Tikkun Olam: A Jewish Response to Charlottesville

tikkunolam
Jews have a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” which means “healing the world.” As a little Jewish kid, I was taught that if Jews have been “chosen” for anything, it’s that– the moral imperative that we work towards social justice. Tikkun Olam has resulted in a lot of liberal Jews, unsurprisingly, but there are still right wing Jews. There is nothing further from Tikkun Olam than racism, yet the acceptance of Ashkenazi Jews as “white” by most people in the US has resulted in some of us falling prey to the racist narratives of the right. For a Jew to believe that immigrants are a cancer and that anti-racist movements are “anti-white” requires a level of cognitive dissonance that boggles the mind, given that Nazis fueled their rise in Germany with claims that Jews were an “immigrant cancer” and that Jews were conspiring to take over the world and displace white people. The current white supremacist right believes that now.
The events this weekend in Charlottesville came as no surprise to me, as I have been following the antics of the racist right all my life, and the new(ish) “alt right” movement since proto-Gamergate. While the “alt right” are essentially just box standard far right white supremacists, their techniques and strategies through their online presence is what’s new, and what makes them, for lack of a better term, “alt” as compared to, for example, the KKK. The “alt right” will often claim they’re not racist, just fighting for “white rights” or “western values,” or fighting against “political correctness,” which of course means, in practice, the preservation of white (male) supremacy. Charlottesville is in many ways their coming out party, as all protestations that they’re not about white supremacy have clearly been left by the wayside like a discarded bathrobe at an orgy. We all knew it was coming off. It was just a matter of when.

With the rise of the internet, white supremacists are no longer isolated geographically, and are emboldened by finding each other scattered across the country, emboldened by the ability to organize and make successful inroads into cultural enclaves that have previously rejected them, emboldened by their ability to recruit, emboldened, after 8 years of a Black president, by a white supremacist White House.

Steve Bannon, one of Donald Trump’s chief advisors, was co-founder (with Andrew Breitbart) and (after Breitbart’s death) editor-in-chief of the extremist “news” site, Breitbart. (I will not link to it.) Bannon went on “temporary leave” from the site to join Trump in August 2016, and remains one of Trump’s most powerful advisors. Bannon has called Breitbart “the platform for the alt right,” and created an entire tab labeled “Black Crime” on the site to “prove” that Black people are more criminal than white people, which was taken down after Bannon left to join Trump and brought greater scrutiny to the site. Breitbart‘s extremism cost it the bulk of its ad revenue, as evidenced by stories like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Why Equality And Diversity Departments Should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men.” (I will not link to those either.) An open white supremacist sits as one of the president’s chief advisors, and we wonder why Trump has to be goaded by national outcry to denounce white supremacy? Bannon’s not even the only open white supremacist in the White House. Trump can read out 100 statements Ivanka wrote for him, but his white supremacist advisors remain firmly in place, and policies that support white supremacy pour out of this White House like warm mayonnaise.

White supremacist violence is endemic as white supremacists sit in the White House and white people sit on their hands, deny anything is happening, blame “many sides,” pretend we’re “post-racial” or tacitly agree with the white supremacist lie that white people are somehow the true oppressed although white people control almost all the political, economic, and cultural power in the nation.
Over the past few years, the “alt right” has increasingly utilized Nazi symbols, salutes, and terminology (“lugenpresse,” “blood and soil“). They were everywhere in Charlottesville. We’ve all seen what the right is up to. We all know that Bannon is in the White House advising Trump. We all know the alt right-influenced White House has worked overtime to use Nazi techniques such as discrediting the press, demonizing immigrants, demonizing non-Christians for their supposed impending “takeover” (SHARIA LAW ZOMG!11!!1), and characterizing the people in power as the true victims. Other people might fall for this, but Jews– we know better. We know what this all means. Most of it isn’t pointing at us, and most of us benefit from white supremacy. But we are Jews and we know.
We know what this all means. And we are, no matter how secular you are, bound by Tikkun Olam. At its heart, Tikkun Olam isn’t about a responsibility to God; it’s about a responsibility to each other. To all people.
Whoever you are, you can do something to fight white supremacy. Protests, marches, and in-person actions are critical, but so are many other actions, and you can– YOU CAN– make a difference. Donate to social justice causes like Black Lives Matter and SPLC. Engage with racism wherever you see it. Yes, even at family dinners. Teach your kids and your students how to avoid alt right nonsense online, just as you would teach them to avoid any online predator. Educate them about white supremacist lies by giving them the truth. Call your Senators and Representative and ask them to support the removal of Bannon, Miller, and Gorka, the most open white supremacists in the White House. (Sessions, you’re next.) Read writers of color regularly. Educate yourself– there’s so much more.
Tikkun Olam. If not now, when?
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7 thoughts on “Tikkun Olam: A Jewish Response to Charlottesville

  1. Thank you for writing this piece, Melissa. I have one quibble — that you write “….most of us benefit from white supremacy.” On the contrary, all of us are ultimately hurt by white supremacy, which the dictionary defines as “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

    • I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that white people do not reap real benefits from white supremacy. We’re all hurt by cultural inequities, but white people experience a host of very thoroughly documented benefits. The economic benefits enjoyed by white men alone are staggering. This lack of equity is reflected in every corner of our culture and is the impetus behind leveling the playing field with things like affirmative action and reparations. We need to be honest about white privilege so we can address its many inequities.

      • Perhaps this is a semantical argument alone, but I think not. “White supremacy” is a specific phrase with a specific meaning — it’s an ideology, not a situation.

  2. Perhaps this is a semantical argument alone, but I think not. “White supremacy” is a specific phrase with a specific meaning — it’s an ideology, not a situation. It’s not, in other words, a synonym for “white privilege.” And making it so, to my mind, dilutes the long history of horrors committed in the name of this ideology.

    • SanSam says:

      She’s not saying that white supremacy is a “synonym” of anything, she’s pointing out the indisputable fact that white supremacy creates and affirms white privilege. To pick one illustration, consider the legacy of the white supremacist system of slavery in the American South. To this day it is better, on average, to be born white than black, in Mississippi or Louisiana or Georgia (and I know I said “South” but the argument extends throughout the US). White privilege only becomes possible BECAUSE of white supremacist thinking and practice. That’s its source and justification.

      • Melissa can speak for herself.
        I disagree with this eagerness to erase all distinction between every white person alive in America today and the ideologists who are on an active mission of hate. It reduces the English language to sloganeering, oversimplifies some complex and urgent issues, and it is breathtakingly wrongheaded as a political strategy.

  3. Capture Trap says:

    Melissa,

    I don’t think you know what’s at stake here or why white people feel under attack. White people are in demographic decline. The race is dying and has no economic future. White people are not having kids, young people are unable to start families, home ownership is unachievable for millennials. Poor white people are dying from what researchers call “deaths of despair” http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair.

    The middle class is dead. The majority of all Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Private debt is at an all time high and young people will be saddled with debt forever. Pensions are dying up and the future of Social Security is in doubt. People will no longer be able to retire. People don’t have healthcare or are working jobs just to afford health care or to receive it as a benefit.

    These are all American problems, affecting all races. But 2017 will be the last year whites will be a majority here. What we are seeing is what happens when that happens.

    Trump is a reaction to the demographic decline of whites. White people are reacting to all of this amid a global immigration crisis that has forever transformed Europe. At the same time, popular culture HAS become anti-white. These people are constantly bombarded with messages openly demonizing them and celebrating white demographic decline.

    This is the best example can think of. Here is Lena Dunham celebrating the Extinction of White Men. http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/11/04/lena-dunham-faces-criticism-after-posting-video-extolling-extinction-of-white-men/

    This is mainstream pop culture.

    When white people in these situations see articles about privilege, they do not know what that means, outside of recent college graduates. Most white people–most Americans–are moderate and are seeing a dire future.

    My point is that continuing to hammer poor and disenfranchised white people with messages of collective guilt is a catastrophe waiting to happen. We have seen this. Simply from a tactically standpoint, this will guarantee widespread racial tension and ultimately violence.

    This isn’t just a resentment of minorities gaining equality. As I said, most Americans are moderates and WANT equality. What you are calling for is an absolute commitment to judging all Americans–all of them–by race and telling white people to essentially form a white racial identity group.

    Why would you want this? What good will come of it?

    White privilege used to mean that whites didn’t have to worry about race. Now they do, and battle lines are forming.

    No one will benefit from this. No one.

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