About two decades ago, I drove from my childhood home in suburban Detroit to East Lansing, Michigan to begin my undergraduate studies at Michigan State University. The two places are only about 70 miles apart. But my experience growing up Jewish in Metro Detroit did not begin to prepare me for what it would be like to be Jewish a mere hour drive away.
Growing up, my family was proud of and felt safe in our Jewish identity. I can’t recall a single instance from my youth of feeling threatened or hated because of my Judaism. So the series of anti-Semitic incidents that I experienced while at college shook me to my core: a swastika carved into a friend’s dorm room door; a brick painted with anti-Semitic graffiti thrown through the window of our Hillel building; an act of arson by a militia group calling itself the “Nazi Fourth Reich” that burned down half of the Hillel building.
These experiences caused me to reconsider what I thought I understood about my place in the world. On one hand, as a white Jew, I probably wasn’t actually less secure than I had been before. I had benefited immeasurably from white privilege and from living at a time and in a place in which Jews were thriving in America. And notwithstanding the acts of hate that I had observed on my college campus, I would continue to benefit in those ways. On the other hand, what I experienced as a college student forever fractured my sense of immunity from hate and anti-Semitic violence.
For many white Jews, the events in Charlottesville similarly shattered their sense of security in this country. The neo-Nazis who descended on the city chanted “Jews will not replace us” while marching with torches and Nazi flags. They carried posters depicting a hammer smashing a Star of David. Armed white supremacists congregated outside of a synagogue. Anti-Semitism is alive and well and many white Jews are justifiably scared right now.
I’m scared, too. But I also know that the violence and hatred that white Jews are being reminded of by the horrific events in Charlottesville are what people of color have been experiencing all along, with a rise in hate crimes since the election last November. White supremacists have been emboldened by the events in Charlottesville and the administration’s deplorable response thereto.
As a result, people of color are unquestionably more vulnerable today than they have been in the recent past and white Jews must act. Instead of turning inward and focusing only on our own vulnerability, let’s leverage our historic experience with confronting anti-Semitism. Let’s redouble our efforts to fight for racial justice in this country. Let’s call out bigotry, racism and hatred wherever we see it. Let’s amplify the voices of the most vulnerable communities. Let’s commit ourselves and our institutions to forming or strengthening alliances with communities of color and organizations led by people of color.
Now is when each of us must decide what kind of future, what kind of country, we want for ourselves and our children. With the terrible images from Charlottesville fresh in our minds, let’s band together with people of color and fight the scourge of hatred and bigotry together.
Steve Bocknek is the senior director of external relations for Avodah, a national organization that works to strengthen the Jewish community’s fight against poverty. He grew up in Farmington Hills and now lives with his wife and children in Brooklyn, New York.