“…The people I come from were small scale farmers and garment workers. Like them, the vast majority of European Jews were in no position to wield any sort of economic power, but in a world where the economic lives of Jews were strictly regulated (my great grandfather had to pay bribes to work at a hardware store in a town where Jews were forbidden) the role of agent to the rulers was one of the few options offered, often under duress….”
The insights are deep and challenging in this commentary by Puerto Rican Jewish writer and historian Aurora Levins Morales.
Aurora Levins Morales:
“I am a Puerto Rican Jew, born of Ukrainian Jews fleeing war and repression to become sweatshop organizers in 1910s New York, and landed gentry from Naranjito, turned working class migrants in 1930s Harlem and the Bronx, landing in the same garment shops a generation later. I’m also a lifelong activist historian who embraces complexity and has spent decades building alliances between people who misunderstand each other.
It is true that there are specific challenges in the relations between Latin@s (those who are not Jewish) and Jews (the ones who aren’t Latin@.) It’s true that these challenges are deeply rooted in the anti-Semitism of the Catholic hierarchy, but the belief system that burned Jews at the stake, accused us of sacrificing Christian babies, and held us responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, long predates the State of Israel. And long before that state was founded out of the ashes of genocide and at the expense of a colonized Arab people, Jews were the shock absorbers of Europe’s class societies, “Middle Agents” drafted into being the local representatives of distant and definitely Christian ruling classes who alternately exploited and persecuted them while squeezing the life blood out of Europe’s peasants and workers.
People are often confused by anti-Semitism. They see many US Jews accumulating wealth, moving up, gaining positions of influence, and they say, “What oppression?” Anti-Semitism doesn’t work the way racism does. Racism tries to create permanently exploitable groups of workers, people kept in line through discrimination and violence, kept poor and dependent on low wage jobs.
The whole point of anti-Semitism has been to create a vulnerable buffer group that can be bribed with some privileges into managing the exploitation of others, and then, when social pressure builds, be blamed and scapegoated, distracting those at the bottom from the crimes of those at the top. Peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields. This was the role of Jews in Europe. This has been the role of Jews in the United States, and this is the role of Jews in the Middle East.
The people I come from were small scale farmers and garment workers. Like them, the vast majority of European Jews were in no position to wield any sort of economic power, but in a world where the economic lives of Jews were strictly regulated (my great grandfather had to pay bribes to work at a hardware store in a town where Jews were forbidden) the role of agent to the rulers was one of the few options offered, often under duress.
Just as Jews in Europe collaborated in the collection of outrageous taxes from the peasantry, Jews in the United States have collaborated in the exploitation of urban people of color, trading an illusion of safety for the powerful alliances we could have built, and often becoming one of the local faces of oppression: landlords, pawnbrokers, public school teachers and administrators, doctors, and the social workers of the welfare machine, implementing policies that serve others, and collecting rents for the shareholders of the Bank of America. Jews are by no means the majority in any of these roles, but it’s been a widespread defensive strategy, in response to the instability of Jewish life, to seek upward mobility not only for its own sake, but as a safety net against persecution.
This is a direct result of the deep insecurity that cyclical oppression creates: no amount of privilege feels like safety, and historically, it hasn’t been. The knowledge of what happened to the wealthy, assimilated Jews of Berlin haunts the Jews of Great Neck, who compromise potential alliances for the sake of guarantees that have never worked before, but keep seeming like they should. It’s a form of opportunism, the willingness to take up whatever tools are at hand, including the master’s tools.
And Latin@s have done the same thing, been willing to mobilize the centuries old weaponry of Catholic Jew-bashing in the fight for economic and social justice, mobilize traditional slanders about Jewish greed, or conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written by Czarist secret police, that worked so well to keep old world peasants throwing stones at Jews instead of bringing down the aristocracy, been willing to buy the idea that the problem with the slumlord is that he’s a Jew, and not that he’s a slumlord.
This system of interlocking opportunisms has diverted attention from the real power structure of this country, which is solidly white and Protestant, and kept us from forming alliances powerful and broad enough to unite the 99%. It saps energy from the work of ending racism and economic injustice, and eliminating the anti-Semitism that keeps Jews scared enough to keep signing up to be middle agents.
In the last line of his article, Rubén Navarrete says of the Israelis, “given all that they’ve endured, they should know better.” Trauma doesn’t turn make people into better human beings. Most of the time, trauma just makes people terrified and easier to manipulate. It makes starving Irish tenants fleeing a devastating famine willing to own slaves or homestead Native American land or police the ghettos they used to live in. It makes the formerly kidnapped and enslaved willing to set up shop in Liberia and hold their African kin in contempt. It makes the survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution be willing to become harsh colonial masters, agents of US oil greed and militarism, to bulldoze the villages of Palestinians to make Jewish settlements, torture and kill those who resist, and still insist they are the victims here. People who have faced destruction don’t necessarily know better.
The Jewish right in the United States has a near monopoly on public discourse about Israel, and is amazingly effective at silencing dissent. Anyone, Jew or not, who criticizes Israeli policies toward the Palestinians is accused of wanting to destroy the Jewish people. I myself appear on the Masada 2000 list of Self-Hating, Israel Threatening Jews, (twice, because they don’t get it about our double last names.) AIPAC and their ilk are experts at mobilizing intense pressure on funders and sponsors of lectures, films or social justice programs that expose Israel’s commitment to crushing Palestinian sovereignty, with all the brutal details that that entails. They believe that the survival of all Jews depends on a heavily militarized, Jewish state in which Palestinians must be deprived of their rights in order to secure the rights of Jews. They insist that to say anything negative about Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, makes the critics retroactive Nazi collaborators. (Yes, I’ve received emails accusing me of complicity in the deaths of Polish Jewish children who died before I was born!) So when U.S. Latin@s are described as hostile to Israel, this aggressive defensiveness is part of what’s in play.
The thing is, that while they’re wrong, they’re not always completely wrong. Criticism of Israel does take on a special tone of hatred and contempt that draws on the same poisoned well as attacking Jewish slumlords as Jews, or singling out the Jewishness of one group of developers out to build an exclusive luxury resort on Puerto Rico’s coast, while never mentioning the religion of the many Christian developers.
Israel is a colonial country with a strong right wing nationalist ideology that does what such regimes do, and it’s not any better or worse than other colonial regimes with right wing nationalist ideologies. Yes, it’s critical that those who love justice stand up for the human rights and sovereignty of Palestinians and their Jewish Israeli allies, but there is no contradiction between doing so and also standing up for Israeli Jews, jammed into the deadliest middle agent role in our history. Israel needs to be pressured toward integrity, economic and political justice, and respect for human rights, in exactly the same way that the Congo needs to be pressured, that tortured country where millions have died in wars over the precious metal that makes our cell phones work, and the legacy of Belgian colonial rule, known for its extreme brutality, is reenacted every day between Congolese people.
And while it’s true that opportunism has been a widespread strategy of both Jews and Latinos, the opportunism that leads us to compromise our integrity by agreeing to the mistreatment of others, both my peoples have long traditions of a very different strategy. Jews have been disproportionately present in movements for social justice wherever we have landed, and significant numbers of U.S. Jews have understood from the start that the best guarantee of our own safety is to form strong alliances with other oppressed people, to fight together, to get each other’s backs.
My great-grandparents were garment trade organizers. My grandfather was a radical lawyer who worked on the Scottsboro case. My father, married to a Puerto Rican activist woman, was a rural organizer in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and a leading figure of the independence movement in the 1960s, until we left the island. And my mother, raised among Jewish immigrants in New York who were her best allies against racism, never tolerated anti-Semitism from anyone.
We can’t allow support for Jews to be defined as support for Israeli policies. Support for Jews is support for Jewish integrity, for deeply held values of justice and compassion, support for U.S. and Israeli peace, for human rights organizations like the Middle East Children’s Alliance, and Jewish Voice for Peace. Many US Jews are deeply concerned about Israel’s violent seizure of Palestinian land, and violent suppression of dissent, but don’t speak out because they are afraid, not only of attack from the Jewish right, but also of the reality of anti-Semitism, which always flares in times of economic crisis. To many, it still seems that Israel is the one safe haven when things get bad again. We have to see to it that it isn’t true.
As long as right wing Jews are the strongest voice against anti-Semitism, they can continue to define criticism of Israeli colonialism and support for Palestinian rights as Jew-hating, intimidating and confusing potential supporters of a just peace. As long as non-Jewish critics of Israeli colonialism allow anti-Semitism to creep into their critiques, U.S. Jews will hold back from joining them, just as people of color don’t rush to join white-led organizations where racism isn’t actively challenged.
One of the most effective ways for Latin@s to support the people of both Israel and Palestine is to understand the workings of anti-Semitism and take clear strong stands against it. The central justification for Israeli militarism and the subjugation of Palestinians is the belief that Jews are alone in the world, that no-one will fight for us, that the next time Jews are blamed and attacked, most of the world’s people will stand by and watch. The more the Israeli right escalates, the more Palestinians are repressed, the less safe it actually is for Jews. When Latin@s are willing to examine our history of anti-Semitism, to study the ways it’s been used to manipulate and divide us, and root it out of our organizations, communities, and families, we help create the conditions for large numbers of U.S. Jews to stand up for the rights of Palestinians and a decolonized, plurinational, democratic Israel, to abandon the middle agent role and get the backs of other peoples, knowing that they also have ours.”
Aurora Levins Morales is a Puerto Rican Jewish writer and historian, author of three books. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in dozens of anthologies and been translated into seven languages. Her website: www.auroralevinsmorales.com.