Author speaks on historical Jewish involvement in social justice
In keeping with the overarching social justice theme of the ’DEIS Impact celebration, the Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Program hosted author Penny Rosenwasser to share her thoughts regarding social justice and activism as it pertains to historically oppressed Jewish women. Rosenwasser, the author of Hope into Practice: Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite our Fears, discussed her work with a small group of students and professors at an event on Friday.
Growing up in 1950s Alexandria, VA, a town with a heavily white and Christian middle class population, Rosenwasser discussed how she faced internalized anti-Semitism. “I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. … I wanted to be cool like the Christian kids all around me,” she explained.
This anti-Semitism — which she stated was ingrained in her society — was apparent in her interactions with other children her age; when confronted with comments such as “Penny, you don’t look Jewish,” she told the audience that she was conditioned to reply with “thank you.” Reflecting on these past experiences, she remarked, “It was an indicator of the anti-Semitism that was in the air.” She added that her current role as a social justice activist stems from a need to reclaim her Jewish pride.
The conversation then shifted to Rosenwasser’s book, which is comprised of stories from ten Jewish women in the San Francisco Bay area, all of whom grew up in different regions and had different religious backgrounds and experiences. The main tie connecting these women, Rosenwasser noted, is that they all believed in having some sort of “personal pathology” as a result of their Jewish identity. These women, Rosenwasser added, soon realized through their meetings with each other that the problem was not within themselves; rather, it was “within the system of oppression: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, etc.”
Rosenwasser went on to argue that while historically oppressed groups may face fear in their daily lives as a result of past horrors and the uncertainty of future safety, it is crucial to recognize that these fears can be used to relate to others and to strive for social change and justice. She discussed the idea that “hurt people hurt people,” elaborating that historically traumatized people may project hate and fear onto other people, though it is crucial that this chain be broken. Rosenwasser argued that instead of using the Holocaust to define the experience of the Jewish people, it must be used to inform how Jewish people should behave toward other minority groups.
Rosenwasser’s discussion about using fear and past experiences of oppression to create a more just world proved especially fitting during the ’DEIS Impact celebration. From the University’s founding — Abram L. Sachar, the University’s first president, notably described Brandeis as “a host at last” — American Jews demonstrated their ability to escape discrimination and welcome and “host” others, as Rosenwasser had discussed in her lecture. “We need to take responsibility and not project the trauma that has happened to us onto another people, but instead use the plight of Jewish suffering to link us to anyone who is oppressed,” Rosenwasser argued. She added that justice is the idea that despite overwhelming fears, individuals can recognize humanistic traits of people from different backgrounds. In order to combat internalized anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression, she concluded, one must “choose justice” despite fear.