Janine Jackson interviewed Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Audrey Sasson about antisemitism for the January 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Reporting on a spate of violence in the New York area targeting Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, a rabbi’s home and a kosher supermarket, the Washington Post says, “The spike in bias incidents against Jewish communities has law enforcement and elected officials wrestling with what to do.” There don’t really seem to be that many tools in their bag, though; virtually all of them are variants on policing and more policing.
But not everyone believes that new foot patrols or surveillance towers or, as some would have it, calling in the National Guard, are the healthiest ways forward right now, or the most effective. It isn’t that it would be nice if we could build movements against political violence that bring people together, across and within community. Those movements exist, and we can lift them up and be part of them. Audrey Sasson is executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. She joins us by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Audrey Sasson.
Audrey Sasson: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: Fear is an undeniable, immediate motivator—whereas a better world sounds like a dream, if a lovely one. But when Jews for Racial and Economic Justice come out saying, “We take this violence seriously and we don’t believe that flooding neighborhoods with police is the best response,” you’re not saying, “Let’s deprioritize safety (for Jews) because it might come at a cost (to non-Jews)” but rather encouraging a different understanding of what “safety” means, isn’t that so?
AS: We would never fault any victim and survivor of the heinous crimes that we’ve been seeing for wanting more protection. Like you said, that is absolutely not what we’re saying. Everyone does need to feel safe. And that is everyone. Jewish communities need to feel safe. Black and brown communities need to feel safe. Communities that are living at the intersection need to feel safe, so that includes black Jewish communities.
And we also believe that some of the reactions that we’ve been seeing from our elected officials, responding to what they’re hearing from some leaders in the Jewish community or from some other folks, is that, you know, they’re going to deploy the National Guard, or they’re going to, like you said, flood the streets with police. We believe it’s ultimately counterproductive, and it will cement divisions in our communities. It will only serve to continue to criminalize poverty and the experiences and lives of people of color, not to mention that it would also reinforce some ideas that people have about the alliance between the Jewish community and the state.
You know, if it was going to keep us safe, that would be one thing, but it also has the additional challenge of reinforcing certain stereotypes that are themselves dangerous. So it, I think, would lead to less safety, not more, ultimately. And we urge people, our focus is that we work toward the longer-term work of building solidarity across difference, and of trying to think about, “How do we address the root causes of the hate that’s coming to the surface today?”
JJ: The connections between antisemitism and racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia and, you know, misogyny too; we can see a nexus there. But there are distinctions around antisemitism, and the way it is deployed and has been deployed. I wonder if you could talk just a bit about the way that political hatred “shows up” against Jewish people in ways that are like, and not like, against other communities?
AS: I would love to, and this is something that we’ve been, at JFREJ, really refining the way we teach about this and talk about this. And understand, we’ve put a lot of resources into understanding this, because we believe that without understanding this, our movements will fail. And by our movements, I’m referring to movements for social and economic justice, and for racial justice across the board. That any sort of effort towards justice for all communities needs to understand all of the ways these different interlocking oppressions are working. We’re seeing it live, right now, in front of us, why it is that it’s so important.
There’s a shorthand that we sometimes use to explain the difference between antisemitism and other oppressions: Antisemitism is a tool of power that punches up. When we say punch up, we mean that it positions Jews as powerful, and as the sort of hidden hand of control, controlling everyday people’s lives. So if everyday people’s lives are miserable, that’s because Jews have the power. We are portrayed as superior, almost, because we are portrayed as, you know, extra intelligent, because we are portrayed as somehow the sort of puppet masters at the top. That is punching up.
Of course, there’s also dehumanization that happens with antisemitism. We’re also portrayed as sort of not quite human, and that’s the sort of fuel that allows for other communities to target us, because we’re considered not quite human. But that is happening alongside a portrayal of us as super-intelligent and in control.
And then other oppressions—anti-black racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia—all of these punch down, and they punch down by deeming these communities and populations as inferior, as parasitic, as lazy, right, and all these stereotypes we hear. That punches down and antisemitism punches up, and together, you imagine a visual of those things working side-by-side. They are propping up racial capitalism. White supremacy and capitalism together function by, you know, capitalism exploits the labor of black and brown people, and then blames “the Jew” for the very real material conditions that are very difficult for communities that are struggling. And that obviously obfuscates the real source of people’s problems; that works for the system. If people are not quite clear about the reason for their struggles, then they might not organize efficiently or effectively against it.
JJ: It’s kind of like, “Let’s you and him fight,” is what I think of. And I would flag JFREJ’s guide, called Understanding Antisemitism, to give folks the deeper grounding here, and some of the history here. You know, it doesn’t happen so much anymore, but FAIR used to have people who called themselves leftists, who would come up and say, “OK, but media’s so bad because of the Jews, right?” You’d think, “I’ve just been talking about corporate capitalism and structural inequality and imperialism,” and then some people are like, “Yeah, it’s because of the Jews.”
So I guess I’d like to ask you what JFREJ and others are doing in response. I know that in the wake of this awful Hanukkah attack at the rabbi’s home, folks showed up in Grand Army Plaza, right? Folks felt what the thing was to do, and it was to come together.
AS: That’s what we have been doing for decades, and we will continue to do. And I want to say that, of course, our community is terrified in a lot of ways. We’re doing our best to hold it together and to continue to keep perspective and to hold each other close, while also being in relationship with other targeted communities.
So what JFREJ is doing is doing what we’ve always done, which is that we believe that you have to get to the root of the problem, we have to address austerity, and we have to address the white nationalism coming from the White House, so many of the forces that are creating the conditions for antisemitism to have risen to the surface.
But we are also in coalition with grassroots groups across the city that are made up of other targeted communities. We’ve been working with them for decades, we’re going to continue to work with them. And in this political moment, we’re working with them in a very particular way, through a formation that we’re calling “NYC Against Hate.” We’re looking to think about: What are preventive approaches to hate violence? How can we do cross trainings? JFREJ offers antisemitism trainings to all of our partners across the city, and also receive all of the trainings that they all offer, whether it’s concerning LGBTQ communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities. Like, how can we all be building our shared analysis around all of these various oppressions?
And then also, how can we build up our ability to do upstander trainings and bystander trainings, and then how can we also increase our collective capacity for reporting at the community level on hate crimes, knowing that it’s very hard for certain communities to come forward when a hate crime has happened, and that community reporting is likely more effective than having to go to the police, right?
So there’s lots of tools that we have yet to really even implement, but if we tried to do them all by ourselves, then we would not be able to move forward. We have taken steps to come together to try to build out the infrastructure that would allow us to actually build towards that long-term vision that we have for a less punitive, more restorative approach to prevention, and then repair, around hate violence.
The fact that we are in those relationships already, we’ve been doing that work, explains why it was so quick and easy in some ways for us to mobilize immediately in the aftermath of Monsey. We had a beautiful public gathering at Grand Army Plaza to stand alongside the Chabad community. The Chabad, as in the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, was going to be lighting the menorah as they do every night of Hanukkah. We joined them in their celebration, we took our cues from them, as the most directly impacted in this moment, but we are all impacted. So knowing that they are most directly impacted, and we are all impacted, and we are all in this together, we joined the Chabad ritual together, we had a ritual together, and then our allies also showed up to be with us in celebration, in solidarity, in mourning, in rage, in despair, in defiance, and to play the role, to practice the role, of deescalation, as we try to come up with new tools to long-term replace our reliance on police.
JJ: Well, absolutely, and I’m not at all trying to put words in your mouth, but I know that from some folks, we’re hearing, “Well, if you’re critical of the State of Israel, that’s just a short hop to stabbing a rabbi with a machete.” And I suspect that real cross-community and coalitional work helps work against that kind of conflation.
AS: Absolutely. False claims of antisemitism are dangerous, and they’re certainly not helping to address the root issues here. That’s our work as a movement; that’s not just the work of the Jewish community to figure that out.
JJ: Absolutely. Just finally, when we spoke back in 2018, you underscored that, yeah, there are ties across communities that are under attack, and part of the attack is dividing us against one another. But we’re bound by more than danger; it’s more than our being against bad things. We have a shared positive vision, and I have to think that that brings new people in who aren’t trying to define themselves as oppressed, but who are trying to look forward in a positive, shared way. And I just want to say I know that that’s what a lot of what JFREJ is doing, and aimed at doing.
AS: That is right. We are for racial and economic justice, not just against anything. And we also notice, in this particular political moment, that this is the moment for us to be as bold and as explicit about what it is that we are for. We are seeing that austerity is breaking people, and we need to, in the face of this, to work with our with our movement partners across communities, to imagine a real democracy, right, a democracy where all of us can thrive, and all of us have what we need, and we’re not beholden to the Bezoses of the world.
This is a moment, I think, for all of us to be as bold as we can possibly be in the face of rising hate, and in the face of harder and harsher conditions for people on the ground, to be really vigilant against all forms of oppression, antifeminism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, and to put forth a totally irresistible vision for a world where we all can thrive and live alongside each other.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Audrey Sasson. She’s executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice; they’re online at JFREJ.org, and that’s where you can find their resource, Understanding Antisemitism. Audrey Sasson, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
AS: Thanks, Janine.Print