The Role of Jewish Identity and Activism at Beacon

By Ariella Moses & Tali Lebowitsch

Since the Beacon United Unions (BUU) formed, questions about the role that the Jewish Student Alliance (JSA) plays within the organization has generated intense controversy. Many have criticized the JSA’s involvement in a movement that least impacts their demographic. This movement was founded to address recent racism within Beacon’s administration and student body. The polarization within the student body regarding the validity of the JSA having a place within the movement has inspired larger questions about the nuances within the experiences of different student minority groups and who has the right to speak to those experiences.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of Judaism within this narrative became more complicated when the student whose comments led to the sit-in was consistently described in the New York Post as “a white Jewish girl.” The news publication made a point to highlight the student and the guidance counselors’ Judaism, as one line stated, “Friday’s protest was set off by allegedly ‘racist remarks’ that a black student claimed he overheard a white Jewish girl make in a confidential meeting Tuesday with two white Jewish guidance counselors.” The publication, by purposefully singling out the students as “black” or “white and Jewish,” creates a narrative of two “minorities” pitted against each other. Therefore, the inclusion of JSA within the alliance was symbolically significant, as it showed that the Jewish students at Beacon were fighting against that narrative and showing solidarity with people of color at Beacon. 

In response to the prevalence of mentioned Judaism within the post article, a student who prefers to remain anonymous stated “it’s really hard to watch this happening because it feels as though the Post is deliberately pitting two bodies against one another and there’s not much we can do.” 

In conversation, however, a non-JSA member and Beacon student claimed “I actually believe that it is extremely important that JSA got involved with the sit-in; the club’s involvement demonstrates their solidarity for the movement… they’re making a statement.”

Furthermore, some of the student body felt uncomfortable over the choice to have JSA lead an activity on the day of the sit-in. Students even approached JSA members as they were leading the workshop to express their concern. Considering that this was a day entirely devoted to confronting the underlying racism present within the Beacon Community, students felt that a workshop led by a group of white students was unproductive and counter-intuitive. However, following the workshop, many students noted that the JSA-led activity had been well-organized and that the leaders appeared aware of their difference in experience as white students and had accordingly not over-stepped when addressing discimination at Beacon. In fact, the alliance had made the decision to not even mention Judaism at all, focusing instead on the role of stereotyping and its implications within the Beacon environment, a discussion many found productive and stimulating. 

Members of the Jewish Student Alliance lead an activity during the sit-in (Photo by Jeremy Weine)

The debate over the validity of JSA’s presence in an organization created to combat  discrimination brings up questions about the larger role of Judaism when discussing minority experiences within America. Since 2016, antisemitism has been constantly on the rise, as displayed through the many anti-semitic attacks on synagogues and other places of worship, as well as a general increase of anti-semitic sentiments in correlation with a rise of white supremacy within America. While for a long time the distinction between Jewish people and all white people had appeared virtually obsolete, the rise of these anti-semitic sentiments has re-established Judiasm as a minority group that is also treated accordingly. However, the majority of Jewish people in America are white, and disproportionately upper/middle class in relation to the rest of America’s population. This makes anti-semiticism inherently distinct from racism, and makes the question of how to address it more complex. 

Should Judaism be treated just like any other minority group? What role does Judaism play in a discussion over minority experiences in America? Is all discrimination the same? What is the difference between race-based discrimination and religion-based discrimination? These are questions that we do not know the answer to but have grappled with through the course of writing this article and in much of our lives. In truth, we have many conflicting and contradicting ideas surrounding the topic, ones we know will take a long time to figure out for ourselves. All we do know is that this event has triggered a significant dialogue, one that is important for people to talk about and work through if any progress is to be made.