We do not speak for “the Jews,” but as Jews for whom our faith and tradition necessitates dedication to social justice, we speak for ourselves to interrupt narratives that seek to homogenize the Jewish experience and defend Zionism.
We do not write this article to speak for “The Jewish people,” but as white Jewish American women for whom our faith and tradition necessitates dedication to social justice. We thus speak for ourselves to interrupt and complicate narratives that seek to defend Zionism. Centuries of diaspora, persecution, conquest, conversion and settlement have scattered the Jewish faith across the globe. From Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kurdistan and Palestine to Poland, Russia, France, Argentina and the United States, throughout history, Jews have built up communities and cultivated distinct cultures over centuries of intersecting yet crucially distinct histories. These heterogeneous Jewish identities are often violently glossed over in favor of a single, palatable Jewish history dominated by white Jewish/Ashkenazi voices. Too often these voices strategically neglect a frank discussion of privilege. Since World War II, the American Jews became white, and the oppressed learned to oppress, colonize and rewrite the histories of Jewish struggle.
My grandmother’s family’s experience was also similar to that of other white European Jews who experienced the trauma of World War II. Many of those who escaped Poland moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and then to Brooklyn, building families and lives in neighborhoods where redlining and housing discrimination permitted them to rent while barring opportunities for black families. New York overwrote my grandmother’s native language with English and gifted my family the advantages of whiteness as long as they assimilated quietly and as long as our story could be deployed to prove the American dream of meritocracy.
My grandfather went to college on the GI Bill and then worked as a court stenographer — he received salaries and retirement funds paid for by the civil service. They saved every penny and could open bank accounts with reasonable interest rates that helped make their dreams accessible.
Official versions of history hold up this common narrative as proof of the “American dream” actualized, as irrefutable evidence that all American immigrants can achieve “the good life” if they just work hard enough. What these versions leave out are the manifold interests that intersected to enable Jewish Americans from Eastern Europe to find haven from racist, anti-Semitic violence in America. Jewish Americans were granted access to whiteness and thus the American-ness that was denied to Americans of color. Programs like the GI Bill granted white male veterans access to college, housing and other forms of social capital, but withheld these benefits from most veterans of color. Coupled with racist, state-sanctioned policies like redlining, blockbusting and housing covenants, white Jewish Americans like my grandparents could buy houses in the suburbs, cars with full tanks of gas and access to higher education at the cost of communities of color, who were violently subordinated by anti-blackness redoubled by American Jews.
The history of Ashkenazi Jewish Americans becoming white is intimately linked to the ascendance of the Zionist Israeli state as a global military power and strategic “ally” of the United States. As “a land without people for a people without land,” the myth of Israel as the Jewish homeland was rooted in racist colonial logic and settler colonialism from the start. Persecuted as racially inferior within Europe, Ashkenazi Jews sought to grasp whiteness by moving to a land the vast majority of Jews in the diaspora hadn’t laid claim to for thousands of years in order to become European. The first white European Jewish settlers invoked rhetoric akin to “manifest destiny” and laid the foundation for Israel to become a satellite of the west in the Middle East.
Zionism was never non-violent. Zionism, from its inception, inherently demanded the displacement and oppression of Palestinians and Palestinian land. Zionism today exploits the histories of Jewish persecution and the Holocaust to justify the ongoing colonization of Palestine. Zionism is at its root exclusionary, and the trajectory of the colonial project means that today, Palestinians face an apartheid state in Israel, living on the same land but subordinated under a separate legal system. And while Zionism takes Palestinians as its victims, it has fallout for Jewish communities as well. On campus, Jewish students who condemn the occupation and do not want to support Israel through organizations like Tufts American Israel Alliance (TAIA) and programs like Birthright can practice their faith only within a Zionist organization. Tufts Hillel is one of many American Jewish institutions that works to conflate Judaism with Zionism. Zionism is not Judaism, and is most certainly not my liberation. Our histories of persecution need to inform our work for justice — not rationalize the oppression of others.
So during Israeli Apartheid Week, we examine our complicity in the oppression of the Palestinians to honor the struggles of our ancestors. We struggle for an end to the occupation of Palestine and to end the cycle of one people’s liberation coming at the price of another’s. Justice for Jews means justice and the right of return for Palestinians: None of us are free until all of us are free.
Louise Steingood is a first-year who has yet to declare a major and can be reached at email@example.com; Leah Muskin-Pierret is a junior majoring in international relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org contributed to this article; and Hannah Freedman is a sophomore majoring in American studies and can be reached at email@example.com.