“We were Victims not Oppressors”

I have a lot of Holocaust nightmares. Just the other night I dreamt that I was in a suburban New Jersey basement with a group of other Jewish girls. We were lined up beneath a toy basketball hoop, wearing pajamas that smelled of detergent and fabric softener. A man stood guard by the basement door. I asked him if I could leave and he said, in the smooth, chilling tone used by cinematized Nazi villains before they shoot, “sure, go right ahead.” I went to open the door but realized that it was locked and I had no shoes.

As usual with these dreams, I woke up panicked and sweaty and lulled myself back to (a false) reality by looking through Kim Kardashian’s Instagram pictures. (Kim Kardashian is centering for me). That scenario, of being chased or trapped, surfaces from time to time in my dreams; a memory that is not my own but something learned. First from family stories: my grandmother was a camp survivor from Poland who passed away when I was six. Then from books, movies, museum visits, and assemblies at my Jewish elementary school. I wasn’t any older than eight the first time I saw images of emaciated victims and heard lists of camps in alien languages.

I learned about the Holocaust in the Schindler’s List era, when the event had been commercialized, popularized and universalized; an era when Jews were largely comfortable and accepted in the United States. But the history I learned still felt no more softened or sanitized. I returned from assemblies semi-traumatized, unable to eat, or sleep without a nightlight.

I grew up learning biblical, historical and personal accounts of how we, the Jewish people, were exiled, murdered, and tortured. To be Jewish is to be familiar with a history of oppression. As I grew older it was difficult for me to accept the idea that Jews could be “privileged” in America. Jewish people aren’t privileged, I always thought, Jewish people are outsiders.

It was a shock for me to learn how other Americans see me.

While I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, an on-campus group for students of color staged a symbolic demonstration in which they requested slave reparations from white students. A participant asked me for a dollar towards reparations. I felt attacked and got defensive. “My grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” I told the student. “No one in my family even lived in America during slavery.” I don’t remember what her response was but I remember thinking, “she only sees that I’m white. She doesn’t see that we suffered too.”

Before this incident, I was aware that there are many lasting repercussions of slavery: I was aware of continued racism and systemic inequality. But as a Jewish person and as a second generation American, I felt that I was separate from this American problem. “I don’t even really feel so American,” I used to say. During my time in graduate school and as a staff member at Ma’yan, I began to think differently about the role that Jews play as American citizens, and my personal identity as an American Jew (or Jewish American or what have you).

In early American history, Jews (as well as other ethnic immigrant groups) were considered a race apart and were deemed not-white. When my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1950’s, they faced discrimination, exclusion and financial hardships. But at that point in history, American Jews of European ancestry were considered white and even the children of Holocaust survivors benefited from the laws that drew that arbitrary delineation. Today there are Jews who are white and benefit culturally and systemically from their white skin privilege. There are Jews of color who currently experience systemic oppression. When I walk into a store, people see me as white–even while I sometimes feel like I am an outsider.

What does it mean for American Jews to have a history of oppression, to remain a marginalized group in the wake of persisting anti-Semitism throughout the world, and at the same time, to recognize that Jewish people have privileges in this country that other groups do not have? And because the Holocaust was a unique experience in our memory, how do we begin to draw fragile, tenuous parallels between our own experiences and others’?

In 1977 The New York Times published Helen Epstein’s article “The Holocaust and its Heirs,” about how the trauma of concentration camps is re-experienced in the lives of children and grandchildren of survivors. In this article, largely about the transference of anxiety and fear, Epstein quotes a son of camp survivors: “My parents didn’t come from this (American) society. They came from a society that no longer exists. They were victims, not oppressors.’

For many of us who have inherited a deep understanding of ourselves as outsiders in our society, it is difficult to unlearn the false dichotomy between victims and oppressors, and to accept the idea that we can be multiple things at once.

German and Polish citizens have claimed, not incorrectly, that they were victims of Nazi occupation and brutality during the war. Some of them were also apathetic bystanders, or complicit in the oppression of Jews. They were multiple things at once.

I stopped reading Tablet Magazine the day they published this essay about how ludicrous the concept of “Jewish privilege” is in light of the Holocaust: “There is much talk going around now about so-called Jewish privilege: That we can blend in, that we’ve ‘made it’ here in America.” Tablet, a left of center Jewish publication, continues to post articles railing against the concept of intersectionality and the necessity of accepting one’s privilege.

Acknowledging privilege and the continued oppression of other groups does not belittle our painful history. It doesn’t mean that we forget what happened to our parents, grandparents and ancestors. It does not discount continued anti-Semitism. Acknowledging privilege means acknowledging the challenges of Jews of color who experience racism, Jews who experience poverty, Jews who experience sexism and queer Jews who are excluded and marginalized within and outside of the Jewish community. For many of us, being Jewish is a very important and central part of who we are. But being Jewish is not the only part of ourselves that factor into our experiences as citizens of the United States.

Why don’t we use our understanding of what it is to be victims of oppression and outsiders in this country as a catalyst for social change?


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