SHAFAQNA – The following is a guest post by Jon Sussman, a researcher for UNITE HERE, the hospitality workers’ union.
Sussman has lived in Baltimore since 2014. He graduated with a B.A. in English and the History of Ideas from Brandeis University in 2011. In his spare time Sussman volunteers with Jews United for Justice and Jewish Voice for Peace.
As a young Jew, I was taught to expect and fear the triumph of Trumpism: the elevation of a demagogue indifferent to Jewish suffering on the back of an appeal to ugly nationalism. Trump’s habit of cozying up to white supremacists on the campaign trail was a prologue; his issuance of a Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation that erased all mention of Jews was confirmation that this was an administration that would not seriously tackle antisemitism. For too many Jews I know, the fear is that it is happening again.
But as a young Jew, and a young American, I was also taught in ways implicit and explicit to hate and fear Muslims. This atmosphere of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment, a continuity from the Reagan years through the Obama and Trump administrations, cloaked an immense government effort to surveil and infiltrate Muslim communities in the U.S. If the Jewish communities I grew up in were in solidarity with Muslims facing this crackdown, they failed to communicate it with the same intensity they taught ahavat yisrael (love of Israel).
How can Jews truly join the resistance to a regime of fear where we have failed to do so before? It is all too clear that while we are targets, Jews, and white Jews like myself, are not the primary targets. Real solidarity demands that we can only protect ourselves by acting with others – and in particular, for the others that American Jews have too long castigated as our ultimate Others, Muslims.
The best antidote I have taken to fear was shouting myself hoarse in support of Muslim immigrants at the Baltimore airport. On a cold January evening, two thousand strangers turned up at a provincial transit hub to demand respect for religious freedom and an end to borders of all kinds. It was overwhelming, and all too rare, to find myself in a crowd which included self-identified Jews and Muslims standing on the side of justice together. I am still surpised by how such an antiseptic and unwelcoming place was briefly transformed into a ferment of protest, a crucible of loving action.
The opposition to Trump has been loud and widespread, but it has insisted that this emergency moment is not normal, that there has been an irruption in the smooth functioning of democracy. We know this is not true. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, anti-fascist intellectual Walter Benjamin narrated a secular Jewish apocalypse anchored by the realization that “the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.” Benjamin denied a progressive drift within history, the belief that the collective ‘we’ are moving forward in a logical sequence of events. In order to meet the challenge of fascism we must first recognize there is an ordinary violence we live amongst that is every bit as deadly as the violence we recognize as extraordinary.
For white Jews in the U.S. fearful of this administration’s encouragement of antisemitism and racism, this is a moment of reckoning for the ways in which we have failed to stand up to this country’s ordinary violence. For all of our putative liberalism, when have we made a strong communal response to the Islamophobic wars on terror, which has entailed intense repression of Muslims here and millions of deaths abroad? Where have we been over the past eight years, when two million people were deported from this country? And most pointedly, why have we passively or actively abetted our government’s support for Israel’s apartheid projects?
Showing up at a protest together is a start, but if Jewish solidarity for Muslim lives is only extended when the cameras are rolling, it is not enough. Benjamin argued that the mistake of his peers fighting against fascism was to see themselves as the saviors of future generations. The fuel for revolutionary and world-redeeming action instead came from “the picture of enslaved forebears, not…the ideal of the emancipated heirs.” Right now, so many of my fellow Jews in the U.S. are itching to take on this political challenge because they recognize the incipient strains of an antisemitic and racist nationalism. But our struggle against antisemitism is not viable on its own – indeed, by itself it can be easily incorporated into the state’s amplification of racist violence. For our own protection, and to truly be a part of redeeming this country, Jews need to fight alongside our Muslim peers.