Loolwa Khazzoom celebrates the Jews in the new Biden administration.
I watched inauguration day with great emotion, for numerous reasons, including the fact that a Black Indian woman is in the White House, for the first time in history. I was equally excited not only about the corollary fact that there is a second gentleman for the first time in history, but that he is a Jew – the first in history to enter the White House. And yet, I noticed that the very same media outlets celebrating Kamala Harris’s mark on history failed entirely to mention her husband’s mark on history. If Doug Emhoff were of African, East Asian, Middle Eastern or Latino descent (as, for the record, a critical mass of Jews are), I believe it would have been another story entirely.
Case in point: There was fanfare over the fact that Alejandro Mayorkas, appointed to head of Homeland Security, is the first Latino and the first immigrant to fill the position. There was nary a peep, however, about the fact that he is also the first Sephardi Jew in American history to serve in a cabinet. Given the fact that Sephardi Jews are invisible not only in the American mainstream but even in the Jewish mainstream, his appointment is a significant milestone.
But still, silence.
I believe this silence is rooted in the deeply-embedded, twisted, and for the most part, the unexamined brand of racism against Jews – namely, that Jews are rich, all-powerful, and controlling the world. Over the millennia, across the globe, this ideology has been used to fuel and justify anything from discrimination to the genocide of Jews – ironically underscoring the lack of Jewish power, given how easy it has been to beat down and upend Jews, no matter what leadership positions or financial assets we may have accumulated under our collective belt.
Despite the many obstacles to Jewish power and wealth, in this country as elsewhere, Jewish accomplishment in either realm is typically put under a microscope, resented, and/or derided. At best, it is envied, with an undertone that Jews don’t deserve it, and that there is something dirty or sinister about Jewish money and power.
Take a personal example from the late 1980s, when I was a student at Columbia University, and Professor Griff from Public Enemy came to campus. Speaking to a packed audience, he launched a pointed attack on Jews – among other things, referring to the school as Columbia Jewniversity, this despite the fact that a scant 50 years prior, Jews were barred admission at Columbia and throughout the ivy league, simply for being Jews.
Another example: Hollywood routinely comes under attack as being run by Jews, instead of getting recognized and celebrated as a hallmark of Jewish creativity and survival. And yet, as documented in the film, Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own, Jewish immigrants created the industry from the ground up, specifically because, as Jews, they were barred from the spectrum of other professions in America.
‘RichJewish’ mindlessly rolls off people’s tongues like one word, and people routinely ascribe supernatural business powers to anyone with Jewish blood. But how many are aware of the historic racism and persecution behind each of these ideas? While the particulars varied according to time and place, in Christian- and Muslim-dominated societies alike, throughout the millennia, Jews were prohibited from owning land, banned from most or all established professions, and barred entry into schools from elementary to university levels. Jews thus were forced into entrepreneurship and innovation, in the interest of survival, leveraging whatever scraps or cracks in the system that were available at the time.
Of particular note, for centuries in Christian Europe, Jews deliberately were banned from all professions except that of the despised usurer – effectively forcing Jews into a ‘dirty business’, then punishing Jews for it, through genocide. While times have changed, the image of the crooked Jew persists, if only through a vague sense of distaste or mistrust.
As a colleague once noted, ‘Religion creates culture’. While we live in a predominantly secular society today, American ideas and values are shaped by a primarily Christian legacy – including the embedded notion that Jews are all-powerful. So it’s understandable, albeit questionable, that most Americans could not comprehend the significance of the first Jew in the White House or the first Sephardi Jew in the cabinet.
I, however, did. So after watching Harris and Emhoff walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, with Ella Harris in tow, sporting a classic JewFro, I took matters into my own hands and wrote a song, ‘Jew in the White House‘ – blending an ancient Iraqi Jewish prayer with original music and lyrics, celebrating Emhoff’s stamp on history:
THERE'S A JEW IN THE WHITE HOUSE Kamala Harris' man Part of her multiethnic clan One of our Tribe's made it 'Yes we can!' There's a Jew in the White House Ella sports a JewFro And makes me proud Turning up the Jew In the DC crowd On inauguration day It's time to get loud Cuz there's a Jew in the White House Move over that Christmas tree We'll build a Sukkah For the world to see An historic moment For you and me There's a Jew in the White House
It was telling that a number of Jewish friends – in real life and on social media – were distinctly uncomfortable with my song airing on YouTube, afraid that calling attention to a Jew in power might stir the rancour of racists and lead to a wave of anti-Jewish violence. After all, Proud Boys and QAnon ideology is rooted in classic tropes of Jews running the world, so why add fuel to the fire?
Exactly my point.
At its best, Jewish power is conditional, tenuous, and fragile. It is neither handed over nor readily available to Jews. It is not a privilege. It is hard-won – the outcome of scrappiness and sacrifice, over the course of generations, in the face of overwhelming odds. And it is high time that we not only recognize it as such, but full-on celebrate it.
‘Jew in the White House‘ is now a collaborative recording project worldwide. If you’d like to add your voice to the celebration of Jewish power, you are invited to videotape yourself singing, dancing to, shouting out, or playing a musical instrument to the chorus. Find out more at JewInTheWhiteHouse.com.
Sorry, Loolwa, but speaking as a Jewish historian I cannot endorse this piece, problematic on many levels. But I will confine my criticism to one point–the word “power.” As used in J.J. Goldberg’s excellent book Jewish Power, it refers to the collective clout of Jews in American society–in the pursuit of their own communal ends. What you are talking about, however, is something very different–the conspicuous success of many individual Jews in American society. Here I agree that it is something that can and should be celebrated (and in fact wrote a book about the phenomenon, called Jewhooing the Sixties)–though I strongly disagree with your analysis of why such self-congratulatory acknowledgment is so often stifled. In any event, I urge you to replace the word “power” with the word “success.” Otherwise, your argument here just falls flat.
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