Last week, a neo-Nazi hacked North Shore Hebrew Academy and scrawled vicious, disgusting materials across its website. As a college freshman, I can’t help putting myself in the shoes of North Shore students and parents, thinking that this easily could have happened to my school. It goes without saying, but this wasn’t just an attack on North Shore — it was an attack on all Jewry, especially on communities like mine, which choose to be proud, visible, and openly religious.
The people who slander Jews as the cause of their problems certainly are tormented by something I cannot diagnose. While their thoughts are twisted and foul, and they have no right to make Jews feel unwelcome, anti-Semitism offers an invaluable opportunity for reflection: Why do some people feel this way about Jews? And where exactly do we belong in broader society?
A white supremacist like the North Shore hacker has a crude answer. Ashkenazi Jews are seen as foreigners who subvert society by passing themselves as white, crippling their Western host nation, and swooping in on the spoils. Indeed, a surprising number of people still cling to this narrative, but it is tired and worn out. It does not feign sophistication — it is instinctive xenophobia.
In the 21st century, anti-Semitism found a new conduit: intersectionality. You might suppose that an ideology based on the subjectivity of experiences and intersection of identities might be welcoming to Jews, who have a lot to say about collective historical memory and persecution. Yet intersectionality too has been used by some as a tool of exclusion.
Before the 2018 Women’s March, which prided itself on intersectional principles, march organizers Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory called into question the prospect of Jewish women leading the movement. Mallory argued that Jews bear particular culpability in the African slave trade and the prison system. As exploiters, Jews must examine their complicity with societal power structures before leading a march championing victims. Later, Mallory told the New York Times, “white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.” Nevertheless, “All Jews are targeted by it.”
This seems like a contradiction. How can Jews consciously uphold a system that targets them? Certainly, if they do, it must be unintentional. But as it turns out, Mallory’s assertions too are founded on anti-Semitic dogma. At an early 2018 meeting, she berated organizer Vanessa Wruble for her Jewish ancestry. “Your people hold all the wealth,” Mallory reportedly declared. She has also praised notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, and likely derived her slave-trade salvo against Jews from an academically discredited book of Farrakhan’s.
While Mallory sees Jews as white, whiteness itself is disputed territory in America. For much of the 20th century, despite visibly “passing,” Ashkenazi Jews fought for acceptance within universities and the broader culture. Still today, the ethno-genetic insularity of Jewish frequently leaves Jews in an awkward position of not considering “white” as part of their identities — only “Jewish.” Besides, Mallory implicitly reduces Jewish diversity to “Ashkenazic,” ignoring vast populations of Sephardim and Jews of color. Thus, her pronouncements fail even on an intersectional basis: Mallory fails to recognize that the world looks different from Jewish eyes.
There is a startling similarity between the worldviews of Farrakhan and of the North Shore hacker. Both use the concept of whiteness as a means of exclusion. To Mallory, Jews are white and therefore collectively suspect of abusing people of color; to neo-Nazis, Jews are the antithesis of white, and this alone makes them criminal. The contingency of whiteness is clay in the hands of non-Jews who would like to make Jews suffer.
The point is that even the most promising activists or movements may harbor a core of racial hatred. The ingrained perception of Jews as an eternal other lies at the heart of all anti-Semitism, and political language merely maintains an illusion of legitimacy. When Jews are poor, they are ghetto rats. When Jews are successful, they are cheaters, abusers of white privilege, money-grubbers, or nepotists. When Jews have institutional power, the accusations are just as libelous and contradictory. They either uphold institutional racism or plot to destroy white people demographically. Jews serve corporate interests or engineer socialism. Jews are the Rothschilds or George Soros, Milton Friedman or Bernie Sanders. Jews always pull the strings to their benefit, never mind any internal diversity in opinion, identity, or background.
So in exile, we are not the sole creators of our Jewish identity. We’ll always do our own thing, and broader society will feel free to label us as it pleases. As long as Jews are distinct, we will be stereotyped, kept as outsiders — even when we most want to be accepted. Because we fail to neatly fit assumptions about religion, race, identity, and belonging, we shouldn’t be surprised when confusion turns to rage.
Especially when the Holocaust is still in living memory, shocks like what happened to North Shore can always reactivate dormant trauma. I don’t want to downplay any harm that it has caused the community when I say this, but perhaps there is a silver lining. When hostility tests our people, our communal strength is proven, both to others and to ourselves. Recall how Jews of all stripes came together after the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in 2018. External threats and hate crimes, God forbid they ever happen, can act as crucibles of in-group cohesion.
So we should avoid the temptation to publicly decry North Shore’s incident, scratch that victim-status itch, and move on. Neither should we use it merely as a periodic reminder that age-old hatreds never truly die. For we should always have in mind that Jews stand out in the public consciousness. The sad inevitability of hatred can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves and how we can provide for each other in times of need.
Darius Gross lives in Englewood. He graduated from SAR High School and now is a freshman at Princeton, where he plans to major in history.