Rebekah’s Pandemic Diary: Who Am I In This Moment?

1 Jun

Along with other Jewish Americans, I grew up learning about the plight of my ancestors. It’s interesting, having that early education, that knowledge that there was a point in the not-so-distant past when a movement of hate sought to prevent your existence. It’s scary to know that they almost succeeded. I think often of the lives snuffed out, all of the possibilities that never came to pass. What would this world be like if those 11 million people, Jewish folks and the other hated and marginalized groups, had been allowed to live, to flourish? I often joke that the story of the Jewish people is much like our music – it exists only in the minor scale. Full of loss, sadness and pain. Even still, some way, some how, our knuckles are white as we cling to hopefulness, to our right to live unencumbered, not hunted, not hated. I walk with this knowledge daily, the knowledge that there were, there are, folks who would have me, my family, my friends and all the Jewish folks I don’t yet know wiped off the Earth. They came close last time, why not give it another go? Our demise, in certain ways, always feels imminent.

There is something about carrying a collective trauma. It gets into your blood, your DNA. When Richard Spencer gave a hitler salute on national television in the fall of 2016, I came as close to throwing up from fear as I ever have in my life. It felt like something had shifted. They weren’t afraid anymore, they were out in the open, and the media was giving them a free platform for recruitment. Still, to this day, hearing people quote the nazis marching through Charlottesville – “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil” – brings tears to my eyes and makes me feel light-headed. It is a horrible thing to feel like your life, your very existence, is repulsive to so many. And yet that is a feeling that so many Americans have every single day. That is what we are seeing borne out in the streets in cities and towns across the country.

In religious school on Saturday mornings when we talked about our expulsion from Egypt, the pogroms, the Holocaust, I wondered how there could be so many people throughout history that were filled with such hate. What had we done? Why were we so repulsive? How could people march in the streets in favor of the extermination of a people? How did they find enough people to guard the camps, to starve, torture and kill innocent and helpless people? How could hate run so deep that it could corrupt a person to the core, and make them capable of such evil? On the other side, how were there people who matched that hatred with bravery, and hid Jews and members of other hunted groups in their attics and under their floor boards? How – when we hear people say that we are all the same – could what we are built of make us so incredibly different?

How do some see human filth where others see incredible value?

I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot recently. I try to educate myself about structural inequality, institutional racism, a country built on looted labor, a militarized state that takes its might out on Black bodies, knowing that at one time it was our bodies the state sought to control, to destroy. That was different, I know. Maybe it’s some deeply rooted feeling of survivors guilt, the fact that it’s been us so many times. The reality is that in this country it’s been Black people always. Even now, today, while people take to the streets to fight police brutality and our militarized police the violence is being taken out on, centered on, Black bodies. I see it. But I don’t fucking understand it.

How? How does someone have so much hate that he can place his knee on a person’s neck and remain there, hand cooly in his pocket, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? And how do we have a country where we all know that if that video hadn’t been captured, he would have gotten away with it? And even with the video he still might? And even if he doesn’t get away with it, even if he gets convicted of these strategically watered down charges, what does that really change? In the large sense? Will those of us whose bodies aren’t on the line pat ourselves on the back and think, job well done? Or will we keep fighting? Because whether there are people on the streets protesting or not, this is still happening. It’s been happening.

I have been thinking a lot about my role. About who I am. Who I need to be. And I keep thinking back to religious school, wondering how many people refused to help the hunted? How many slammed their doors and turned their backs in the Jews’ moment of need? I remember wondering how they could be so cruel? How they couldn’t see the people before them, frightened, begging?

Right now, we are watching a militarized police force occupy cities across the country. We are seeing armored vehicles patrol the streets. Witnessing “officers of the law” violently suppress non-violent protests. Watching police forces arrest and shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at the media. It’s terrifying. But these forces have been operating in, and against, Black communities for generations. So many of us have the privilege to ignore it, to pretend it isn’t there. But that is why George Floyd and so many others are dead. White privilege killed them. And regardless of being Jewish, I benefit from white privilege. Their blood is on my hands. I have a lot of work to do.

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