My mom is stoic and rarely ever cries. Last week she FaceTimed me from California, dewy-eyed, while I was in the subway in New York. She mentioned the news—11 Jews shot in a synagogue in Pennsylvania. I had already read about it in the morning, but talking about it with my mom forced me to feel it.
She told me, “It’s okay to feel sad.”
I forget sometimes that I’m allowed to feel sad for Jews. The discourse in the School of Social Work around anti-Semitism has dwindled in large part due to the hyperbolic conflation of Jewishness with whiteness. I am therefore quick to forget that Columbia often fails to treat anti-Semitism with the legitimacy it deserves. My mom’s simple acknowledgement allowing me to feel Jewish pain reminded me that it was ok to feel so deeply.
My experience in the Columbia School of Social Work has often made me feel hollow. It can seem like I have no role as a Jew in both the course curriculum and in class discussions. “How Jews Became White Folks” is my school’s single mandatory reading regarding Jewish people in contemporary society. And, even though this piece takes a dive into important assimilation markers of the American Jew, this is only a 20-page reading shoved in among the several books and 40 articles that make up our curriculum. In discussions, fellow classmates have confessed that they have become frustrated when Jewish people speak up about their experiences. On one occasion, I tried to explain to a close peer how my Jewishness guides my social justice work and she told me that I needed to stop talking, since my white privilege dominated any authentic form of solidarity I could claim as a Jewish person. During my time at Columbia, I often wonder if I truly belong at the School of Social Work.
Why do my peers dismiss my Jewish identity due to my white skin? Why do I feel so disingenuous for being Jewish in social justice work?
This message from my peers, that Jews are white, isolates the Jewish people from the broader cultural context. It creates an assumption that renders the dialogue around anti-Semitism obsolete and minimizes the Jewish experience. Not only is this generalization detrimental to understanding the nuances and diversity of Jewish identity, but it also inhibits an honest conversation about the ways being Jewish has been contextualized in discourses of race, ethnicity, and culture. Frankly, perceiving Jewishness as a mere form of whiteness or as just a religion is ignorant. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel knew this, and cautioned us against these toxic and reductive comparisons when he said, “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”
Intersectionality—the interrelation between race, class, and gender—is a central theme in our curriculum that promotes a solidarity-driven approach to social justice. Unfortunately, it seems that this ideology is not being taught to address issues pertaining to anti-Semitism. Social workers are often so concerned about abiding by these pre-established intersectionality guidelines that they unintentionally perpetuate the very kinds of discrimination that they supposedly oppose. Thus, Jewish students whisper to each other in the secrecy of dimly lit dive bars about our shared experiences of anti-Semitism, but we don’t risk speaking out in class. An intersectionality gap exists between engaging in discussions of anti-Semitism and those pertaining to other forms of racism. Rather than avoiding discussions of anti-Semitism, we must break the silence by discussing solidarity.
Before this shooting happened, people didn’t seem to care about the plight of the Jew. But I have found myself obsessed with the topic and unable to stop writing about it in different forms. I’m calling upon Columbia School of Social Work and schools of social justice everywhere to break this silence and take meaningful action to change their current practices of omitting Jewish identity and experience from their classrooms and conversations.
The author is a Jewish Columbia School of Social Work student researching the intersection between public health and law. She is also the co-founder of Yoga Bilingüe, a public service collaborative that offers bilingual yoga classes to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.
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