In a recent article in Ha’Aretz, April Aviva Baskin, a Black Jewish communal leader, reflected on the way that contemporarily White Jews have internalized American systemic white supremacy.
According to Baskin, somewhere in the process of fleeing antisemitism in Eastern Europe and assimilating in the United States, the country’s history of white supremacy and racism “got woven into the fabric of the American Jewish community – not necessarily intentionally, but by joining that status quo and trying to protect themselves.”
The questions White Jews increasingly need to ask themselves, she says, are: “What was the price your family paid to get conditional access to Whiteness? Was it changing your name?…Was it moving the mezuzah inside the house door? Those are options. Black people don’t have those options.”
According to Mark Dollinger in Black Power, Jewish Politics, his history of the Black-Jewish alliance,“By the 1950s, American Jews enjoyed the privileges of inclusion in the White middle class. Even as they boasted a disproportionate presence in liberal reform, Jews had already separated themselves from blacks, both physically and sociologically. Restrictive housing covenants eased…Quota restrictions…all but ended.”
So, at the same time Black people were fighting for civil rights in the 60s, (with White Jews disproportionately present in support), White Jews had overwhelmingly assimilated into White America. This is where our moment of change comes in. The Israelites in our Torah believed the next step towards the promised land was too much for them, and they bemoaned their sense of powerlessness. It cost them their dream, and deferred it an entire generation.
We too have a challenge before us today, as our Black neighbors struggle once again for equality. We, who feel we only so recently gained access to this equality, fear that by standing up to systemic racism we may lose what we gained through assimilating. Our own assimilation is a tricky issue for us. We have sought to blend in with our neighbors just enough while still trying to maintain distinctive Jewishness. April Baskin’s questions show us, though, that this striving in and of itself was a way of entering into the institutions of our country that are steeped in systemic racism and white supremacy. Have we, in the pursuit of our own equality, internalized Whiteness as supreme? Each step along the way we adapted ourselves in order to fit into these systems, but, as April Baskin asks, at what cost?
Kahn is speaking to a Reform Jewish audience about how they, alas, are unwittingly white supremacists – because their parents and grandparents decided that they needed to survive in America by casting off the Jewish religion and trying to assimilate into the “white” American culture.
There are a number of problems with this. Defining America as white is a fundamentally racist premise. There is a big distinction between the American dream of working hard to succeed and being “white.” If Jews who are now accepted in American society as equals are “white”, then so are many Asian Americans, so is Barack Obama, so is Condoleeza Rice, so is Oprah Winfrey. If Jews succeeding in the business world is an expression of white supremacy, then It means that Jackie Robinson is not a hero but a traitor to the black race by trying to make it in a white man’s baseball world. If the premise that there is no difference between American society and white supremacy is true, then one must view America as a nation without jazz or the blues. The people of all colors who have succeeded in America are the ones that have changed America from a racist country into a true melting pot, they are not white supremacists.
Pointing out and fighting racism is a necessity, and the battle is far from over, but to say that succeeding in America is akin adopting white supremacy is a false and ultimately racist viewpoint. The concept of what it means to be an American has changed over the years precisely because of hardworking outsiders succeeding in America. That is the American dream, and to demean those people of all colors as somehow trying to be white is bigotry and slander.
Unfortunately, many American Jews chose to succeed by abandoning their Jewishness rather than having pride in it. These are the Jews – from within the Reform movement and who didn’t even identify with that – who decided that being Jewish has nothing to do with Jewish faith or practice; instead Judasim is “social justice.” As documented by Jonathan Neumann, since the 19th century the Reform movement has adopted social justice as its main tenet as it abandoned Jewish law and customs. In recent decades this became known as “tikkun olam.”
Tikkun olam has very little to do with Judaism. It is an attempt to put a Jewish label on a socialist political philosophy. In other words, it is how Jews are attempting to assimilate into the larger gentile society by showing that Jews are just like the socialist gentiles – people who are overwhelmingly white.
By Kahn’s definition, the Jews who are guiltiest of white supremacism are his kind of Jews.
Kahn himself wrote a bizarre article for the Reform movement’s scholarly journal entitled “The Present and Future of Reform Aesthetics and Identity: Performadoxy and Emergent Custom.” He argues that Reform Jews who do Jewish customs are hurting the movement:
Performadoxy is the mode of behavior by which individuals who opt in to Jewish practice without a sense of being bound by halachah pick those forms that visibly set them apart from, and above, their peers in a competition of piety. Most often through dress, kashrut, and Shabbat observance, individuals choose modes of practice that allow them to set the tone for a room or community based on their level of stricture. It is common practice to capitulate to the “frummest common denominator” in elite Jewish spaces, or to behaviorally genuflect to those who most rigidly and outwardly enact their Performadoxy. By and large, Performadoxy is practiced by those few highly active Reform Jews who tend to end up in the professional Jewish world, while those less affiliated Jews, the overabundant majority, tend to veer away from spaces in which Performadoxy holds sway. This trend is, then, leading to professional leadership with increasingly less in common with those who they seek to lead, alienating the base of individuals who could otherwise be engaged laypeople.
Yes, he is arguing that the Jews who want nothing to do with Judaism would be “engaged laypeople” in Reform Judaism if only the Reform leaders would stop doing anything identifiably Jewish.
He further insults Reform Jews who choose to adopt Jewish customs as aping the hated Orthodox:
As ethnic, religious, and national Judaism crumble under secularization and postmodernity, those seeking a new foundation for Jewish identity turn to Orthodoxy’s ready-made stable, simple, and clear narrative both to crib notes and as inspiration for novel aesthetic. Beginning with the defensive argument that “we, too, are authentically Jewish,” Reform leaders striving for a sense of decolonization are instead performing the colonization of Orthodoxy’s realm. This is a self-defeating path. The inherent elitism rooted in a reliance on expensive and time-consuming Jewish education, a problem oft discussed in Orthodox circles, and its proclamation of a divine or miraculous understanding (with or without a wink) of Jewish text and the State of Israel are unappealing to the majority of self-identified but unengaged Jews who tend towards skepticism of anything appearing as organized religion. Further, Performadoxy rooted in the “frummest common denominator” implicitly sets up a spectral dichotomy between Reform and Orthodoxy, granting rich authenticity to Orthodoxy and vapid hollowness to Reform. Rather than buttressing Reform Judaism, Performadoxy disconnects today’s Reform world from the lineage and richness of its foundations as it struggles to find footing in the difficult post- modern cultural climate.
In English, he’s saying that Reform Judaism has nothing Jewish about it, and those who try to remain attached to the religion by adopting customs that Jews have done for thousands of years are abandoning Reform’s rich history – of rejecting Jewish faith and practice and choosing to assimilate instead.
Not only that, but according to Kahn, Reform Judaism shouldn’t lead Jews – it should follow the ones who have the least interest in the religion and take its cues from them:
In BT B’rachot 45a, there is a disagreement as to the proper blessing to be said over water. As a way of settling the dispute, the resolving rabbi responded, “Go out and see what the people are doing.” The Reform Movement began in this way—looking to see what the masses of Jews were doing as a response to civic emancipation. Today in America we have become triply emancipated––that is, not only have we gained political and economic equality, we also have social equality. …Instead of longing for a time that has passed or pushing the masses to capitulate to Performadoxy, clergy and Jewish leaders must go out and see what the people are doing. We must identify their emergent customs and provide both new Jewish forms for old ceremonies and old Jewish forms for new ceremonies. Reforming must not be a top-down process. Jewish leaders must take the emergent customs of the unengaged and mold them into new practices, using our knowledge and authority as tools for co-creation rather than dictation.
Without quite realizing it, Kahn is advocating that Jews do exactly what he decries as “white supremacism” – to assimilate as fully as possible and keeping Judaism to a minimum that leaves people comfortable as Americans. If they want to celebrate Easter, Reform will ensure they paint Jewish stars on the eggs. And somehow, he thinks, these assimilated Jews will respect Reform leaders who will put a kosher stamp on whatever they are doing.
But here’s the real contradiction between Kahn’s two essays.
If the Left defines white supremacy as assimilation into American society, then the obvious solution is to distinguish yourself from other Americans and be proud of who you are. For Jews, this means embracing Judaism – not tikkun olam, but Judaism – returning to the faith and customs of our forefathers and not apologizing for it. It means showing full throated support for having a distinctly Jewish state and showing support for the Jews who proudly identify with it.
But that obvious solution to this supposed white supremacism of assimilated Jews is completely unacceptable to “rabbis” who worship Marx more than God.
The Jewish socialist Left is very happy to promote Black pride and gay pride and Latinx pride – but they are actively against Jewish pride. They are the ones embarrassed by their fellow Jews, ashamed to be associated with people who act too “Jewy,” uncomfortable with Jews who actually believe in God, and disgusted by Jews who want to support and strengthen Israel. If they hate traditional Judaism and proud Jews so much, they aren’t much different from antisemites.
Kahn’s premise that assimilation is white supremacism is not only wrong but racist. Yet he endorses assimilation himself and actively rejects anything that makes Jews Jewish. He is an object lesson in what is wrong with Jews who prioritize socialism and “social justice” over their own religion.