Jewish left must reconsider the stories we have been told about safety, security and what it means to live without terror. We must take seriously the idea that none of us are free until all of us are free, and to understand that the “us” includes Palestinians. This means rejecting the supremacist logic of liberal Zionism, that it is possible to build a multicultural sovereign state where Jews are uniquely, legally entitled in ways that others are not. As a black Jew, I find it easy and rather natural to repudiate this premise, which has the same basis as American Jim Crow laws.

Instead, a coherent Jewish left must return to core progressive Jewish values: standing with the oppressed, even if the face of the oppressor is Jewish. It is the duty of every Jew to do work mip’nei tikkun ha-olam, for the sake of repairing the world. We are commanded by Deuteronomy, Tzedek, Tzedek, tirdof, justice, justice you shall seek. The Jewish left must seek justice, peace and liberation for our Palestinian siblings. We must take seriously – as so many millennials my age did – the idea that “never again” means never again for anyone, ever.

This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.

[See also: The return of the “longest hatred”]

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