Dialogue to counteract hate – by Simma Lieberman

I’m Jewish. My first personal memory of antisemitism was when I was eight years old. I was in the synagogue with my father on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting, praying, and atonement.

We were engaged in silent prayer when all that silence was broken by loud yelling and banging as the door crashed in. A group of young white Christian boys were attacking us. They threw things at us and called us names like “sheeny” and ‘kike.” “Go back to your country. You don’t belong here,” they screamed.

 I was terrified. We knew about the Nazi genocide of over 6 million Jews and other people who did not fit the Aryan “bloodline’. Many in our neighborhood had numbers tattooed on their arms from the Nazi concentration/extermination camps. All of that trauma was passed down to us.

I remember thinking, “How could they hate us so much? They don’t even know us.” At that early age, I wanted to get to know people who were different than me and have them get to know me so we wouldn’t hate each other. I also realized that to end hate, stop violence against us and find safety, Jewish people needed to join other people who had experienced discrimination. That became my mission.

I learned about slavery, segregation, and white supremacy while I was still in elementary school; I got involved in the civil rights movement. My first thought was that I wouldn’t be able to eat lunch with my friend Gladys who was Black, so I joined the picket line. I saw people marching up and down in front of Woolworths with signs and yelling,” 1234 don’t go in here anymore, 5678 southern Woolworths segregate. They were protesting that Black people were not allowed to sit at lunch counters in the south.

In 1963 I went to the March on Washington with Martin Luther King. That day changed my life. Even though I was young, I knew I wanted to make bringing people together across differences my life’s work. As I got older, I learned to facilitate dialogues between people from different backgrounds.

I always thought that my survival as a Jewish person was tied to the survival of other groups. I got deeply involved in dialogue between white Jewish people and Black people (some of whom were also Jewish,) Jews and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and Christians.

I’ve always been aware of antisemitism and all the stereotypes about Jewish people. After I left the Bronx, I often met people who had never met a Jewish person, and many of my friends had never met a Jewish person until me. We started having interracial, multicultural Passover seders, Chanukah dinners, Rosh Hashana celebrations with our friends, and attending events from other cultures. 

Our interracial multicultural family continues to grow. We all support each other. We speak out against racism, antisemitism, and every other form of hate and bigotry. We keep each other safe. I can’t imagine any other way to live. But that’s our world.

There is another world in this country, a world where racism and antisemitism continue and get even more embedded in this culture, a USA world where it is becoming illegal to talk about race, the history and continuation of systemic racism in our schools, and violence and murder of unarmed Black people living their lives continues with impunity. And in some towns, books like “Maus” about the holocaust and antisemitism are now being banned.

Right-wing media pundits spout racist ideology that has gone mainstream. The use of the “N” word by some white people becomes accepted as free speech. When a Black person or anyone else speaks out in protest, they are accused of “reverse racism” (a racist term in itself.) There is little recourse because they are shut down and bullied. Racist politicians get reelected even as some condemn their words and practices, but it has little impact because the people who vote for them agree.

The last president built a fire and fanned the flames of hate against Asians by accusing them of bringing Covid. Those messages sit in our atmosphere. They became normalized as Asian people were beaten up and killed. People think it must be true if the so-called “president” says it. There was no outrage. I’m concerned that antisemitism and racism are becoming normal exponentially. More than ever, we see people who espouse hate getting elected and reelected to political office. 

These are not individual problems. They are not just the problems of Jewish people, Black people or Asians, Native Americans, and Latinx. It is a USA problem. No one group can end hate alone or with just our group. Not only do we need each other, but everyone in this country who says they are against hate, antisemitism, racism, etc., has to take action to create the kind of country or world in which we want to live.

Words aren’t enough. We must take action.

What Needs to Be Done:

• If you say you are against hate, then learn the meaning of antisemitism, the meaning of racism, and how they manifest, especially in subtle ways.

• Know what words are antisemitic and what words are racist. Educate yourself and others.

• Don’t just be outraged by comments and stereotypes about your group while continuing to believe and spout stereotypes about other groups. (I see that too often in my group and others.)

• Let go of the need to defend haters just because they are from your group. Hate is hate.

• Ultimately, the people who benefit from targeted groups targeting other groups are white supremacists.

• Learn the history of racism and the exclusion of different groups. Learn about the genocides against Native Americans, African-Americans, and Jewish people. Read about the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese exclusion act. Learn about the hate the last administration spread about immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other immigrants.

• Get to know people from groups other than yours. Share meals, have meaningful conversations, and share cultures.

When we share stories about ourselves and our cultures, not only do we break our stereotypes, but we make friends. We learn from each other and how to support each other. In the Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue groups I’ve participated in, we say, “an enemy is someone whose story you’ve not yet heard.”

When I hear other white Jewish people make racist statements, I know they don’t know any people of color on a deep level and are complacent in their racism. When I hear a non-Jewish person of color makes an antisemitic statement, I know they don’t know any Jewish people on a deep level. And neither one knows and understands the histories of oppression and genocide perpetuated by white supremacists.

If we don’t take these actions together, then white supremacy wins.


Photo by Dima Pechurin on Unsplash

Simma Lieberman

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