On Jews, Looting, and Whiteness

As the George Floyd protests spread across the country and the world, my social media flooded with protest news, infographics about police brutality, and calls for solidarity. But there was a note of hesitation, primarily from older white Jews, uncles and bubbes and synagogue friends, commenting on my friends’ posts. They wanted to support the protestors, they really did. But what was all this looting? Why couldn’t the protests proceed “peacefully”? While my wife sent resources explaining the problems inherent in judging Black reactions to police violence, I thought about what in the history of my elders could be causing them so much concern. Too young and too American to be personally haunted by Kristallnacht, I wondered if they were perhaps thinking of a very different night of broken glass.

In the wake of the 1977 New York City Blackout, there were many questions. Con-Ed and the city wrote reports about why the grid had gone down, what could be done in the future to prevent such widespread outages. Grandmaster Caz and countless other DJs wondered what kind of music they could make with the new advanced sound equipment that had been looted from the stores. Sociologists and historians asked why there had been so much looting, especially compared to the similar Blackout of 1965. And one historian, Herbert Gutman, in the New York Times asked, “What about the Kosher Food Riots of 1902?

Despite his example’s specificity, Gutman’s point was broad, and nuanced. He notes the dehumanizing nature of the widespread animal metaphors in the editorials and magazines after the Blackout to discuss the majority Brown and Black looters. Gutman points out that in 1902, contemporary newspapers and commentators used such metaphors to describe the Jewish women who protested sky-rocketing kosher meat prices, many of whom were beaten and arrested. Gutman’s view of history vindicates the Jewish rioters, and by extension the Blackout looters. “Now . . . we know . . . about the world of our mothers and grandmothers. But do we understand enough about ourselves and the world in which the contemporary American poor live to comprehend the pained message that came to us [during the Blackout]?”

If we take Herbert Gutman’s argument at face value, we could see it as a particular tendency of post-Holocaust anti-Fascism. Gutman’s condemnation of the language used by commentators foreshadows Dr. Gregory Stanton’s classification of dehumanization as one of the Ten Stages of Genocide. But if we look closer, we can see an urgent racial message for White Jews that was ignored in 1977. 

Gutman’s empathy was not widespread. The Times ran a series of letter responses to him that howled “How dare you compare my mother and grandmother’s Lower East Side to the Bronx of 1977?” Later that month, Ed Koch would pull ahead in a contentious Mayoral race by condemning looting and crime, promising to campaign for capital punishment in New York state, in an audible racist dog-whistle. Gutman published a response to readers, further equating the Jewish rioters with the struggle of Black looters, citing the history of Black protest contemporary to the kosher meat riots, and comparing a quote from a Mrs. Ablowitz to a line from Langston Hughes.

Arrested during the 1902 disorders, [Mrs. Ablowitz] told a magistrate: “We know our wounds. . . We don’t riot. But if all we did was to weep at home, nobody would notice it.”

The black writer Langston Hughes would have understood Mrs. Ablowitz, and she would have understood Mr. Hughes when he wrote: “Seems like what makes me crazy has no effect on you/ I’m gonna keep on doing until you’re crazy too.”

Mrs. Ablowitz and Mr. Hughes did not share a common history. But a thin line connected them. A space filled with animal metaphors did not separate them.

Gutman speaks to Jews who had immigrant mothers and grandmothers in the riots, 2nd and 3rd generation American Jews, largely White and Ashkenazi. He draws an explicit line between their economic struggles and their insurrectionary politics and the poverty and rioting of Black and Brown New Yorkers in his time. In doing so, this middle aged White Jewish labor scholar showed himself significantly to the left of his community, who roundly rejected the comparison he was making.

The truth is, we are in a similarly divided position today on the Jewish left. Race remains a deeply controversial issue, with some of us examining our privileges as a community, and others wondering, what privileges? The shades of post-Holocaust leftism in Gutman’s argument may be less resonant to us, but the six million remain ever-present in our organizing. 

Karen R. Bodkin, in her insightful “How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America” looks at the evolution of Whiteness to include the waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who came over in the so-called “Golden Age” of Immigration. She posits this process was completed with the cementing economic advantages of the G.I. Bill and redlining post World War II, the exact generation Gutman addresses in his New York Times op-ed. In light of her work, Gutman’s op-ed takes on a very different mission. 

Gutman is asking White Jews to remember the bad old days, when a Jew had no business talking to the police. When hunger was everywhere, and the prices climbed higher every day. Remember the fury, remember the insult, Professor Gutman seems to say. Remember the pain. And let it explode, outward. Now do you understand? Now are you with them, or against them?

In our grandparents’ day, Whiteness called to us as a safe haven, a place of rest and prosperity. Never mind its obvious contradictions and ambivalence towards us. We could make it here, in this country, if we played along. The George Floyd uprising, and the increasingly frequent cries from Jews of Color, demand our attention as White Jews. Every moment of Black insurrectionary violence is an invitation to all Americans but particularly to those of us with our own histories of suffering and struggle. We can remember the Jewish revolutionary program, the calls from within the tradition for Justice, our martyrs, our heroes. We can join our fellow Black Jews and other Black comrades in the street. Or we can continue accepting the dubious promise of White Supremacy that if we ignore our neighbors’ suffering and stand by the authorities, then we will stay safe.

Published by Mordecai Martin

A luftmensch, a Jew, a way with words, all in one.

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