I’ve been feeling more Jewish these days. Between the dense lineup of autumn holidays and the waning sun coloring me pale, something has been taken from me, and something has been given. In the summer, I am indisputably Black, and not very Jewish at all, reminding me that race, and mine in particular, is like a pendulum.
To be Jewish on Princeton’s campus is a strange, political thing. It never felt this way in Southern California, where every second person at my high school was non-practicing or Reform, and we all poked hateful fun at our Jewishness, even though none of the goys seemed to care, or even know the difference. To be Jewish at Princeton is to potentially be somebody’s first, the first Jew they’ll ever meet. It feels like a strange and weighty responsibility, but not quite the same as being somebody’s first “Black girl,” which feels rotten and cold and freshly colonial.
At home, Blackness and Jewishness have always been, at the very least, compatible—because slavery, because brisket, and because of my mom and dad. This is not to say that I don’t have the same slam-poetry Who-am-I? instinct as other multiracial kids, but growing up, my cultures made room for one another. Here, being Jewish means something different than it did back home, something that undermines and squashes Blackness.
The lowercase-c conservative Jewish presence on Princeton’s campus is loud, known, and constant. There’s a distinction in Jewish communities, between politically right-leaning lowercase-c conservatives, and uppercase-C religious Conservatives, who practice more traditionally than Reform Jews, and less traditionally than Orthodox Jews. Lowercase-c conservative Jews make up much of the Tory, Princeton’s conservative publication, and a large percentage of any high holiday celebration. At Passover last year when the USG referendum concerning divesting from Caterpillar Construction, whose machines had apparently killed a Palestinian civilian, was on the ballot, I was not sure what to vote, or even believe.
I am not a Zionist. There’s an old folktale that Black literaturists love about “Flying Africans,” the idea that some enslaved Black folks developed the power of flight, allowing them to rise above the corporal horrors of enslavement and return home to Africa. As a slave-descended African American, this story gets less convincing with age. On both sides, my roots in the United States go back over three generations, my Black side outpacing my Jewish side by several generations. I am, and I feel, explicitly American, and part of that American feeling is the non-belonging that comes with it.
Just as I do not believe Africa is my homeland, neither is Israel, and I believe one because I believe the other, but I can understand why you might go the other way. Around 25,000 African Americans live in Israel, a mixture of pro athletes, Black Hebrew Israelites, and African American Jews like myself, who, like all other Jews, are eligible for Israeli citizenship. In the U.S., there are around 75,000 Black Jews, two of them being my twin brother and me. I am strange to myself, and this too, can be a cohesive and fully-formed identity. Home can be many things.
My disconnect with Israel does not speak for the majority of Jewish people, nor is it the absolute right or wrong way to feel and think about Zion. This isn’t to say there aren’t wrong ways. The Princeton community is quick to equate Israeli citizens and Jewish Princetonians with the Israeli government, a highly militant governing body.
It scares me to position myself against antisemitism in any way. To do so is to risk aligning myself with lowercase-c conservatives on campus, who threaten my interests as a Black student by speaking out against Critical Race Theory and DEI programming in the same breath that they condemn antisemitism. However, just as Princeton is remarkably Zionist, it is remarkably antisemitic as well.
In February 2022, the Princeton Committee on Palestine demonstrated outside of the Center for Jewish Life to protest an event advertising internships in Israel. In reading the coverage of this event, one sign stuck out to me. It said, “Interning on Stolen Land?” I thought that it was strange to place the ethical responsibility of the Israeli government’s subjugation of Palestinians on Jewish students at Princeton, particularly when we Princetonians, as future McKinsey consultants, narrow-minded academics, and private practice lawyers, intern on stolen land every single year, summer after summer. I feel that Princetonians, both Jewish and gentile, are quick to delegate arbitrary degrees of horror to different historical regimes, erasing slavery, erasing the mass genocide of Indigenous people while condemning the Chinese Communist Party and the Israeli government. I believe that Princeton students have empathy for victims of genocide across the globe, but I also believe this empathy is more easily accessed when the issues are racialized and distant, and that less assimilated Americans suffer for the irredeemable actions of faraway homelands. Princeton students are just Princeton students, with varying degrees of personal and cultural connections to Israel. To bring this protest to the CJL, a second home for many Jewish students on campus, is to deny these students a sense of belonging, and to assert that Jewish students are not simply pro-Israel, but actively pro-genocide. The Princeton community has not yet learned to separate anti-Israelism from antisemitism.
As a Black Jew, the recent Kanye tweet hit hard, just like everything else Kanye has done in the last five or so years. He’s attained a unique pop culture status, allowed a pass for his antics due to twin diagnoses of bipolar disorder and genius. At a school overwhelmingly obsessed with the cultivation and worship of genius, that designation is not taken lightly. On October 11th, @barstoolprinceton, an Instagram account that highlights social culture at Princeton, and a direct affiliate of @barstoolsports, released a series of Kanye tweets in time for midterms, one of them an edited version of tweet below, which they later removed from the post. After an immediate influx of criticism, comments are now turned off.
I won’t try to dissect his message, but it does speak to me directly. It condones Jewish hate among Black people, and worse, to me, than that, it condones Jewish hate among white people, who believe Kanye’s claim that Black people can’t be antisemitic, despite the fact that Kanye has aligned himself with white supremacy for years. The tweet grants non-Jewish people asylum for antisemitism, abusing Blackness in order to give white fans a pass to regurgitate his sentiments. Statements like these split me in two, implying that, way deep down, all Black people are Jewish, but what about me, who’s Jewish half the time.
At times like this, the campus Jewish community brings me little warmth, let alone joy. At Passover, I raise wine with peers that write against everything I believe in, and I don’t have it in me to engage in the good-willed, passionate debate championed by Jewish traditions of discourse and self-satisfied moderates.
I’ve never been in the in-group, for as long as I’ve lived. When I was little, my mom’s best friend tried to teach me how to roll my neck “like a Black person,” but I rolled my neck like a Jewish person, and she laughed at me. Here, I feel guilty for getting a tattoo, because even though G-d made me perfect, after being somebody’s first Black girl, I felt like I needed to make me mine again.
My connection to Judaism involves a lot of compromise; I allow myself to bend the rules because the rules apply to me differently. Despite how perfect I was made, I cannot be responsible for unteaching myself the ugly things I’ve been called and the ugly ways I’ve been treated. I don’t fast because I’d like it too much, and might see it as a way to get more perfect. I have to sift the hate out of Judaism where I can, the hate I have for myself, the hate other people have for us, and the hate I identify in certain Jewish communities directed toward women or Palestinians or Black people. For as long as Princeton seethes with antisemitism and prioritizes Jewish circles that refuse to recognize and embrace intersectionality, my Jewish home will always be far away, at the Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles, in some unexpected corner of Zion, or some imagined place preserved in folktales, real, if you haven’t lost the ability to fly.