When Rebecca Long, a white Jewish journalist, started working as the digital content editor at the nonprofit Jewish Women’s Archive, she was stunned at the level of antisemitic harassment that targeted the nonprofit’s social media accounts.
“I started my position in 2018, during the Trump presidency, and having to Google the symbol of a swastika to then add it to blocked symbols on Instagram comments was hard,” she said.
During the more visible rise of white supremacy during former President Donald Trump’s presidency, many Jewish journalists — particularly those who work in news — reported on antisemitic attacks and threats while grappling with dangers that their own communities face. Antisemitism and media have unfortunately been linked for over a hundred years, emerging in American culture as more Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States. One dangerous and prevalent antisemitic canard is that Jews control the media.
White Jewish journalists like myself often do not face a constant threat to our safety like Jews of color and other people of color face in the United States due to our ability to pass as being like other white non-Jewish people. But being able to pass as white does not always protect white Jewish journalists or white Jews in general.
The decision to publicly identify as Jewish in journalism can also be wearying for some. Sarah Fielding, a New York City-based white Jewish journalist, wrote about an opinion piece for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on her challenge in figuring out her Jewish identity in January 2020.
“I was very scared to even put that article out there because it was so clearly identifying me as Jewish,” Fielding told Poynter. From June 2019 until the start of the pandemic, Fielding lived in Williamsburg as violent hate crimes increased against Hasidic Jews, who dress in a Jewish conservative style. She said that she felt troubled knowing that she would be safe because she does not dress traditionally like a Hasidic Jew.
Like Fielding, Carly Stern, a white Reform Jewish freelance journalist based in San Francisco, said that her identifying as Jewish would create a “paper trail when it comes to facing potential harassment later.” Stern has not faced antisemitic harassment while reporting, but antisemitism has shaped her life.
“My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, which shapes the way I move through the world, conceptualize stories and see my own story,” she said. “But that history is not visible, and I often think about the enormous privilege that I access as a white person in America.”
Jewish journalists have undoubtedly been affected by white supremacy in the United States, but white Jews have also participated or been associated with groups that threatened our very safety. In April, Elliot Resnick, the head editor of the Jewish Press, a Brooklyn-based Jewish newspaper that leans politically conservative and serves an Orthodox audience in New York City, was identified by Politico as being one of the people who participated in the Jan. 6 coup in Washington, D.C.
“I would guess that many people in that crowd if they knew that that person was Jewish, they would hate them,” Fielding said. “I would believe that they’re thinking that they can cuddle up to this and because they can pass as any other white person, they’re safer and doing this is very troubling.”
Jews of color also regularly face racism from within Jewish circles. Tema Smith, a mixed-race Black and Jewish person who is a contributing columnist at the Jewish publication The Forward and the director of professional development at 18Doors, told Poynter that the Jewish community and media need to recognize the impact this has on Jews of color.
“We often talk as if the communities, the Jewish community and other racialized communities, are separate, which ignores the overlap between them,” Smith said. “Jews of color face both racism and antisemitism, often even from within our own communities.”
Even white Jews who have been vocal activists against antisemitism have been perpetrators of racism against Black Jews. In August 2019, white Jewish journalist Ariel Sobel was accused of creating a Twitter account under the name Evonne Schwartz, purportedly a Black Jewish woman who sent rape threats to Sobel in the replies of Nylah Burton, a Black Jewish journalist who criticized Schwartz’s tweet. Sobel denied creating the account, and despite evidence in the Hey Alma piece linked above, continued to be published regularly by the Jewish Journal for about eight more months. (Sobel, who left Twitter after the accusation, had previously blocked me, and the Schwartz account remains up).
White Jewish journalists must recognize the urgency of calling out and addressing racism, both in media and in our communities. “Addressing racism in our communities is not just a moral imperative as people who care about equity and justice, but a communal imperative to ensure that all Jews are safe in Jewish spaces and beyond,” Smith said.
As a white Jewish journalist myself, I have reflected on certain privileges that I have in having a French Calvinist last name. I am from an interfaith family, and I do not wear any Jewish traditional clothing. I was never more aware of how my whiteness protected me as when the white nationalist website American Renaissance posted my op-ed at Streetsblog to their followers on why I did not support increased policing in New York City’s MTA, as it would lead to the further criminalization of Black men. The messages I received from followers of this site made racist comments about my piece, but I was not personally threatened. If white nationalists knew that I was Jewish, I’m sure their response to my article would have been very different.
Joshua Axelrod, a white Reform Jew who works as a features writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, grew up in Pittsburgh but was not living there in fall 2018 when the Tree of Life synagogue shooting occurred. Axelrod said Trump’s antisemitic rhetoric preceding the shooting — which claimed 11 lives in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States — “certainly hit close to home for me,” but he also considers it disingenuous not to recognize the privilege that he has as a white man.
“I’m aware that I’m like a white man, first and foremost,” Axelrod said. “I wrote an editorial after the Tree of Life shooting where I was like ‘I never felt more Jewish in my life, and more ‘other’ in my life.’”
Long, whose father converted to Judaism, does not have a last name that is traditionally Jewish. As the person who manages Jewish Women’s Archives’ social media accounts, Long is acutely aware of how white supremacists target visibly Jewish institutions. In her freelance writing and on social media, Long takes into account the antisemitic harassment that Jewish Women’s Archives faces. “My Jewishness is really pretty invisible, and I make conscious decisions about where to mention it to kind of preserve my own mental health.”
Many journalists in the past few years — both Jewish and gentile — have faced a tremendous amount of burnout while reporting on the rise of white supremacy, police brutality against Black people, anti-Asian hate crimes, and COVID-19.
“I think any journalist, being honest with themselves, will probably say they feel pretty burned out by the rise of certain levels of hate,” Axelrod said.
While Stern has felt burnout as a journalist, she has not given herself space to process the burnout of being a Jewish reporter during a visible rise of white supremacy, as someone who is also white.
“I’m always contextualizing this sense of safety, or insulation, alongside the enormous trauma that Black and brown journalists carry around every day, especially in a year full of news that’s been tremendously challenging and painful.”