a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

MLK Day, ‘Selma’ and the Problem with Jews

Posted on: January 6, 2015

Please note that when I say “the Problem with Jews” I’m trying to wake you up, call attention to something, make you think. If you continue to read and still don’t “get” it and want to kvetch in the comments, please do so politely. Otherwise, your comment won’t get approved. 

selma-movieI haven’t seen the movie Selma yet, but I can’t wait to. I remember the first time I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King. I was probably around 7 or 8 and my parents introduced us to King and the Civil Rights Movement through a picture book I read with my mother. I flipped the pages and listened to my mother’s soothing voice as she said words like “Jim Crow” “Racism” and “Civil Rights”. And as I looked at the pages, I realized a few things; it was the first time I saw a person who looked like me in the pages of a book I was reading. Even my picture Bible showed pales skinned Egyptians (still happening almost 30 years later.) The second was that it was the first time a book gave me a peek into the life my mother lived in the Jim Crow South.

“Mama, why does that water fountain say ‘whites only’? “What does ‘Colored’ mean?” “Was it like that when  you were a girl?” “Why?”

I suppose my mom was ready for the questions, she had purchased the book for us after all. And as I got older and better understood the complexities of what it was like to be a child about my age living in the south, I knew she didn’t have all of the answers.

I remember her recollection of drinking from the “colored” water fountains and visiting her mother at work through back doors. Her experience and that of blacks living in the south are unique to who we are as black Americans. Just as the Atlantic Slave Trade is woven into the genetic makeup of black Americans, so too the constitutionalized marginalization and segregation of blacks. The Civil Right’s movement was and continues to be, a black movement.

American history, no America itself, is built on two things; white men wiping out Indigenous people (and celebrating it each Columbus Day) and white men enslaving Africans. To forget this history, or to try to re-write it, is not only insulting to Native Americans and African Americans, it’s blatantly false. To try to co-opt it and to make it yours, without first acknowledging and thanking the generations of shoulders that you’re standing upon is, well, really fucked up.

So, if you’re a reader of my blog it’s probably pretty clear that something happened to set me off, since I’m not writing with as much frequency as I used to. And if you presumed something set me off, you’d be correct. That something was the article, if one can call it, in the Jewish Daily Forward in which the author writes of her disappointment at the inaccurate portrayal of Jews in the Civil Rights movement. She goes on to talk about black and Jewish relations like every white author does, as two separate things, without acknowledging or considering that Jews could be black too. But this isn’t about another white Jew dismissing the diversity of Judaism. This is about a white Jew whining and getting her multi paragraph tantrum published on a Jewish forum because, there weren’t enough Jews portrayed in a Civil Rights movie. (That last bit was meant to be read in a whiney voice.)

To that I have to say, Ms. Snow, you’re disappointment is misguided.

Maybe be disappointed that more Jews don’t make Civil Rights and the rights of black Americans today a priority.

Maybe be disappointed that some Jews have forgotten their own history and instead slide by  under the guise of whiteness.

Maybe be disappointed that many Jewish communities prefer to re-quote Heschel and post pictures of him with King once a year, rather than to actively engage in Civil Rights.

Maybe be disappointed that many Jewish communities prefer to do “bridge building” with “poor black communities” or with black churches rather than looking inward and ask how they can be more accepting and inclusive of Jews of Color.

Maybe do something now, but not take credit for it (see some Jews in the co-opting #blacklivesmatter movement)

Maybe not write an article complaining that there were’t enough white faces for you in a MOVIE ABOUT THE BLACK CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

Because let’s be real, as many Jews who spent their summers in Mobile, Selma, and other places getting their asses kicked at the hands of really fucked up southerners there were countless more blacks who were lynched and beaten. Hundreds of black families terrorized. Hundreds of black churches burned to the ground. YEARS of black men, women and children enslaved, tortured and killed simply for being black.

To complain about not seeing enough white faces is really to be uncomfortable with seeing only black faces, seeing a modern-day wake up call about the clear and rampant racism that still exists in our country.

My mother left the south for New Jersey around 1966, King died in 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was enacted in April of that year. We’re talking about less than 50 years separating us from legal segregation.

That is a blink of an eye, and when you add to that the hundreds of years of slavery in America, perhaps we’re talking about a short doze, it’s a nothing amount of time.

Jewish people of America who find it so important to pat ourselves on the back for the work we did 50 years ago, I ask you to either do work now or shut up.

The Civil Rights Movement isn’t our movement (I’m talking about Jews now, since I’m both Black and Jewish) we were a piece in something that was and continues to be much larger than a walk, much larger than a summer, much larger than a movie. We have the choice of honoring our piece in that movement by continuing to make an impact, or we can look at the piece with fondness at what could have been, but we cannot try to make the piece any bigger than what it was.

9 Responses to "MLK Day, ‘Selma’ and the Problem with Jews"

Brilliant, moving piece! Thank you!

Can you please clarify :
Maybe do something now, but not take credit for it (see some Jews in the co-opting #blacklivesmatter movement)

Is there a prior article which elaborates more on this?

Not an article, per se, no. After Eric Garner there was a lot of really amazing support coming from the Jewish community, and a lot of really great but self-serving support.

Being an ally is important, but as a wise rabbi once reminded her Facebook page “Being an ally means removing yourself from the center and supporting the leadership and voices of those directly affected.”

This is terrific and necessary. If interested, I hope you and your readers check out a response to Snow’s article that I and my friend Lonnie Kleinman wrote for myjewishlearning.com, outlining some basic factual inaccuracies and broader issues with its message (similar to yours in many ways).

I read it and it’s spot on! Thanks, Lex.

Thank you for keeping it real!

“Because let’s be real, as many Jews who spent their summers in Mobile, Selma, and other places getting their asses kicked at the hands of really fucked up southerners there were countless more blacks who were lynched and beaten. Hundreds of black families terrorized. Hundreds of black churches burned to the ground. YEARS of black men, women and children enslaved, tortured and killed simply for being black.”

While White Jews were over-represented among White folks participating in Civil Rights Movements in proportion to their percentage of the general population, and many, but not all, White Jews can pat themselves on the backs for being on the right side of history. Two Jews, Goodman and Schwerner, for example, died during Freedom Summer and that garnered national attention because of the color of their skin, but how many blacks died before them unnoticed by national media in the same struggle?

If the author wants a movie about Jews in the Civil Rights Movement – than she has my blessing to make one.

On that note, have you seen the Jewish Women’s Archives “Living the Legacy” curriculum about Jews in the Civil Rights Movement?

There is some great stuff there – but in places they talk about Jews and African-Americans in two distinct categories. They do explore Jews of color in the first lesson – “Exploring My Identity”. I would love to know what you think of it.

Thanks, Kate.
I shudder to think of a Civil Right’s movie by that author. Don’t give folks ideas!

The piece Lex referred to in the comment above is spot-on, the author seemed to be confusing various moments in the Civil Rights movement; The Selma March, the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer, pieces of the whole movement from completely different years, yet seemed to be disappointed that the representation wasn’t in a movie about the Selma march (I presume because it doesn’t release here until tomorrow)

I’m sure I’ll have more opinions when I see it, but it also has to be remembered that the producer has said that she portrayed a piece of history in a way that *she* saw fit, and that it is a dramatization of actual events. If it was a documentary, we’d be having a different discussion, I’m sure.

Thanks for the JWA links as well, I’ll definitely check them out.

I take issue with your comment “we cannot try to make the piece any bigger than what it was.” Our piece in the over – all civil rights movement was huge and continues to be. According to PBS:The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League were central to the campaign against racial prejudice. Jews made substantial financial contributions to many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. About 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws. http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fromswastikatojimcrow/relations.html

That’s perfectly well, but I have to quote a new article from my friend, writer and fellow Jew, “What’s also real is that white folks have been taught that they should get access to everything, that all of our contributions are valuable because we, white folks, made them. There is no context in which those contributions wouldn’t be essential, when someone would be allowed to decide to leave them out, to focus on a narrative that’s not about white people. White, heterosexual, cis gendered men have been taught this as well. It’s this entitlement that drives them to demand all spaces, regardless of whether or not they are needed, wanted, or invited.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that the movie ‘Selma’ is just that, a movie and not a documentary. I’m sure that Ava Duvernay, like many other black directors and story tellers wanted to tell her story, this story from the perspective of the people in it-black people.

If it was a documentary, it’d be a different conversation, but it’s not-it’s a movie. And this black woman is allowed to tell her story. As she has famously said, she wasn’t interested in making a white savior movie.


[…] when I wrote my piece about Selma earlier this year and got an email from the same publication asking that I write something, I […]

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