Of course, he was right (There you go, dad, I said it!). And it was a testament to the success of my parents’ bold decision to leave the USSR as political refugees, which landed me in a (more or less) open and pluralistic liberal community in Massachusetts that allowed me not to notice. I was arguing that in the world in which I live, I would not be targeted for being Jewish but for something in my control — like being religious. Now, obviously, that’s an unsustainable argument and as a Lecturer in philosophy at King’s College London, it pains me that my 13-year old self would have made it.
The reason I bring it up, though, is because as a Jew in America, even a Jewish refugee fleeing the anti-Semitism of the USSR, I had privileges and opportunities unhindered. My Jewishness, unlike that of my mother’s, did not preclude me from studying medicine at university, or require me to take classes at night rather than during the day — or at a vocational college instead of a real university. My Jewishness was not an obstacle to my fulfilling my educational goals. But unlike the unfettered opportunities that so many Americans simply take for granted, I was also raised with constant reminders of evil and tyranny, of autocratic regimes and the ways in which governments could murder, isolate, deprive and demean.
My family history is a history of persecution, under the Nazis and under the Communists. My paternal grandmother escaped the Minsk ghetto with my father when he was only a baby. My father’s first memories are of an imprisoned partisan telling him stories, begging him to just sit still so as to avoid knocking dust into the man’s eyes from the grate above. My mother’s childhood memories are of week-long train journeys to, basically, the ends of the earth, to visit her grandfather who was arrested under Stalin and who lived for more than a decade in Gulag. My grandmother was also arrested when my mother was a teenager. Someone didn’t like something she said and reported her to the police. That’s all it took. She was in jail for months. She was a paediatrician and also survived the war. And lived until she was 96.
The point of all of this is not to somehow emphasise that Jews suffer uniquely but to remind my fellow American Jews that we are in a unique epistemic position because we can couple the knowledge that has been imprinted on us by our family histories with the privileges and opportunities that we have enjoyed living in the US. And because of this special epistemic situation, we have an obligation to speak out against what we recognize as familiar forces of tyranny so clearly taking over in America today. Because they are as familiar to us as the stories that we were raised with and we are lucky enough to have benefited from a system where we are allowed to have a voice: we must not stay silent now. We have a clear obligation to call out the racism, the lies, and the fear and to explain how these are the instruments that tyrants, dictators and despots have always used to control populations and wage war.
We are in a position to raise our voices in resistance and we have an obligation to do so — both because such is the nature of justice, but also, because we have benefited from a system that has deprived countless others who, in virtue of their own systematic oppression, can see the hate, the racism, the xenophobia, and the threat to our bodies and minds — but who have been deprived of the epistemic standing to be heard as equals.
It is no accident that Jews have always fought for liberal enlightenment values. It is no accident that we who have often been seen as less than human fight for a system of government that grounds human dignity in our very humanness. And it is no accident that in Trump’s America, the vast majority of minorities are firmly rooted against the regime and rightly scared about the impacts it may have on us. And so, for us, the fight is not a political choice but an existential one. And that makes it not much of a choice at all.
Words by Ellen Friedland