I am the mother of four Black Jewish children who were raised in Milwaukee, and I feel compelled to raise my voice in alarm after reading the August edition of the Chronicle.
In the midst of the events of this summer, I have been encouraged as some Jewish leaders and groups here in Wisconsin have acknowledged the need to learn more about white privilege and the many ways that racism is perpetuated, often unknowingly, and even within the Jewish community. Nationally and internationally, I have been heartened to have seen the organized Jewish community, from the Orthodox Union to the Union for Reform Judaism, speak loudly and clearly in support of the idea that Black lives matter. A recent open letter from synagogues and Jewish organizations affirming this truth garnered over 600 signatures.
It is in this context that I found the actual spreading of misunderstanding about Black Lives Matter in the August 2020 edition of the Chronicle especially troubling.
In no fewer than three instances did the edition fail to properly represent the current calls to end anti-Black racism. Though I am convinced that the Chronicle was acting in good faith, the unintended consequences have caused deep hurt to Jews of color in our community and confused those who seek to be their allies. The first misstep was the conflating of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” with the 2016 Movement for Black Lives platform. The second was the mischaracterization of Hebrew Israelite groups. And the third was the implication in an opinion piece that Black Lives Matter is not anti-racism but is actually a Marxist plot intent on destroying the coming election, this country and Israel.
I fear that one could read this edition and come to the conclusion that Black Lives Matter is antisemitic, anti-Israel, and Marxist, and that Nick Cannon (who, it turns out, apparently had a great-grandfather who was a Sephardic religious leader) is part of a network of Hebrew Israelites who all believe that white Jews are imposters, creating the specter of a vast community of Black people who hate Jews. This image frightens readers and provides an excuse to turn a blind eye to the police brutality and other forms of racism that impact Black and brown members of our communities (some of whom are Jews). At the same time, Jews of color can add the August edition of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle to what is for many a vast accumulation of racial microaggressions that have occurred over time in Jewish community spaces.
Factually, there is no connection between the countless groups and events using the Black Lives Matter rallying call and the coalition named the Movement for Black Lives whose platform document contained statements of solidarity with Palestinians that many Jews found concerning. However, neither the Movement for Black Lives nor any other umbrella organization controls any aspect of all the entities or events that use the slogan Black Lives Matter.
Next, it is not true that all Hebrew Israelite groups believe that Ashkenazi Jews are imposters. This idea perpetuates a myth of “Black antisemitism,” painting an entire people with the same brush and ascribing motives to “all” the group. We would not stand for this type of monolithic portrayal of Jews, and we must not stand for it with regard to other groups.
Finally, to run an opinion piece which calls up the most outrageous stereotypes and accusations about Black Lives Matter, including the completely unfounded assertions that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist plot and that there is widespread mobilization against Jews or Israel using the Black Lives Matter slogan, is at the very least irresponsible, and at worst, reckless.
Opinion pieces in community media are tricky, as what is published as opinion in local ethnic community newspaper outlets always runs the risk of being perceived by the community as actual fact, or as the community’s “party line.” The same certainly goes for news stories written by chief editors and other leaders. This is not a matter of preference – it is a matter of and professional practice.
The amplification of racism is a difficult issue, made even more so if one has no close relationships with people of color. Just like gentiles are often unaware of the dog whistles that are the antisemitism we, as Jews hear, so those of us who are white or white-passing are often unaware of the racism we as Jews are ignoring, condoning or perpetrating. If we were, we’d be appalled. But we’re human and we make mistakes.
Some Jewish leaders and organizations in many communities are choosing to use this time as an opportunity. They are embracing the teachable moments. They are building bridges instead of walls. Instead of continuing to inadvertently add to the problem, they are committing to an honest “cheshbon hanefesh” (accounting of the soul) to assess their capacity, and they are committing resources to increasing their ability to do better.
I hope the Chronicle will do the same.
I humbly propose that the Chronicle recruit contributors who are Jews of color and in the process build relationships that can support editorial functions.
Instead of a dead end, I hope that this will be a road forward for our beloved Jewish community newspaper. In the spirit of gam zu l’tovah (this is also for the good), let’s lean into the High Holiday season with our teshuvah and notice our mistakes, apologize, and vow to do better in the future.
Editor’s Note: We apologize if we have inadvertently caused any pain or misperception. We have a correction on Black Hebrew Israelites at the beginning of this edition. We have reached out to local Jews of color and will continue to do so. We would like to hear from local Jews of color at Chronicle@MilwaukeeJewish.org.