Reflections on the American tradition known as Thanksgiving

During this week of the American federal holiday known as “Thanksgiving” I spent time heeding the call of Indigenous community connection and - yes, even Indigenous content creators - to seek out truth telling of their people and the history of this land. My conclusion of the truth is that genocide and mass displacement happened here. TikTok creator Charlie | Amáyá (@dineaesthetics) teaches that colonialism is a system of technologies that regulates our relations to land and people with the intention to remove, displace, and eliminate an indigenous people, land and life.  From @dineaesthetics, I learned more about the insidious ways that this harm continues to be inflicted here in America, like the use of Indigenous Peoples as mascots, street names, and military designations

After watching a powerful visual of land occupied by Indigenous People from 1783-2010 from Sarah Perdiguerra available on YouTube, I wanted to hear stories of Indigenous resistance. I turned to Episode 4 of the podcast This Land: The Treaty which chronicles the story of Major Ridge and his son John Ridge, a Cherokee leader murdered in 1839 for signing a treaty with the United States. Ultimately the promise he died for was broken; the Ridges were forced to walk the Trail of Tears after losing their ancestral land and sovereignty in so-called Georgia. Of this time in American history, This Land host Rebecca Nagle shares thatduring his lifetime, Major Ridge witnessed one of the largest migrations in U.S. history, one that isn’t taught in school. Millions of white settlers moved from the Atlantic coast, west onto Native land after the Revolutionary War. This migration was really a land grab.” 

Though my ancestors were still in our shtetls in Eastern Europe at the time, I wanted to know if there were any Jews involved in this encroachment, and what role they played. I found an interview between Jewish Currents writer Hadas Binyamini and author of The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America (Rutgers University Press, 2019), a book about the history of Jewish encounters with indigenous peoples in the 19th and early 20th century United States and the stories Jews told each other about these encounters. Author David S. Koffman, the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry and Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto, speaks about the historical relationship between colonialism, diaspora, and whiteness, and contemporary Jewish discussions about indigeneity in the US and Canada. 

He shares in the interview linked here that:

[his] interest is in seeing colonial actors as people who had ordinary economic and political concerns, who are desperate in their own way. I think that this study forces us to reckon with some of the political and moral ambiguities of settler-indigenous relations. Jews in the 19th century, like many others who arrived in the frontier West seeking to eke out a living, were often fleeing hunger, political violence, and disenfranchisement. Though they arrived as more powerful than Native Americans, they were not official state actors—they were, in a certain sense, refugees. We tend to think of the agents of settler-colonialism as military or political elites who created the conditions for expansion. But many were just pawns in the larger process. Jewish-Indigenous encounters were complicated; it’s not really a matter of good guys and bad guys, even though there are beneficiaries and losers.

This leaves me wondering how else might my understanding of myself as a white immigrant Jew on Southern soil be seen as a pawn in someone else’s pursuit of being a beneficiary of the American project. In what other global projects might I be a pawn? 

The resources linked above and below teach that the subjugation of Indigenous Peoples was inherent to the model of Colonialism; in fact it is the main necessary part that made Colonialism succeed. Colonizers almost always relied on trading successfully with Indigenous People at first (or just asking for provisions depending on how dire things were, and how receptive the native inhabitants were to the new arrivals), and then attempted to gain control of those populations and economies once they got a foothold on the land by trading or being given supplies. What does this mean for me, someone who came here in my lifetime? I live in the contradictions: I have arrived here and both been given white privileged access to supplies, resources and opportunities, and see myself and am treated as part of a colonized, marginalized ancestry that needs solidarity with other oppressed people to survive, and ultimately defeat the white supremacist machinery that seeks to keep us fearful and divided.


These aren’t comforting questions, and I invite you to sit with me in growing our collective consciousness over the upcoming holiday of Chanukkah. Click on this link for more information and to register for community events. 

Additional Resources for Continued Learning: Settler Colonialism & Things Taken (Thanksgiving)

Settler Colonialism

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Watch

Listen

Talking with family & friends about Things Taken / Thanksgiving

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Reflect

Thank You Judy and Frank

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21


Carolina Jews for Justice’s founders Judy Leavitt and Frank Goldsmith have shepherded the organization from its humble beginnings in 2013 to the robust state organization it is now. We are enormously grateful to them for their vision and leadership, as they have worked tirelessly to establish a Jewish grassroots network working towards a just, fair, and compassionate North Carolina. As they step back from their leadership now and transition to new revised roles, they share their wisdom about CJJ.

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Songs of Hope and Justice

CJJ and Jewish for Good members recently shared in some joyous rest together over Zoom between Shabbat and the week. Members were led in Havdalah by Neshama Littman, and heard some Yiddish folk songs from Jane Peppler. Local singer-songwriter Jess Klein closed out the night with some original tunes. Enjoy!

An Interview with DeWayne Barton of Hood Huggers International

His Vision for a Better Community and How We Can Help

CJJ has partnered with DeWayne Barton and Hood Huggers International for many years. We are excited about Hood Huggers’ newest initiative, the Blue Note Junction, a Community Health & Business Incubator. We encourage you to support this project with your “time, talent, and treasure.” For more details on how we can help, see the end of this interview.

 

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John Brown's raid and the Black Panthers

This post, which was originally an email, started as a simple invite and campaign update but evolved into me sitting with some tough questions about the Jewish community’s legacy. Thanks for those of you that choose to join me on this path. 

I’m celebrating wins no matter how small they may seem in this time of tragedy and impossible decisions. You may be wondering what the abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry and the Black Panther Party (BPP) have in common: both are marked in time the weekend on October 15-17, 2021. The formative political organization BPP was founded on Friday in 1966 in response to police brutality against the Black community, specifically the killing of Matthew Johnson in San Francisco. I am celebrating the legacy of the Black Panther Party, whose Free Breakfast for Children Programs became a model for the Fed Up Political Food Distributionin which many CJJ members are currently engaged. 

On Saturday, we stepped back further in time to mark the anniversary of the 1859 abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry. I am celebrating John Brown and company’s brave attempt to take over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, VA (modern day WV) in an effort to initiate a slave revolt across the Southern states. The raid, now seen as a prelude to the Civil War, included 21 additional abolitionists — 14 white and 7 Black. Brown, a white man, was defeated in the raid by a company of the U.S. Marines led by First Lieutenant Israel Greene. Greene, a Jewish man, later left the USMC and served as an officer in the Confederate States Marine Corps during the Civil War. 

I’m familiar with Jewish communities celebrating our shared legacy of engaging in tikkun olam or social justice projects. While this heritage of building a more just world is worthy of celebration, I haven’t heard much introspection about a different part of our story — the one in which some of our ancestors fled persecution based on our Jewish identity in Europe, and then essentially traded in their otherness for whiteness. If we understand the Confederacy as a project of maintaining white cultural hegemony, I see First Lieutenant Israel Greene as having chosen assimilation as a survival strategy. The project worked so well for him that he became deputized as a crusader for white dominance.

While I condemn Greene choosing comfort over building a more fair world, in contrast I celebrate the community that we are cultivating within CJJ. We create and allow space to interrogate these nuances while writing a new story for ourselves, one in which we show up as vibrant, dynamic Jews in multiracial, intergenerational, and cross-class coalition within our Southern communities. 

The People's Budget NC, which you can read more about at this link, is an example of one of these coalition spaces in which CJJ is engaged. I am celebrating coalition members Surena Johnson and Kathy Greggs who recently led direct actions in Raleigh and Fayetteville respectively, demanding more resources for those experiencing the current housing crisis. Activists camped out overnight on state property demanding greater transparency into the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), wanting to know why neighbors facing impending evictions hadn’t yet been approved for funding. I’m celebrating the team in Raleigh who called in help from a local council person after hearing from a neighbor experiencing homelessness that the portable bathrooms available to the public downtown hadn’t been serviced in weeks. 

Additionally, in direct response to this day of action, the city council moved to provide more administrative support to the vendor facilitating ERAP that will undoubtedly increase the capacity of the program to meet the needs of our people. I’m also celebrating that the direct action team was able to motivate two apartment complexes to start accepting ERAP funds, preventing the impending eviction of three families who were approved for funds.

We know there is more work to be done and I'm celebrating our community that doesn't shy away from this necessary challenge. 

Shedding Man’s Blood: Judaism and the Death Penalty

D’var Torah for October 8, 2021

This week’s parashah is Noach, which is ironically fitting, because this shabbat is also being observed as Death Penalty Sabbath by Christian and Jewish congregations in North Carolina.  

Why ironic?  I am not going to discuss the familiar stories of the flood, the rainbow, the tower of Babel.  Rather, I am struck by these two verses that appear in Chapter 9:

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning;

I will require it of every beast;

of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life,

of every man for that of his fellow man!

 

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Making our Votes Count - Fair Districts

The sage Hillel taught, "Al tifros min hatzibur. Do not separate yourself from the community." That is interpreted by many as a declaration that Jews should vote as one element of their participation in their community. Historically, Jews have been one of the segments in the US population to turn out greater than others. But voting only works if the votes count. How might our votes not count? 

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Racial Equity, Property Taxation, and Rosh Hashanah

As we approach the High Holidays, we often focus on the life we are leading and what we need to change. What mistakes have we made and more importantly what new actions we should take in the New Year? Most of us have lists of both types particularly for our personal lives, but have we considered what we might do to better our community? Here in Western North Carolina one way to address that is joining the fight to eliminate inequity and racism in the Buncombe County and Asheville property tax codes, which place an inordinate burden on people of color.

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Jewish Values and Labor Day

By fortuitous coincidence, this year Labor Day falls on Erev Rosh Hashanah, a time of internal and public moral reckoning and our vows to do better in the coming year. The Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics each year urges congregations of all faiths to observe the sabbath before Labor Day as “Labor Sabbath,” to lift up the plight of workers and act faithfully to seek justice for workers.  

From the global pandemic, to racial and political strife, to the politicization of health protection measures, this year has highlighted existing injustices for workers in an unprecedented way. Millions of workers face unemployment, lack of healthcare and paid medical leave, the threat of eviction, and unsafe working conditions. Small businesses have closed, reopened, and may have to close again, throwing their owners and employees out of work. Essential workers are putting themselves in harm’s way for less than a living wage, and the impacts of racism are devastating for workers of color. All this, while the stock market soars and many large companies and executives thrive. 

How will we pledge to do better for the working people in this nation? What do our Jewish values have to say about that?

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New In-Person Event Guidelines

Since March 2020, it has been CJJ's organizational policy that all official events happen virtually. The health and safety of our community remain our utmost priority, and after extensive research and consideration, we are updating that policy to allow for in-person events. The parameters for in-person events are detailed below.
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