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The Jewish community must combat mainstream anti-Semitism

My journey as a Latina Jew and public servant offers unexpected lessons to challenge assumptions about Jewish history and Israel.

A woman holds a sign opposing antisemitism at a rally. Photo by AndriiKoval/Shutterstock.
A woman holds a sign opposing antisemitism at a rally. Photo by AndriiKoval/Shutterstock.
Ida R. Eblinger Kelley

At an early age growing up in Los Angeles, I knew I embodied many minority identities. I am Cuban American. I speak Spanish. I am also Turkish-Sephardic and Polish-Ashkenazi. My mother grew up with Ladino at home. My father learned Yiddish before Spanish. I am 100 percent Jewish, or more specifically, Juban, as Cuban Jews affectionately call themselves. My entire family, parents and multiple generations of aunts, uncles and cousins were members of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel with its beautiful architecture and décor inspired by the Sephardim’s Mediterranean and Middle Eastern roots.

In 1987, five years shy of the quincentennial anniversary of the Spanish Inquisition, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain visited my synagogue. I took the day off from high school to witness, along with my mom and hundreds of other congregants, the king acknowledge Spain’s brutal history toward the Jews (albeit subtly stated) and the desire to re-establish “understanding between the Spanish and Jewish peoples.” This moment forever shaped my soul and awareness of anti-Semitism’s long legacy within Jewish history.

This rich identity inspired my academic studies in American ethnic and immigration history. After a wide range of academic and policy internships and temporary positions, I entered civil service. I held several high-profile, nonpartisan positions in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and then later, at the National Archives’ Nixon Presidential Library in Orange County, Calif. My federal career was fulfilling and rewarding precisely because I have a lifelong passion for fairness and justice.

For nearly 20 years and four administrations, I  engaged the public through hundreds of broadcasts, events and publications as well as through targeted press efforts to educate and empower every stakeholder within the education, health care and public history pipeline. The core focus of my work was to ensure that all disadvantaged and marginalized communities, such as those in special education, lower socio-economic status and minorities, understood how to access quality education and health care, and to leverage their civic voice.

In light of my experiences, which were based on empowering individuals and making connections between people, I am frightened by the explosion of anti-Semitism that has evolved from the extreme left to within centrist thinking. It has shaped today’s scholars, teachers, students, journalists and leaders.

Over the decades, it has fueled the BDS movement against Israel. It has manifested itself in the past two years as California struggled to create a high school ethnic-studies curriculum. It is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condones Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s divisive and anti-Semitic comments. I spent my career building bridges between Americans only to see people use anti-Semitism to construct walls and dig chasms between us that damages the much-needed spirit of collaboration to tackle today’s challenges. The United States is a global leader and its citizens deserve better.

For this reason, with stinging irony, anti-Semitism is not taken seriously within the mainstream because Jews are a part of the white “race” and benefit from “white privilege.” This long-held academic thought when applied to the Jewish experience means that we collectively enjoy upward mobility and freedoms, opportunities and human and civil rights—all of which have been denied to people of color. It disregards the fact that the “white privilege” paradigm reflects a dominant Christian experience. In effect, by categorizing us as “white,” this philosophy denies anti-Semitism’s very existence while it grossly distorts and erases Jewish history—the history of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

My maternal grandfather, who lived with me and my parents for 10 years before he passed away, fled Turkey to Latin America in the 1920s to avoid conscripted military service. As second-class citizens, military service in Turkey meant a Jew’s likely placement in the most life-threatening assignments, enduring physical and verbal abuse, and starving from limited food rations. And if a Jew managed to survive military service, then he would face financially suffocating taxes that the government placed on non-Muslim populations, thus forcing him to convert or to self-imposed exile. This history has been placed into the shadows and ignored.

Interestingly, the “white privilege” label places Arabs and Muslims, our genetic cousins, as people of color. Yet the congregants of the Sephardic synagogue of my childhood that came from Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Iran do not neatly fit this thread of scholarly thought. Labels oversimplify complex history and fact.

Last month, in direct response to the anti-Semitism that erupted in direct reaction to the Israel-Hamas war, Jews participated in a national “Day of Action” virtual rally. It was a critical moment to speak our truth, and we did not.

Anti-Semitism on the left and center was not explicitly called out. It barely received a mention. This silence was evident at an event that took place with leaders from national Jewish organizations, faith-based organizations, media, civil-rights organizations, influencers and the highest elected officials in the Senate and House of Representatives in attendance. This silence demonstrates that the Jewish community in the United States is in crisis, just as it was in the 1930s when Jewish leaders remained silent in the face of horrendous violence against Jews.

American Jews need to reclaim our collective voice, and do it now and do it well. We need to stop the cancel culture within our own community, and we need to acknowledge that individuals and organizations that defend Israel and combat anti-Semitism play an important role.

My work as the director of Hispanic outreach and communications during the first three years of the Obama administration is of particular relevance. The complexities of America’s largest minority ethnic group were (and still are not) not well understood.

Together with a team of administration and education officials, we strategically collected data and documented historic truths to proactively challenge mainstream assumptions and amplify key messages. I shared this information as I spoke with mainstream and Spanish-language reporters, producers and media executives, as well as education and business leaders and elected officials. With every conversation, I stressed the Latino community’s relevance and value to the nation and tackled stereotypes.

At the time, Latinos were the third-largest minority by actual numbers and ratios within their own population, after Asians and blacks, to obtain a four-year college degree, and only 28 percent of Latino students were English-language learners. In order to keep up with innovation within the highly competitive and global economy, we needed to secure prosperity for all Americans. Our nation’s economic well-being depended on this population’s educational success. The country would suffer if Latinos remained marginalized, targeted with contempt and their story misunderstood.

Similarly, the Jewish story is not well known. Today, Jews in the United States, like the Latino-American community, are not in control of their own story and are portrayed as the “threatening other.” Others dictate our narrative from their dominant worldview. We need to do a better job at challenging mainstream assumptions about Jewish history and Israel. We need to explain our relevance and value to the American experience; this is key to being heard and fostering important alliances.

The left’s shaping of the center empowers what is on the right by denying it. Legitimizing antisemitism on the left allows it to become acceptable within the mainstream and hinders our ability to call it out on the right. Denial of antisemitism’s existence allows White nationalism and supremacy to flourish which in turn, with another ironic twist, further fuels all hate. Sadly, this speaks to our relevance – we are the proverbial canary in the coalmine. The left needs to provide an alternative to the hate in American society but instead has tolerated it.

American Jews, and the left in general, need to confront this specific double standard. The reality is that we are a distinct ethnic-religious people unlike any in history. Regardless of where we live, we have never fully enjoyed the basic human right of sustained freedom from fear, freedom from discrimination and freedom from religious persecution, subtle or explicit. The lessons of the Spanish Inquisition are long forgotten, and those of the Holocaust are barely known among our youngest generations.

More recently here in the United States, the ADL’s analysis of FBI’s hate-crime data tells us that Jews and Jewish institutions are the leading “religious victim group” of hate crimes for the past 30 years. The American Enterprise Institute’s review of the 2018 data declared that “Jews were 2.7 times more likely than blacks, 2.2 times more likely than Muslims to be a hate-crime victim.”Since the 1980s, I recall synagogues and Jewish community centers, cultural institutions and summer camps increasingly investing in extensive security measures. Nothing about this data and experience speaks to being privileged.

I believe that Eric Ward explains this best. He is an African-American national justice and hate expert, and a fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Four years ago at the start of the Trump administration, before COVID and the latest anti-Semitic tidal wave, Ward made critical observations in his 2017 seminal piece “Skin in the Game.” Anti-Semitism, he states:

“ … allows us to identify the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia … .”… And, “ … as with every form of hateful ideology, what is explicit on the margins is implicit in the center, in ways we have not yet begun to unpack. This means the notion that Jews long ago and uncontestably became White folks in the U.S.—became, in effect, post-racial—is a myth that we must dispel.”

The Jewish community needs to understand Ward’s words and with the greatest urgency work collectively, decisively and proactively to force anti-Semitism’s retreat from the mainstream.

This is a massive endeavor, but we must turn the tide.

Ida R. Eblinger Kelley is a retired federal communications and outreach executive in education and health care in Washington, D.C. Later, she served as deputy director of the Nixon Presidential Library in Orange County, Calif., where she currently resides. As a child of Cuban-Jewish immigrants, she dedicated her academic and professional career to empowering the disenfranchised. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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