Long after news cycle ends, hard work of fighting hatred will continue

Tony Westbrook

By Tony Westbrook, Jr.

Over the past 48 hours, my social media outlets have blown up over recent anti-Semitic comments made by an Eagles footballer, DeSean Jackson. I have seen many of my white Jewish colleagues, students, friends and public leaders come out publicly denouncing and calling out the anti-Semitic comments. I am not here to defend the anti-Semitic comments made by yet another public figure. As a Jew and a Black man in America, I know firsthand what baseless hatred can do and continues to do here in America and elsewhere. 

The remarks made by this football player are disgusting and inappropriate. Anyone who chooses to use their voice in this manner should be called out, invited to do the difficult inner-work to address why they made such comments, and do work in the community to fix the damage and pain inflicted.

What I am challenged by in this moment is how vocal many of my white Jewish colleagues, students, friends and public leaders have been in the last 48 hours than they have been in the past six weeks with protests, racial unrest, police brutality, the murder of more Black and Brown people, the murder of more trans and other queer folk, and unfortunately, this list goes on and on.

In many of the posts or statements that I’ve seen, many people used phrases such as “To all my Black friends and leaders, your silence right now speaks volumes…” or “To all my friends who have become social justice activists on Instagram over the past few months: Where is your voice today? Where is your condemnation of blatant, public anti-Semitism?” Many have used Martin Niemoller’s famous quote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

And some comments were far more intense and offensive to share here. Many called out the entire Black community and Black leaders specifically to speak up, invoking that old relationship of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Somehow, these statements implicated me in the anti-Semitism that exists in parts of the Black community and also ignored my existence as a Jew of color.

Here’s the thing: racism, specifically anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism in America are linked! Hitler and his evil party were inspired by the Jim Crow laws and practices in America and based the Nuremberg Laws off of them. Both Blacks and Jews were historically prohibited from joining white social clubs, fraternities and sororities and other organizations (which is why both groups have their own). The two most hated groups in America for years, were Black people and Jewish people.

The anti-Black racism is entrenched in every aspect of American life and culture whereas anti-Semitism isn’t systemic in the same way. That is not to say that organizations and individuals don’t have anti-Semitic practices or beliefs, it isn’t systemic in America the way racism against Black people is. That does not make one form of hate more important or less important than another. Hate is Hate is Hate.

The reality today is many Jewish people in America are white or white-passing and benefit from a system that values and elevates whiteness. It is an uncomfortable truth to hear, but it is true. I will never be white, but I will always be Black and Jewish. The history and relationship between the Black community and the Jewish community is a complex, sometimes strained one and I have feet in both worlds.

I share these thoughts because it is a particularly hard moment for me as a Black man and as a Jew in America. It is painful every time there’s a video of another Black or Brown person being killed at the hands of those tasked to protect us. It is painful every time a swastika is painted on another synagogue or a public figure says some off-the-wall comment or an online retailer takes Black garb or Jewish garb and makes it into some super insensitive and offensive jewelry.

The point is that we all have a part to play. Only calling out issues that affect your particular group when something happens to your group doesn’t do much.

In order for us all to move forward, we need to start with ourselves and do the hard work of acknowledging our own racist, anti-Semitic, and biased views and practices. Educate ourselves on why we have them, then, as my mother says, “once you know better, you do better.”

Call in your racist family members and friends. Call in people who are making anti-Semitic jokes, comments, posts. Stop participating in cancel culture because systems don’t change and people don’t change when we simply cancel them and don’t hold them accountable. Hold your leaders accountable–whether they be your rabbi, your preacher, your senator, your imam, your boss, and everyone in between–hold them accountable.

This work isn’t easy. No one ever said it would be. Change will only come once we’ve rolled up our sleeves, grabbed an ally or two, and get to work.

Eradicating hate, racist systems, anti-Semitism, discrimination, homophobia–is always trending. It is always en vogue. 

Tony J. Westbrook, Jr. is a Jewish African-American, activist, and community leader from St. Louis working to address issues of racial inequality, discrimination, diversity and inclusion throughout the St. Louis community. He received his B.A. in Communication from Fontbonne University. He feels called to serve Jewish communities and non-Jewish communities in holy and meaningful ways. He made aliyah in 2016 and studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He graduated in May 2019 with a Certificate in Jewish Studies and a Certificate in Jewish Experiential Education.  He was recently named a fellow in Yeshivat Hadar’s Jewish Wisdom Fellowship.