Rebecca Pierce: Hello, and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Rebecca Pierce, contributing writer at Jewish Currents. And I’ll be your host this week, subbing in for Arielle Angel. We have a very special episode this week, featuring a panel made up entirely of Black Jewish artists and activists. I’m being joined by Yiddish language performer, Anthony Russell, artist and organizer, Reuben Telushkin, and Kohenet and school social worker, Shoshana Brown.
Today we’re going to be discussing some recent flashpoint events and what is popularly termed “Black-Jewish relations.” We’ll be focusing on the controversies surrounding Whoopi Goldberg’s recent comments about race in the Holocaust, efforts to include Jews of color in mainstream Jewish spaces, and we’ll also dive into some of the panelists’ work, addressing racism in the Jewish community and in the American public sphere. I’m gonna open it up to the panel to introduce themselves, and then we’ll dive right in.
Anthony Russell: Hello. My name is Anthony Russell. I perform under the name, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. And I’m a performer, composer, and essayist working in and around Yiddish language and culture, and its interactions, affinities and expressive continuities with blackness and queerness.
Reuben Telushkin: Hi everyone. My name is Reuben Telushkin. Uh, I’m a visual artist based in Detroit, Michigan, uh, and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is a grassroots organization based here in the United States that organizes for Palestinian human rights. And, uh, I was a national organizer with them for four years.
Shoshana Brown: Hey friends. It is Shoshana. I am an organizer, healer, and a social worker. I do school social work in the day, but by night I transform the world around me through Kohenet and ritual, my ritual work with Kohenet, and also, uh, through organizing. And you can find me doing all kinds of organizing, uh, related to prison abolition and educational justice. So I’m hyped to be here.
RP: Thanks all of you for joining us. Um, I’m really excited for this very special episode, which is happening during Black History Month, uh, which I think is important to acknowledge. So during a recent conversation on the daytime talk show, The View, about a Tennessee school district’s decision to remove the Holocaust-themed graphic novel, Maus, from its curriculum, longtime co-host Whoopi Goldberg made a comment that the Holocaust was not about race, but man’s inhumanity to man. This immediately provoked a firestorm with many Jewish groups, condemning the statement for failing to acknowledge the fact that Nazi racial laws did view Jews as a separate and lesser race.
Goldberg has since apologized, but ABC, the network that carries The View, not only condemned her comments, but suspended her for two full weeks. This has provoked a lot of discussion about both Goldberg’s framing in these comments, as well as the way that antisemitism, uh, coming from Black folks is often given a more forceful pushback than when we see the same or even worse comments coming from white people.
As Black Jews we’re often caught in the middle of these conversations and at the same time ignored. So I wanted to ask the panel, What are you taking from this incident, and what does this conversation tell us about Jews, race and intercommunal relationships in between these two marginalized groups?
AR: There’s been so much conversation around this particular subject that I’m almost at a loss to even know sort of where to begin. I do wanna say, what this is really underlined for me is the fact that Black contrition has considerably less value in the American media sphere than Black offense. We saw a lot of conversation around what happened and then absolutely no coverage or little coverage at all of her apology, her interaction with Jews around this subject, her new views on this subject. None of that. And yet, like the initial offense has been discussed in every possible way.
RT: Absolutely. You know, Rebecca, you started out by describing what is known as Black-Jewish relations. And I even go sometimes as far as to, tongue in cheek, to refer to it as the Black-Jewish relations industrial complex. Because it is a whole genre, it is a canon, it is a field of work. Um, and there are, uh, rituals that are, you know, repeatedly performed within the Black-Jewish relations industrial complex and the Black apology tour and/slash educational thing through the white Jewish community is, is certainly a time honored one, um, that we’ve come to know. And you don’t often see the equivalent, uh, apology tour through Black communities when there is a, a white Jewish, you know, anti-Black incident.
So I think it ties into historical roles of these racial categories in this country. And, you know, like Anthony was, was getting at, in, in Black communities there, this role of labor is just expected. There’s just this higher expectation of Black people to work harder, do more, be more apologetic. And what’s folded into that is criminality, in the way that, an offense that is not unique to Black people is somehow worse, um, when it comes from a Black person.
I think about homophobia as an adjacent example. Homophobia is rampant throughout US society, but it, let a Black person do it and there’s a homophobia problem in the Black community, right? And we see antisemitism treated the same way. So it, behavior is criminalized and there is a whole ritual around the penitence and the punishment of these like offenses that are somehow perceived as uniquely Black. You know, anecdotally for me, in my adjacent experience, there’s been as much hot air and airspace devoted to Whoopi as the Maus incident itself, which is actual like governmental policy being implemented, not a off the cuff insensitive remark on a talk show.
The fact that these are like occupying near equivalent weight in the media, these are being treated as like near equal offenses and, and near equal threats to Jews, just I think speaks a lot to the way that Blackness magnifies the threat of something.
SB: Uh, I agree a lot with what was said. And the thing that I wanna add here is this idea of how this plays into the proximity that the white Jewish community has to white supremacy. That’s what I’m gathering from watching this play out on the public stage. I see the way in which on the one hand, there’s an argument being made that Jews, white Jews specifically, let’s be clear, right? That white Jews were oppressed in Nazi Germany because of their race.
And on another hand, the way in which we tell that history is because of the privilege of whiteness, of these white Jews in this country. So we get to tell this particular story without reconciling how race has evolved. Which for me demonstrates a failure on the broader white Jewish community to actually understand race theory at all, to actually really understand racism. Because if you really understood racism, then you’d know that racism has evolved and will continue to evolve as a system of oppression to meet the current needs of those who are in power.
And it evolves such that Italians became white, Jews became white in this country, Cubans are somewhere on their way to becoming white, if not white already. There are a number of groups that we see make this transition and I’m afraid that the pushback with Whoopi is demonstrating a lack of understanding of how race and racism actually works, such that you can use all of the privilege of white supremacy to say, “No, no, we’re oppressed.” And yes, we are, but can we hold those two things, right? Um, so I practice restorative justice in schools. One of the biggest tenants of restorative justice is holding multiple truths. And I’m really struggling to see how the white Jewish community in this instance is holding multiple truths and really practicing how we engage with t’shuvah.
RP: I think that point about multiple truths is really interesting because, at the same time that Whoopi sort of is being punished for a failure to like engage the correct theory of race as you’re saying, as it pertains to Jews, a big portion of our community has been unfortunately rallying against this sort of anti quote unquote critical race theory movement in the US.
And you hear people like Barry Weiss and other folks who purport to be experts on antisemitism or like speaking for the Jewish community, treat critical race theory as a threat to Jewish people. When at the very same time, the failure of a Black person to engage the correct race theory is something to be punished and a threat to Jews. And it really speaks to this relationship between Jews and whiteness that you just invoked.
And I also think it’s interesting that Whoopi’s comments are far from unique, as we’ve all been saying. Um, they really actually reflect a failure in general Holocaust education in the US. The US tends to frame the Holocaust as something that we came in and ended with our armed forces and our Imperial knight, when there’s much more complicated history. Nazi race law, we know, was influenced by Jim Crow and, um, anti-native policies in the US.
So if we’re even talking about the racialization of Jews in that context, you also need to look at this broader history of the eugenics movement, much of which comes out of places like Stanford University. And like, why is Whoopi making this mistake, what everyone’s sort of reacting to? And I think she’s really being punished for America’s failure to understand and engage our own history as it relates to the Holocaust.
And you see a Black woman sort of becoming this symbolic, you know, whipping person in this conversation when, in fact, all of America is sort of indicted, um, by that mistake, not just her.
AR: That’s the thing. Whoopi Goldberg is a Black woman who was born in the 20th century. She’s a comedian. How much of an engagement is she supposed to have with a racial hierarchy of the past 1000 years in Europe? I will tell you what she probably does have engagement with, which is the racial hierarchy of white Ashkenazi Jews in the United States over the course of the 20th century. And the project of American assimilation has delivered white Ashkenazi Jews to Whoopi Goldberg’s consciousness as another group of white people. And that being the case, one could understand how she would view the Holocaust as yet another case of white on white violence as it were.
I want it to be understood that I am not an apologist for her statements. They are ignorant and they’re wrong. And like, if you, in any way, have been affected by the actual events of the Holocaust, right? If there are literally people missing in your family tree, because they were systematically destroyed by, uh, an antisemitic death engine that existed in European history, you can’t really describe how hurtful these kinds of comments might be. But I think we need to put into context under what circumstances somebody comes to these particular surmises that the Holocaust was merely about man’s inhumanity to man.
And also like we have to engage with the fact that this rhetoric about the Holocaust being man’s inhumanity to man, and not specifically a genocide that took place on racial and ethnic terms, that was rhetoric that was created in the immediate aftermath of World War II in order to make this thing that happened, once again, on like on, on racial and ethnic terms, into something that supposedly everyone would be able to understand and to condemn.
Whoopi Goldberg didn’t come up with that concept herself. That was a concept that was already in the air. It had already been around for decades.
SB: The issue that I take with that is to say that the Holocaust was man to man and not a race issue, or like to, to frame it in that way, in some ways I think that rhetoric gives us as Jews, the victims of the Holocaust, a level of dignity and humanity that’s often not afforded to Black people.
And it is, I think, indicative of where we are as a country. We have a Nazi problem in this country. And I think that this is a seeping out, I think, and a way in which our Nazi problem in this country is coming to a head and actually being deflected rather than being addressed or dealt with.
There were Jews at January 6th and white supremacy and Nazi ideology is hard to distinguish. So I don’t mean to deflect the conversation away, but I did want to say that it’s important for us to put Whoopi’s comments in a larger political context of what exactly is going on in the Jewish community. How exactly are we defining and dealing with racism, antisemitism, nazi-ism, white supremacy. How are we navigating that? And how we navigate it within the Jewish community then affects how the rest of our community around us are engaging with these concepts?
RT: I don’t think it’s a deflection at all. Not to harp on Barry Weiss, but I haven’t seen her really say anything about Maus. And from what I understand, you know, she’s very about free speech, uh, and you know, being able to say whatever you want and anti-censorship, right? And also supposedly wrote the book on antisemitism so that you would think that someone like that would have something to say about one of the most important accounts and narratives of the Holocaust that we have in popular media being banned at a state level. Apparently she doesn’t.
It kind of points back to this conversation. Like what Rebecca was saying is like, we mobilize against Black people for not knowing history in a country that is deeply anti-history. And then wonder why people don’t know history. And don’t even look at the people with the loudest and largest platforms in our immediate communities who supposedly speak on behalf of us as the Jewish community who are going to the mat against race theory and understandings of racism being taught in schools, but have nothing to say when Holocaust narratives are being banned.
RP: I think this sort of sets up really well our next topic. At the end of January, the Anti-Defamation League announced the hiring of Tema Smith, a mixed race, Black Jewish woman in an outreach role. They also announced a slate of fellowships aimed at Jews of color. There was an immediate backlash both on Twitter and in a bunch of right wing publications, which condemned Smith as a quote unquote identity politics higher, um, that was, in their opinion, un-Jewish, and claiming that she was an anti-Zionist and also accusing the ADL of abandoning its mission to speak up against antisemitism for the sake of quote unquote critical race theory and progressive politics.
A big part of the backlash was also directed at a years old definition of racism that the ADL has been employing that included a reference to white privilege. Um, and a lot of the commentary was that this was anti-white. So far the only response to this incident directly coming from the ADL was that Smith had to put out a statement apologizing for past tweets criticizing APAC, affirm her support for the state of Israel, and also her ability to work with people who have different views than her.
I’m really curious, you know, there’s been a lot of conversations about this, and I’m curious about what you all think this backlash and its connection to the broader sort of culture war we’ve been talking about, says about the current state of the Jewish community in the US when it comes to race and also the treatment of Jews of color and other marginalized groups in our midst.
RT: Going back to Whoopi and this idea of Black people being given harsher sentences, which we know is just something that’s baked into this country and, uh, is, is certainly exists outside of the criminal justice system. It’s part of American culture is punishing Black people. And so it doesn’t actually matter where on the political spectrum you are, you’re still a Black person to these people. And the ADL’s right wing base, who mobilized against Tema, demonstrated this in their total ignorance of like who Tema is and what her politics actually are.
They see a Black person and they just immediately react to this image of what Black people in Jewish space means and, and what it threatens. They see an anti-Zionist, communist, pro-Palestine, BLM, the whole, the works, right? While Tema is a Zionist, self-described, and has always been as far as I know. So they’re not actually reacting to her or who she actually is. They’re reacting to the idea of a Black person in a leadership presence in, in their communities and spaces.
I’ll also say that, you know, the ADL, you know, similar to how, like, you know, Barry Weiss will throw her principal, supposed principles, under the bus in terms of like, defending Jewish people if it’s not the right target, not the right victims. She has nothing to say about Maus, like the ADL. Similarly, this, this is how Zionism works, is it, it actually puts the state of Israel before actually defending Jews. The ADL is a pro-Israel advocacy organization with a civil rights front here in the United States. So that is just always going to undermine their credibility as an organization that is capable of anti-racist work.
And then, I just think it’s so dirty, how they just left Tema out there like that to fend for herself. I’m an anti-Zionist. And I can tell you that no anti-Zionist is ever gonna put out a statement saying I’m a Zionist. So Tema is not an anti-Zionist. No anti-Zionist is going to do that. So like the fact that they just left her to fend for herself, it, it really shows anti-Zionist, Zionist, you’re still Black to these people, especially if you’re a Black woman. Whether you’re Jewish or not, whether you’re Whoopi, whether you’re Tema, they will throw you to the dogs soon as it gets rough.
Which is actually something that a lot of Zionists say about anti-Zionists. Uh, they say, “Oh, you know, you’re a useful idiot. You’re, you’re aligning with, with people who are our enemy and you know, the second they get what they want from you, they’re just gonna like cast you back into the ovens.”
This is actually things that people have said to me. And then I see how they, they treat actual Zionists like Tema, and I’m like, you’re, you’re the people that I’m supposedly supposed to be safe with, that are gonna have my back that are gonna defend me?
SB: I feel that this is indicative of exactly what I, as a Black, Jewish, femme-presenting person has dealt with my entire life. I grew up in the Orthodox community and I think this exact experience is part of what led me to co-found the Black Jewish Liberation Collective, which is, I’m sick of having to prove my Judaism through my politics. I’ve never seen my white, Ashkenazi Jewish friends asked to prove their politic in any kind of way. But consistently, Black Jews and Jews of color are asked to gain entry through Zionism.
And I grew up in a Zionist community. And I understand the importance and I understand the, as a social worker, um, who has studied trauma, I understand all of the things about what Israel means to different people and how people understand Israel. And yet I don’t think that that gives any justification to allow someone to verify or need to police my identity for any reason.
And I think this is just a really public example of what many of us experience day to day, regardless of whether we are anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, or Zionist. We can see that even someone who espouses Zionism is still put through the ringer, um, and I can’t imagine any other reason why that has happened.
The other thing that I wanna say is someone close to me was recently telling me about some of the differences, um, in, uh, the American view of the Holocaust and the way the Holocaust is taught on the world stage. And one of the differences that happens is that Americans go and visit and say like, “Why didn’t you realize that there was a Nazi problem?” Like, “How did, why didn’t you stop them from coming in?” Which underlies a misunderstanding that the Nazis didn’t come into Germany. They were the Germans. So we need to look at ourselves here in America. Like, how are we treating our fellow Jews? How are we treating our fellow humans? Like, are we really engaging? And what does that mean and look like?
AR: I was really disgusted actually with a lot of what I was seeing in the wake of Tema receiving this particular position. I think it’s interesting because the consciousness that the American Jewish community has around how much of a provocation they think a Black person is in American Jewish space is so slight, even in what is arguably a mainstream centrist context. I know it’s fallen out of fashion to use the phrase the “black body,” but the black body is inherently anomalous in many American Jewish spaces. And people don’t know what to do with that. And I think a lot of this backlash is people working through that.
And it’s a really ugly thing to see. It doesn’t give me nachas if I could use a Yiddish. I mean, you know, it’s ugly, it’s racist. It has no basis in reality. I follow Tema on Twitter. I know who she is. I know what she stands for. It has absolutely no resemblance to what these people are talking about. They’re just completely flipping out.
I really want people who are in community with people who express these kinds of ideas to really turn around and look to those people in your community and say, what are you doing? What is this? What’s going on? What is your problem with her? Is it the fact that she’s a person of color? Maybe you need to do some work on that. Leave her the fuck alone.
I’m sorry, like as this, I just reading all of those tweets, and it was an avalanche, it was an avalanche of people going on and on and saying these things about her that just were not true. And it got to a point to where I couldn’t read it anymore because I felt like I was being attacked, because to a certain extent I was being attacked. It made me really disappointed in this particular aspect of the American Jewish community. And this is a problem that has to be dealt with.
RP: I’ve been writing about, um, anti-Black racism aimed at choose a color for years at this point. And I have to be honest, it’s gotten worse. It’s only gotten worse. I don’t care how many JoC fellowships you have or, you know, unlearning whiteness classes that are happening in your synagogue. It’s gotten worse and it’s impacting us in real life. What we’re talking about with Tema, I think a lot of people have failed to acknowledge is a labor issue. You can’t be publicly employed as a Black Jew without facing this kind of backlash in Jewish community spaces.
And this has happened to me in a very personal way. Last year, I was at a, um, Shavuot like panel in the Jewish community in, in my hometown and was asked later to go speak at another synagogue in my hometown. This dossier about me, put out by websites like Canary Mission and Stop Antisemitism, which we know overwhelmingly target Palestinians and, and allies in that struggle, um, was being circulated, claiming that I’m a fake Jew.
And despite the fact that I was recruited to speak at this synagogue, because I was seen out in the Jewish community, leadership felt the need to contact my rabbi to verify that I’m Jewish. And I don’t think that’s ever happened to a white person who spoke at that synagogue. And the people doing this thought that they were kind of on my side and defending me and saying, look, this isn’t true.
No one thought about the fact that like I have a right to privacy to not have my personal rabbi contacted every time I get a job to speak. You know, I’m an anti-racist educator in the Jewish community. Every time I do that, should people be contacting my rabbi to verify I’m a real Jew? And it was incredibly humiliating and hard.
And that very same week I was racially profiled at my own grandfather’s memorial service at another synagogue. We just see this over and over again. It’s become entirely pervasive that it’s acceptable to treat Black people in Jewish spaces as exceptional, as not being welcome, and not belonging.
And I think when we’re talking about groups like the ADL, there’s another component of this in that, um, doing these same things to Palestinians in the workforce is totally normalized. You have entire websites that are dedicated to blacklisting Palestinians from being able to be employed based on college activism. And it’s those exact same websites that are circulating a lot of these, you know, dossiers about Jews of color in our spaces. And what we accept against other groups of people, we inevitably internalize.
Obviously the Black-Jewish relationship predates the state of Israel. You can’t just blame all this racism on these pro-Israel groups, but the inability to contend with Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism in our communities, and especially from groups like the ADL, which sort of have been given the space to speak for the Jewish community as a whole, the longer we let that go unaddressed, the more racism in our community festers and becomes normalized.
I’m also an anti-Zionist Jew. And at the time that Tema was being attacked, it’s really appeared that some of the dossiers and claims that were being spread around her were actually about me and other people we know. So there was a conflation, like you all have been speaking about, of different Black Jews across our politics. And I just think it’s really evident that we are in a crisis. We have a crisis of racism in the Jewish community.
SB: I just wanna hold space for you, Rebecca. We’re human. And that’s trash that that happened to you at your grandfather’s funeral. That is whole hot trash. For real. No one deserves that. You deserve to be able to mourn in community.
That’s what we say, right? Like you should be comforted by all the mourners of Yisrael. Like all of our people should provide you comfort, not give you the third degree before we assess whether you’re valid and worthy of our empathy and comfort. No, you deserve our comfort. So I just wanna like honor that. Your heart, sending you love right there.
RT: Whew. You mentioned it’s getting, it’s getting worse, Rebecca. And it’s like, you know, Anthony, the Black body being this anomaly and this provocation in white space, in white Jewish space. And at the same time, there’s a, a real intimacy and a proximity between these concepts of Jewish and Black, that constitute Black-Jewish relations. The Black-Jewish Relations Industrial Complex, the canon, the genre. And there are new chapters that emerge out of it. And there are ruts that are getting deeper and deeper trod and modes of reaction that are becoming part of communal muscle memory, uh, in, in reaction to these, these cycles.
You know, I always say the Black, Jewish, Palestinian triangle is just a wheel that is constantly turning. And these controversies and these, these communal rituals are just baked into the landscape. And every time one happens, all of the other ones are, are brought up and layered into it. So we’re, you know, we’re like 10 years since Trayvon, the Black Lives Matter moment has a little bit of maturity now, and there’s more incidents than we have time to recount here of the ways that the Black Palestinian triangle has, uh, exploded or collapsed.
And there’s been powerful, beautiful moments of solidarity as well, but it clearly, we’re all in the mix with each other in, in these ways that are like producing familiar rituals that are, seem to be like accelerating in terms of our ability to call upon them and to inhabit them. And this trial of the Black person is certainly one of those, those rituals that is just so comfortable.
And it, it is connected to Palestinian activism because suspicion around Black people is tied to a projection of Black Palestinian solidarity. We see the reaction that “Black people” is a synonym for “leftist” in a lot of Jewish spaces, which is, which by proximity is a synonym for anti-Zionist, which then itself also has all these signifiers that it doesn’t actually mean attached onto it.
And so when you boil it all down to it, it’s like Black person in Jewish spaces equals anti-Zionist equals threat to the Jews. Black people are a threat to Jews. One plus one equals two. Black people are treated as this, this infiltrator. They must really be Muslim. You know, they must be from the nation, right? This person is basically Farrakhan in a Groucho Marx mask. This idea of blackness as a threat. It’s radical.
I just think about the shooter in Pittsburgh. He was motivated by these like theories of infiltration. Right? And it’s just, it’s scary how similar, you know, the very people that are actually targeting our communities and causing physical violence, have these notions of like infiltration of like white, racial purity. And as a, a community, we shouldn’t be able to recognize ourselves in any of that.
AR: I want to quickly identify the space in which these attacks happened, which is a, a virtual space, social media, and just how toxic the Jewish social media space often is. And how often the people who are the most toxic exponents of that space really do not have to give any sort of like, where are they from? Oftentimes they’re exactly two emojis and a series of numbers. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what Jewish communities they’re attached to. They don’t have any receipts for who they are.
And yet people from this particular milieu of people in, in Jewish, um, virtual space can attack someone like Tema who you can find out who she is very easily. She has receipts. We know, we know about her work. They can attack somebody like that. And a bunch of people will, will glom onto that. And it just becomes this thing. It’s, it’s perverse, it’s perverse, you know, in many ways, Jewish social media space is, can be a comforting space and it can be a space for building community and it can be a space for finding affinities. It can be a space for speaking in a room full of people who really understand who you are and where you’re coming from.
And other times it can be completely destructive. It can be nasty, it can be racist. It can be absolutely the worst things that one can experience, um, in a communal fashion on, on the internet. And oftentimes, like, I don’t even, I don’t even know what to make of what I’m, what I’m seeing. This is not the way in which Jewish community would act in a physical space. If some random person ran into a synagogue and pointed to somebody who was speaking on the bimah and said, “This person is this, this, this, this, and that,” I don’t think that would be allowed to happen.
RP: I agree with you, but I will say it did come up in this in person space for me, like in my community. And that’s what scares me a lot. I was at a synagogue once where like the former rabbi’s son runs a pro-Israel group and he came in and spoke. And he was like up on the bimah talking about how Black Lives Matter went to Gaza and pledged allegiance to Hamas. And nobody challenged him, nobody said anything. I’m like sitting in the synagogue, a very anonymous Black person with very little power to like address that. And it was wild to me how many people stood up and clapped after that talk.
And if you think that that’s not impacting how Black people feel in a synagogue, you have no idea what it means for us to walk around, you know, walk on this earth as Black people. I remember when, um, Michael Brown was killed because I was in St. Louis County visiting family at that time. I was there when everything was shut down and all the black folks around me were talking about Palestine because there was a bombing campaign, like a vicious invasion of Gaza at that time.
And folks were relating to Palestinians. And of course we know this story of like Palestinians on the ground giving advice to Black folks about how to survive a tear gas attack in these things. And the extent to which I saw many white Jewish people I know just have like the inability to comprehend where these relationships were coming from or claiming that it’s because we’re being unduly influenced as Black people to have these relationships was so angering to me. Because there was no point where people took a step back and said, “Why is this happening?” There was no curiosity about those relationships.
And it really speaks to the extent to which we live in a country built on genocide, built on slavery, where these things are considered the norm. And we also live in a community where unfortunately, a big part of our community is identifying with a country with a very similar settler colonial history. And while claiming to want to build relationships with Black people, there’s no questioning of like, why are Black people protesting right now? Why would they see a similarity with people on the other side of the earth, who they feel are in a similar situation? And I just think that when we talk, you know, it’s Black History Month, everyone’s doing their little Heschel panel about Black-Jewish relations.
And like the lack of curiosity and openness to hearing that while at the same time expecting people like Whoopi Goldberg to be totally up and well educated on Black, sorry, on Jewish history of race just speaks to like the way in which people are not willing to offer the same space and grace that they expect to Black communities and other communities that we are in solidarity with.
SB: And not just Black communities, but specifically Black women. We’re here having a whole podcast during Black History and Futures Month about Whoopi Goldberg and Tema Smith, right? I just, we have to highlight that these are two Black women, that they’re just not two Black people, but specifically two Black women. Which you know, is again highlighting the issue of intersectionality, which folks who are anti-CRT don’t wanna talk about. But here we are in real time, real lived experience, real example of critical race theory happening that people are participating in this like failure of an intersection to address the way race and gender intersect, um, and how that shows up. When it comes to issues of antisemitism.
So it’s just something for us to explore and have dialogue about Kimberly Crenshaw’s original idea of intersectionality. Can the Jewish community take it a step further and talk about me and you, Rebecca, Black Jewish women? Can we take it a step further and talk about not only the intersection of race and gender, but also how religion plays into that as well?
You and I have articulated here that we don’t have faith or confidence in our own community’s ability to hold us, to see us, to protect our humanity, to honor us, to trust us, to walk with us, to educate us, to love us.
RP: I think there’s a really unfortunate thing that I’ve been grappling with, which is the fact that on like issues of the racism in our community, Black Jews are kind of alone. Folks who are black, but not Jewish, don’t really get it. Or they’re like, “Why are you still in this space? I don’t get it. If they treat you so badly.” People in the Jewish community, which is majority white, some of them are reaching towards getting it. And I will say I’ve seen success in some anti-racist education, getting people thinking. But they’re not, they’re not here to support us when that stuff happens. We really only rely on each other.
And people outside of both those communities have even less of a hope of getting it. ‘Cause there’s like, we’re in this triangle, like Reuben was talking about, with Black folks, Palestinians and Jews, trying to navigate these interlocking, but also like very separated conversations about race and racism. And it really feels like we have to advocate for ourselves.
But since I’ve started writing on issues of race in the Jewish community, I’ve seen most of the people who are in that sort of cohort of Black Jews with me drop off and go about their lives and focus on other things. Because the level of racism being directed us from our own community, in our own spaces, at synagogue, where we’re supposed to be, our safest, is so overwhelming and constant that they don’t wanna put up with that anymore. ‘Cause why would you? It’s like we’re constantly being asked to sacrifice ourselves in the name of a community that like doesn’t even think about us, frankly, unless, unless they want to use us to say, “Oh look, not all Jews are white.”
You know, I do anti-racist work in the Jewish community, ’cause I believe in it, ’cause I love being Jewish and I want being Jewish to be a safe thing for people like me. But people really don’t understand how much we have to like, sort of take the, take a lot of different bullets for a lot of different people all the time. And like when we’re asked to address the Black community on antisemitism, which is something I’ve also done, there’s very little thought about like what that means for us in Black spaces.
A lot of times what we’re running into is Black folks who’ve had an experience of racism coming from Jewish folks, and we have to like mediate that as well. And I’m just so sick of us being used. I’m sorry, like, I don’t wanna see a JoC fellowship if you’re not gonna actually like walk the walk and support that person. Don’t bring us into a space to be the sacrificial lamb of like all the issues that you’re unwilling to delve into. Just don’t do it. I would rather you stay a white majority organization and speak to your white base without involving us if that’s what you’re gonna do.
SB: Absolutely. I agree. I know some of the folks that are involved in that effort and other efforts in these white majority organizations that are holding fellowships or leading. You know, everybody wants to do a fellowship, that’s like the hot topic right now. And I know some of those people in these fellowships and some of these people that have tried that, “I’m gonna play the inside game. I’m gonna go on the inside and change it and fight for justice on the inside,” and “I got a job that’s diversity this or DEI that.” and at the end of the day, they’re coming up for air and they’re saying, “I don’t have the power.”
You go in with this promise of, “We got this fellowship, we got this money, we’re gonna do this, we’re committed.” And at the end of the day, we see that those words only go bust so far and unearthing white supremacy from an organization is not as simple as a few hiring choices and a new grant program, or what have you.
And the truth is we have models. Somebody recently asked me, “Well, like, what do you think they should do? What can, what can the ADL or other big organizations do about racism?” And my answer to that is we have models of restorative justice. We have that on a society level, truth and reconciliation commissions.
We’ve seen that happen in South Africa. We’ve seen large organizations and countries apologize, Germany. And pay reparations. Okay? So we’ve seen that on large scales. How come we’re not starting there? How come the gesture is to start with, “Oh, let’s just hire someone to, to change the face.” Well, to me, that’s a bail. And we need to really go back to taking accountability and not with the cancel culture, but really stepping forward and doing teshuvah. And these organizations need to start there, you know? And they need to start there with the Black women.
AR: All of this is happening in the midst of a Supreme Court Justice pick that has created an immense amount of backlash because that pick, um, was, was promised to, to go to a Black woman.
RP: I think every problem we’re talking about, it’s a, a problem within the Jewish community, but it’s, it’s a reflection of America’s totally broken view and, and treatment of race and difference in our country.
RT: What everyone is saying is just like make again, making me think just about the role of the Black and the African and the slave in, in just American psyche culture history as a, a mule, as a commodity, as, as just raw labor, a raw resource, a thing, not a human.
And we know in, in the United States, the history of this entire economy constructed around the non-humanity of this racialized group of people that weren’t people, couldn’t feel pain, and were just like automatons. And in the ways that that shows up in the treatment of Jewish communities, American Jewish communities’ treatment of Black people, Black women, it shows how the really successful assimilation and adoption of this American mentality.
And, and it just makes me ask these questions about, Do we think Black people feel pain? The idea that women can’t feel pain. They’re, they’re exaggerating their pain. And we know how this impacts Black women in not, not just medical spaces, but just professionally, culturally, the idea that like things that hurt the rest of us don’t hurt Black women as much.
And in a context of Jewish community, the way that, that Black Jews are dragged across the coals in all different kinds of organizations and context, uh, professional, personal, can antisemitism actually genuinely happen to a Black person? I don’t think a lot of these people think it can.
And so when they ask for our credentials to like, see the inner workings of our conversion process, or, you know, how did you become Jewish? I view those as experiencing antisemitism. I think a lot of people who are simultaneously Jewish and white would disagree with me and, and don’t think that’s an experience of what antisemitism is, but there’s a lot that needs to be unpacked there.
RP: Thanks for that Reuben. So I kind of wanna transition, if it’s possible, into Anthony, you have a upcoming multimedia interactive live performance, um, called My Own Personal Robeson that addresses your relationship to Paul Robeson, and which is really confronting American racism.
So I was wondering, Anthony, if you could talk a little bit about this piece and also what kind of reactions have you been getting from Jewish audiences who know you mostly as a Yiddish singer?
AR: It’s been really interesting developing this piece because the idea for it started quite a few years ago now, I mean, it feels that way in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. I think it was 2017 and I was on my Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellowship trip to Belarus in Poland. And I was there with Robbie Peckerer and we were talking about Paul Robeson’s performances that he had in his tours of the Soviet Union. And we were talking about how interesting it would be to sort of revive those performances.
So we started to sort of tinker with this idea of what would it look to sort of remount a Paul Robeson performance. And it was interesting because for a number of years, I was looking at it from a purely sort of performance standpoint. So a lot of what I was concerned with was like, what was the repertoire I was going to be singing? All of that kind of musical, technical stuff.
The more and more that I got to know Paul Robeson as an individual, the more his identity as a political thinker began to come to the form. And I knew that that had to be in the forefront of whatever this was going to be.
So what this has become is Robeson from my particular standpoint, as opposed to all the various other standpoints people have when it comes to Robeson. And the fascinating thing about Robeson is that people have very many standpoints concerning him, positive, negative, or otherwise. They have their own idea of who Paul Robeson is. And he exists as this figure, which is to use, you know, a word we’ve used before is anomalous.
How many other Black men exist in progressive, leftist memory around which there’s so much legend, and rhetoric, and feeling, and history. Like he’s a very unusual figure in that fashion. And I wanted to carve out an opportunity for myself to explore what Paul Robeson could mean to me as a Black performer in the 21st century. Like whether the state of being a Black, low-voiced male-identified vocal performance created any sort of obligation, political obligation in me, as it did for Robeson and his various audiences.
This performance project is also an engagement with the reality of being a Black performer and whether that entails obligations to my own Blackness. You know, as audiences who consume what Black performers are creating, do they have obligations to the performer’s Blackness, or very least, do they have an obligation to make the world a more equitable place for the Black performer and their people?
Like why should assailing the establishment of white supremacy have to be the responsibility of people of color? The Black performer among them. And these are sort of questions that I’m exploring through song. So I sing songs that were in Robeson’s repertoire as a part of this performance as storytelling, interview, um, testimony. I have two films that are aired as a part of the performance. I’m really throwing everything I possibly can at the wall.
I specifically have focused on a quote of Paul Robeson’s. He made this in September 23rd, 1957, in the pages of the Daily Worker: “History demands united action on the part of the people of our country to put an end to the myths of white superiority.” That is the statement. And that is what this particular performance is predicated upon. It’s an exploration of what that means and what that looks like, what that looked like for Robeson, and what that could look like for me as a Black Jewish performer and creator.
What’s been really interesting is running up against other people’s, um, images of their own personal Robeson. He’s a contentious figure. He’s somebody who people come to with a lot of preconceptions as to his meaning personally, his meaning as far as Black people in the United States are concerned, his meaning as far as leftist politics and communism are concerned. He’s a very complicated figure. I’ve had people who have expressed their disappointment that I am not singing in Yiddish in this particular presentation, because Robeson, among the many languages that he sang in as an internationalist, also sang in Yiddish. And I am somebody who has sung internationally in Yiddish. So they’re like, “What’s the deal?” like “Where’s the beef?” right? We got Robeson, Black man, singing in Yiddish all over the place. We got Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, Black man singing in Yiddish all over the place. These performances are free, but I would like a refund.
And I just want people for the space of about 50 minutes to sit down and hear me explore the subject of Robeson from my particular stance as a Black man who, like Robeson, would like to see the end of white supremacy in his lifetime. It’s as simple as that.
I need people who want to hear me sing in Yiddish to care about what happens to me after I get off the stage and I’m no longer singing in Yiddish. That’s what this performance is about. I’m getting a little. I’m really sorry. I’m like almost crying, but I’m like realizing.
It’s so funny because like, this is like, for me, like, this is the experience of being an artist is, there’s something deep within you and you don’t necessarily know what that is, but you are moving towards it through your work. And it’s so instinctual and you’re like just moving towards it. And it’s obvious to other people who are seeing your work, but it’s not always obvious to you. And like, as I’m talking now, I’m realizing like, that is what I want.
I want people to care about who the performer is after the performer gets off of the stage, because we know good and goddamn well, please forgive me, that Paul Robeson cared about what happened to all the people in those concert halls the minute he got off the stage. We know that. He was working on their behalf, which is why he’s still loved by immense amounts of the world. You know, you go to Welles, they hold that man’s name in, in fond memory.
How many people could you say, somebody who grew up in the United States, whose family history existed in the wake of slavery, who’s able to travel across the world internationally, and to be a real political and cultural presence? And he still had enough room to care about the people for whom he performed.
I want people to care about me and other Black people and other people of color and what happens to us when I get off of that stage and I stop singing in the mamaloshen. That’s what I want. And that’s, to some degree, is what I’m trying to achieve through this performance project.
RP: I think it really speaks to what has been the theme throughout this conversation, is like, do you view Black people as valuable, as worthwhile, as someone you should care about when they’re not doing something that is a service to you?
AR: I mean, I think I understand, but I’m actually realizing, perhaps I don’t understand. How novel and how gratifying it must have been for Ashkenazi Jews to see this beautifully-voiced, strong-figured, striking black man to get up and to start singing the songs of their people. Like that must have been extremely moving. But like the reason why he did this was in order to create racial and ethnic solidarity and solidarity has to move in both directions.
The sound of Paul Robeson’s voice moving through physical space and affecting the ears and hearts of his hearers, that has to go in both directions. The love that people feel for Paul Robeson when they hear him singing in their language, that has to go in both directions. How do we make sure that goes in both directions?
SB: That’s right.
AR: You know, in his repertoire there are these, like there’s these questions and I love these questions. It’s so, you know, I’m, I’m going to be, I’m gonna be bubbe at the, at the, uh, at the seder: “It’s so Jewish.” He has so many questions. He has a lot of questions. One of the best questions he has, this is not a song that was originally written for him, but it was a song that he performed often. “The House I Live In,” which is what this particular iteration is called, uh, My Own Personal Robeson/The House I Live In.” The house we live in, actually.
In the song, “The House I Live in,” he says, “What is America to me? A name, a map of a flag, I see? A certain word democracy?” Like, they’re all questions. They’re not statements, they’re questions. And he goes on to describe what America could be. It’s very powerful to have a Black man asking that question, especially somebody who often spends a lot of time outside of the United States. Like this is an essential question. This is something that we should listen to. We should ask ourselves, like, why do we still not really have good answers?
SB: I feel like you are speaking to this, um, quintessential experience, but so, so embodied in your very acute lived experience of the commodification of Black bodies. And that has been the history of this country.
And I think the question is for us as we are, you know, speaking, I guess, in this case specifically to the Jewish community, then the question for the Jewish community is, What do we want our role to be in this experiment? Right? The experiment of America, this project, right? America is a project. What is our role as a Jewish community in this project? Who do we want to be? And we keep choosing every day how we show up. And we need to land on the right side of this. Uh, and I think that’s the call that we’re, that Anthony, you, you’re putting out so beautifully. What is the right side of this land with us?
AR: I think Black people in Jewish community, at least the ones who I’ve interacted with and I very much include all of you in that, know exactly who they want to be. It’s the obligation of the Jewish community to make sure that that position is an abiding one, and a long term one, and one that is properly supported by the community.
You know, I’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond the tokenizing phase of Black people and, and people of color in Jewish space, right? You had them show up for one hour, they had a great conversation, everyone felt very, uh, moved and inspired. You know, that was fine. Very 2008, very Obama. I love it. You know, it was great. It was a moment, I was there, I was about it, about it, okay? I’ll be honest. But like, it’s time for us to move on. Don’t have that person in your space for one hour.
Actually, what are the continuities between that person of color, that Black person in your Jewish community, and your community? And if you don’t know what those are, you should figure out what the continuities of those are. You need to create a permanent space for these people in your community.
I want the age of tokenizing to be over. It was great while it lasted, but much like the previously mentioned president, those days done gone.
RT: Well, it’s just like what Rihanna said, What are you willing to do?
RP: What are you willing to do? All right. On that note, that’s our show. Thanks so much for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast, share it with a friend, and leave a review so that more people get to know about it.
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