Doesn’t Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement sound like an oxymoron? Unfortunately it’s been around as long as I can remember. In the 1980’s I was regional director of the American Jewish Congress in Washington, D.C. and was asked to participate in a number of national coalitions, one of which was the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights RCAR (now RCRC).
I remember clearly my pride when I was asked to become an officer of the group until I overheard another activist say “We don’t need Jews in leadership. We’ve been oppressed for years by men and now we are being oppressed by Jewish women with their education and outspokenness.”
To say that I was stunned and embarrassed is an understatement. I was humbled when elected Vice-President of RCAR, and this sentiment stemmed more from those women who rejected out of hand any form of anti-Semitism, rather than for the honor itself. At the time I thought to myself that perhaps it was just this one woman who had issues. I was sadly wrong.
In the 90’s, as regional director for the American Jewish Congress in San Francisco, I often had trouble believing what I was hearing. At one particular civil rights conference I attended, the minorities in attendance were given assignments. I walked up to the organizer and asked what the White participants were supposed to do. She thought for a minute and answered, “You should go off in the corner and discuss your privilege.” This is the EXACT language that I have heard bandied about recently. Of course better understanding our privilege while increasing our knowledge of the minority experience is critical but we sure won't do a good job talking to ourselves and what a waste of collective energy in that context.
Perhaps the most unsettling comment for me was at the annual luncheon for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. The speaker had been an activist in the Civil Rights movement and was a wonderful speaker… until… he came out with, “Those Jews…” I was dumbstruck. He received a standing ovation (except from me) and then I watched every Jew in the audience make sure they passed by me on their way out the door to say, “What the hell?”
It became an issue in our Civil Rights Coalition and we had a number of heartfelt discussions. One of the leaders of the event and the Coalition was heard to say, “It’s not like Jews are oppressed like Blacks, why do we have to spend our time on this?”
This isn’t the Oppression Olympics. Of course African Americans and Latinos and other minorities have to deal with extreme racism on a daily basis. They are more discriminated against. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that any racism is bad. Any discrimination is bad. By tackling issues as they arise it only helps us understand each other and our own biases and helps us to bond and grow stronger. And to marginalize any group that wants to join in is, quite honestly, just stupid. The more folks at the table, the more strategies and connections they bring, the greater the chance we have of effecting positive change. I don’t mean to say that Latinos and African Americans shouldn’t organize to further their particular issues. Of course they should. But when dealing with women’s rights, economic advancement and voting rights, we are dealing with issues that affect all of us. There is more than enough room at the table for everyone.
I remember being denied a grant from the Jewish Fund for Justice and being told I wasn’t a “real” community organizer because I wasn’t organizing in the streets. In fact I was, but I was also mobilizing connections with the media and legislature. I wonder if the women in Maryland (in the 80's) considered me a “real” community organizer when the then Governor was going to change his position and veto Medicaid funding of abortions. I picked up the phone and called Abe Pollin, the owner of the local Capitals Ice Hockey team, and a buddy of the Governor. Did I know Abe? Nope. I figured, what the hell, we are both Jewish, maybe he’ll take my call. He did and convinced the Governor to allow the legislation to go through unaltered.
When we are sitting around the table with a common goal, we need to make it about that goal, developing a variety of strategies including rallies, class action lawsuits and identifying avenues of access to people of influence. That kind of creative brainstorming and garnering of resources is what will continue to make the biggest difference. If we don’t understand something or say something stupid, we need to pause, educate and build a collective memory based on new experiences.
Effectuating real change doesn’t happen at each other’s expense. It happens by building on each other’s strengths and having the courage to work together as true partners.
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.