I was in Atlanta for a large conference for Jewish camp professionals and professionals from organizations whose work complements/collaborates with Jewish camping and took a Lyft ride from the conference to meet with a colleague nearby.
In my Lyft back, the driver, a Black man about my age and an Atlanta native, and I were chatting about various things. We had a nice convo going, and at one point he started talking about how he had plans in place to move out of the city entirely – he said he was concerned with seeing how quickly everything could just “burn down” and cities are going to be where that happened. He said what happened with George Floyd showed that, and that the political context now where everything is becoming more extreme, and, that people are being emboldened to say really ugly things that before weren’t socially acceptable all point to this.
Up until this point, we were pretty much in agreement. But then things took a turn:
He then says, “Take for example Kanye. Don’t get me wrong, he’s *crazy*, but, you have to admit, he raises some questions that need to be asked. You know, about the Jews. Why do they have all the money and power?”
I told him I was Jewish, and he answered by telling me, “Ooh, I don’t mean the everyday working-class Jews. I mean, you know, those rich [white] Jewish guys with all the power.”
I took the opportunity to explain why that narrative isn’t actually true, the historic tropes the “Jews have all the money and power” are based on, and why all of this is so scary to me as a Jewish person. And that I was here at a conference with other Jewish professionals in the business of sending kids to summer camp, and a big part of what we’re talking about is the demographics of our community and the kids we serve – that a) Jews are really diverse racially and in terms of other identities, we’re not just all the rich white ones he thinks and b) that the vast majority aren’t super wealthy, in fact, we’ve been talking about how to make sure camp is affordable for the majority of Jewish kids who aren’t super rich, just because we want to make as many kids’ summers as meaningful as possible.
And to say that all of this stuff just serves to fuel racial tensions between us, so that we don’t work together to address the real problems. Here we were just talking about together how we felt it was important that real everyday working people and taking care of them, and addressing the barriers that prevent that, should be the real goal of politics…that we both want that, but this stuff all it serves is to sow hatred and fear so we’re not working together for that purpose–which just serves the super-rich white guys (Jewish as well as otherwise) that are just trying to hold their power.
I dunno if our conversation actually changed anything for him–I think he was embarrassed to realize I was Jewish and was nice and polite the rest of the convo and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that,” etc, a bunch.
But I do know this: That conversation is *everything* that is scary about these tropes being so prominently “toyed” with by celebrities and people with big platforms.
My Lyft driver was an everyday guy in Atlanta, Black, probably doesn’t know many Jews, looking at the reality for his neighborhood and community, seeing clearly how their needs aren’t being met by people in power who care more about keeping power than anything. And then hearing these “facts” about the Jews, which can seem maybe reasonable to explain why things are so bad. And those take root as questions. Is there truth there? Hmm. Maybe they’re the problem. Maybe this guy is crazy, *but* you know, he raises some good questions…
And the same tropes that have been used historically to demonize the Jews as the ones at the top, taking money and power from everyone else, the very same tropes used in Nazi Germany to stoke the fire of hatred and othering Jews to justify stripping them of rights, forcing them into ghettos, and exterminating them en masse are finding a foothold once again.
Please challenge it when you hear it. We have the advantage now of using social media and other platforms to challenge hate speech and conspiracy theories with history, facts, and with our own personal experiences. To build relationships and ask people not to trust something just because a celebrity or prominent politician has said it. To invest together in doing work to address systemic racism, discrimination, and oppression of all forms to push for people to be seen and cared for instead of disenfranchised from basic rights and needs, which just sows distrust and resentment that easily becomes taken advantage of for folks looking to gain more power.