My name is Ben Sweet and I am a staff member at Bard College. I work in the BEOP office and I spend my out of the office time facilitating conversations about race, gender, institutions, and more.
Well, to be totally honest, my name isn’t really Ben Sweet. My family’s real name is Shanesvee. My ancestors immigrated to the United States prior to WW2 and the holocaust. Upon entering the United States my family name was changed from Shanesvee to Sweet. Following a generation or two my parents met and wazzam, I was born; a white baby boy, who was also Jewish.
My first memories of realizing I was Jewish were happy ones. My family would all sit together every Friday for Shabbat to eat, pray, and relax. It was a pleasant time and it made me feel at home. Home was in a town called Pine Bush. It’s actually not too far from Bard. You may have heard of it, they used to have a KKK presence, were investigated by the New York times for allegations of anti-semitism, and most recently was featured on Fox News for Islamophobia. It is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly Christian. It is a place where I found great friends, a successful athletic career, the opportunity to go to college, and my first dose of anti-semitism.
I remember in 6th grade a student named Tyler harassed me for months calling me a Jew, would talk about throwing coins, and when we played basketball would say ‘pass me the ball, jew.’ I hated him for this, and eventually after a few months of not knowing what to do, I exploded. I punched him in the stomach and slapped him in the face. Nobody saw it, so I never got in trouble and to this day, have never told my parents. What I remember from this experience wasn’t the fact that Tyler left me alone after I punched him, but the fact that hitting him made me feel like he robbed me of my peaceful nature. I’m not a violent person and I hated the fact that he made me explode to the point of not being able to control my rage. From this point on I vowed that I would be able to talk to people and never hurt someone again.
I eventually joined the track team, garnered a group of friends who loved me and I loved them. I even found a mentor in my coach and I remember how Coach Schmidt would always take the equal amount of time to talk to each runner, no matter their skin tone, religion, or sexual orientation. I will always love him for this. My love for my friends, and the real and important positive experiences I had in Pine Bush made it difficult to even admit I had experienced a level of anti-semitism. Even with this great and powerful group of friends, I still heard from other people in school the holocaust jokes, the jokes about money, noses, and how Jews ran the economy. I remember one particular student who used to hang around some of my friend group had a swastika carved into his arm. My senior year I had a teacher for a holocaust class who told us that if you went into Jewish communities and you were not Jewish they would ‘beat you up.’ I still have a deep anger towards this teacher.
I hated going to Hebrew school, and in many ways I hated being Jewish. It made me feel different than everyone else and there were so few of us in the school to begin with. So I did what any other insecure 14 year old would do; I ignored the part of me that was different and embraced the part of me that was similar to everyone else in my school; being white.
Whiteness was always such a big part of my identity. At first, it was just an unspoken shared connection with classmates, affirming that I fit in even though I knew I was a little different. As I grew older I started to understand racism, institutions, and white privilege. I realized how deeply I benefit from being white. I went on to get my Masters in Humanistic and Multicultural Education in part to understand what it means to fight for social justice as a white person. I grew to define racism as the combination of hatred and power. And even though my experience of being Jewish was powerful, I understood that while I felt hatred I never felt that someone had institutional power over me. Because of this, I rarely spoke of being Jewish during my masters and really focused on my white identity as a person fighting for racial and social justice while wanting not to overpower the voices and experiences of folks who have been directly impacted by institutional racism.
Then I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and learned how white supremacy oppresses the oppressor. Clearly in very different ways, but I left understanding that a system that oppresses harms everyone and it is my role as a white person to educate other white folks. Here at Bard I’ve done just this, I run groups about whiteness, I talk to my friends from Pine Bush, from college, and in my family. And you know what, I’m quite good at it. A big part of the reason I’m good at these hard conversations is because I know what it is like growing up around racist people, in small boring towns where nothing ever happens. I speak that language and I know that culture. Growing up in Pine Bush whiteness became my connection to those who look like me but are also different from me.
Enter Donald Trump. Enter Steve Bannon. Enter Richard Spencer. It’s November 9th and Donald Trump is my President. It’s November 14th and Steve Bannon is his chief strategist, it’s November 21st, and Richard Spencer is giving ‘Heil Victory’ speeches in Washington D.C that is seen by thirty million people online. All of a sudden being Jewish is confusing.
The Alt-Right leader Steve Bannon claims not to be anti-semitic because he and the alt-right website Breitbart are ‘pro-Israel’. Steve Bannon himself has even published Pro-Israel articles and has a ‘Breitbart Jerusalem.’ What is even more scary is that there is a small percentage of right wing Jews who support Bannan and Donald Trump. And this is creating a big divide in the Jewish Community. The Anti Defamation League has called for Bannon to step down while the Zionist Organization of America, the Republican Jewish Coalition have issued praise for the appointment of Steve Bannon. Other organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee have remained neutral or silent.
This is where history becomes important so bear with me. For white nationalists in the Alt-Right, many see Israel as being a force who can take the land from people of color. While at the same time, advocating for the rise of Nazi Germany and for ethnic superiority. This leaves Jews like myself who support a Jewish State but not the policies of said Jewish state in a tricky position. This gets even weirder, so strap in. The message, culture, and definition of pre-WW2 Jewish life has been co-opted. Before Hitler, Jewish life in Europe meant you spoke Yiddish, listened to Klezmer music, and might have participated in pro-union movements. Now jews in Israel speak Hebrew, do not listen to Klezmer, and do not speak of the Yiddish language because it is viewed as being weak and to willingly go to the slaughter. Israel’s new found militarism and power has been used by anti-semitists wanting to take advantage of Israel’s geographic position, not for the love of Jewish people.
So there I was, sitting in my office, about to plan a workshop about white privilege. This was the day after Steve Bannon was appointed to be chief strategist of well, AMERICA. I realized while sitting there, for the first time in my adult life, that I felt more Jewish than I felt white. I posted about this on facebook and I experienced my first micro-aggression. I posted a video of Richard Spencer saluting trump and someone I know responded by stating that I was making this up and that there is no “neo-nazi” movement. I felt pain and sadness that I could present such indisputable evidence of this and it could be so easily ignored. Moments later for the first time since high school, I felt harassed. But this time I also feared that this hatred could become policy in America.
The same person wrote. “So if the Holocaust is about to happen again and you are scared, be grateful you still have American Rights.” As if I should thank him for my rights that he gave me, and that he could just as easily take them away.
I have this habit of asking people I perceive to be racist to go for a run with me. I find that when people run they feel relaxed and we talk about it. But for the first time, after asking this gentleman to go for a run, I felt scared for my safety and I don’t plan to meet with him. I felt relief when a Christian friend of mine stood up to him. But I also felt annoyance that I somehow had to seek validation for my experience from someone outside of my religious group. That my own struggle would never be enough until it was championed by someone with a different faith.
I feel scared for my safety if I identity myself as a Jew in certain spaces now. But at the same time I still carry white privilege, the same privilege that Richard Spencer and Donald Trump carry. Those who claim to be ‘pro-Israel’ while at the same time their followers question if ‘Jews are people.’ Now all of sudden, under a Donald Trump presidency, I may no longer be considered white. But I am white, I hold workshops about it, I benefit from it. And if I am no longer viewed as white, what am I? I am not a person of color, but I am not thought of as white in the eyes of Steve Bannon and the Alt-Right and possibly this new political administration.
I feel torn between two worlds, one-the white America I grew up in. The second, that of being an ethnic minority, something I never felt comfortable or quite right claiming as a white man. I feel a sense of double consciousness which was never mine to claim as a white person. And all of this left me feeling so confused in my whiteness. So maybe the best way to put it is what my Dad tells me. “When you are Jewish, you are white, but kind of.”
Where do Jewish people fit under a Trump Administration? Are we the oppressor or are we part of the oppressed? Can the Jewish community find allies from progressives that are anti-Israel? Are Jewish people truly white in a white supremacist society where we can reconstruct what it means to be white?
As the yiddish saying goes, A halber entfer zogt oichet epes, or “Half an answer also says something.”