Trauma Coping Strategies, White Passing Jews & Collective Liberation

At Passover seder last year, I sat in a circle in a living room in Berkeley, California. A coffee table, covered in tin foil, was in the center of the room, with jelly candy and fruit laid out for us to snack on while we talked about how we were enslaved in Egypt.

Inevitably, the conversation evolved into feeling all of our suffering, and one of the people hosting the seder meal asked aloud, “Why is Judaism so much about pain and suffering?” It was a question asked that was itself the answer articulated in action — Judaism feels like it is about pain and suffering because we are stuck in our own trauma and thus mired, we have forgotten what came before, or what could come after.

Because of the recent experience of the annihilation of half of the Jewish/Hebrew population in the Holocaust in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, and other experiences of genocide, including the many Crusades and Inquisition, as well as political, economic, and cultural persecution in many places and many times, we carry an identity of being an oppressed people.

We identify as oppressed because we have been. But like all survival strategies developed to cope with trauma, they are effective in a time-limited way. They are accurate reactions to the present trauma, but when circumstances change over time, they become inaccurate to the present. When we hold onto this sense of self for too long, and don’t allow ourselves to update our identities, they become stale, and we get tangled in our identifications with the story we previously used to survive. In addition, if our focus is just on our own oppression, it occupies us in ways that does not allow us to see how our oppression is interrelated with the oppression of others.

The United States of America was created from the land theft, resource extraction, and genocide of Native North Americans and the enslavement of African people. This systemic violence operates with and of the structures of white supremacy. Even if our ancestors did not participate in the European colonization of North America, white-passing Jewish/Hebrew people in the United States carry white privilege and benefit from colonialism and slavery, as it underlies all of our systems that we engage with in our lives, such as banking, land residence or ownership, and other human infrastructures.

Therefore, we are not free from the work of accounting for these benefits and privileges, and dedicating time, energy, and financial reparations to decolonization and antiracist work. Not only are we not free from this work but, by our very own humanity and memories of what our people have experienced, we are ethically and ancestrally compelled to see our oppression as interrelated to others’ oppression, and through this relatedness, to join in dismantling these violent and extractive structures and act in humble solidarity with other people who have been colonized and enslaved.

We ask our well ancestors to resource us in our work of tikun olam, repair of our world, to let go of trauma coping strategies that are no longer accurate and no longer serve us, to see our interrelatedness, and fortify humble accompliceship in collective liberation.