White Supremacy in Unexpected Places: An Interview with Shani Kartané
Written by Robin Kopf
Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
Shani Kartané was an editor for Leviathan and graduated in 2012. They now work as a second grade teacher in Oakland, California. They chose to discuss white supremacy in Leftist Jewish spaces and how privilege plays a role in the political reception of people of color, including Jews of color.
Robin Kopf: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Shani Kartané: I was editor from 2010, or 2009, for like a year and a half to two years, and I took it in a new direction. [Leviathan] had previously been a magazine-y, newspapery type format and I helped it become a sort of artsy-fartsy, literary chapbook.
RK: Oh, that’s really interesting.
SK: I had been studying cultural anthropology and Jewish studies and I felt that there wasn’t enough base for fine arts in the current setup [in Leviathan]. So, we had a couple of pages in color. The covers were a really big deal, and I think probably every Leviathan editor would say this, but I feel that I made it a little bit more political. I don’t know what’s going on at UCSC these days, but at the time there was no sort of space for Jews who were angry with Israel, from whatever side of the Zionist spectrum, either anti-Zionist, [or] Zionist but angry at Israel. There wasn’t really a space for us to congregate. Hillel was a really pro-Israel, Zionist place and there was not a lot of room for other ideas. And then I could have joined the Committee for Justice in Palestine, and I wanted to join, but I wanted to do something Jewish [as well]. So that’s how I came into Leviathan with this idea of creating a space for dialogue that was not represented in the current climate.
I myself am culturally Jewish these days. I don’t go to shul. My dad is Israeli [and] not religious at all. My mother is from New York, raised Conservadox, [and] not really religious these days at all. [My] grandmother is Orthodox, [and was] in Europe at the time of the Holocaust and escaped. I grew up Conservative, I attended [a] Conservative shul and went to Hebrew school. After [my] Bat Mitzvah, [I] kind of dropped [Judaism], aside from going to seder at grandmas in New York once a year. In college, I kind of revisted my Jewishness from this more academic and journalistic perspective and got really, really, really into modern Jewish literature. So, that’s [what] I majored [in]; I had a double major in cultural anthropology and Jewish studies and I was one of the first four Jewish studies majors ever at UC Santa Cruz.
RK: Where have you seen white supremacy in the Jewish community and what does it look like?
SK: So, I see it as sort of a two-pronged issue. On the one hand, there’s this issue that doesn’t really surprise me and that is the [ultra] Orthodox Jewish sort of overt racism. You know using terms like “shvartze” and such. And then on the other side, there’s this sort of scary thing that is surprising to me: covert racism in liberal Jewish lefty-ness. I’m more interested in the covert racism in the white Jewish liberal left than the [ultra] Orthodox Jewish overt racism because we in Santa Cruz, for the most part—I’m not in Santa Cruz anymore—but we in California are not really in touch with that kind of community, you know? There’s not that communication with that sort of Reform, Conservative community and [ultra] Orthodox communities. I’m more interested in what’s going on in the Left.
RK: What have you noticed about white supremacy in Leftists spaces? What does that look like?
SK: I mean when you go to shul and there is a person of color, many people [might] automatically think that that person is the help or a nanny. There’s not a general awareness that there are Jews of color, and when I say Jews of color, I mean black Jews or Latinx Jews. There is this idea that even white Jews should be considered people of color and that Jews should be included in racial justice activism. I don’t know if you’ve come across this idea that often times in Hillel, there’s like this mumbling and groaning like, oh my gosh the Left does not take Jewish people as seriously as people of color, which I think is just wrong and damaging to people of color — and that’s what I’m mainly concerned about. I think that the fact that Jewish people are white — that many Ashkenazi Jewish people are white — is actually something that we could use as white allies to stand up and say “we have a history of victimhood and today we are not [victims] anymore. We stand with you and alongside you.”
RK: I feel like Ashkenazi Jews have been a historically marginalized people and it makes you wonder how Ashkenazi Jews can be so racist knowing what they’ve been through. But maybe because it’s been so long, they don’t necessarily notice or they’re so on guard because of what happened that they are prone to not being welcoming of people that look different from them.
SK: Yeah and there was this article in the Times of Israel, it was really eye opening. This article was talking about what happened in Charlottesville about the anti-Semitic riots and [the article] dismissed the impact on people of color, especially Black Americans, and that there was this sort of silver lining in these riots and how that was that maybe after these riots, people on the Left [would] start taking anti-Semitism seriously.
RK: I think it’s still taken seriously by Jews in general, but not always by non-Jews. I’m also curious to know where you think white supremacy in Jewish, Leftist spaces started.
SK: I think in the Left there’s this tendency to think that if you are a victim, your story matters somehow more: privileging of victimhood. I do think we should be listening to victims of oppression and, in that, there’s this sort of oppression olympics, that like “oh, well you don’t know what it’s really like, I know what it’s really like and this is my story.” And I think what the Left needs to start doing, especially in the American Jewish Left, is instead of taking this position of victimhood, of “I know what it’s really like,” taking the position of an ally. What an ally really is is someone who stands up for the people that they pray for, but also lets them speak. So why was there this uproar after Charlottesville of progressive Jewish leaders and community members? And all this shit like “we matter too?” [I’m] like we already know that, why do we have to be the biggest loser? Why can’t we be this strong silent ally?
RK: So, there is white supremacy on the Left because Leftists Jews victimize themselves and they then ignore the narratives of people of color?
SK: I don’t think it’s just ignore, I think it’s a spectrum from ignore to consciously and actively silence. It goes from simple ignorance and misunderstanding to conscious and active silencing of other people. And it can happen in really subtle ways, like what I said before. I mean, this happens all the time. You might even be in synagogue and any person of color is considered or assumed to not be a part of the Jewish community. There are Jews of color, Latinx, Black, Asian Jews.
RK: What do you want people to know about what you think they can do?
SK: It’s time to call for Jews to understand and recognize their privilege and start learning what it means to be an ally. In the US, white Jews have a position of real power and we should recognize that, own it, and not feel guilty about it. White guilt is just this thing that definitely needs to go away — “white tears, I drink them for breakfast.” It’s time to wake up and understand that white Jewish people do not have the same experience of people of color in the United States.
RK: And that they should try to be better about it and listen to people’s stories.
SK: Yeah listen and actively lift up — that term lift up I shouldn’t use because it sort of automatically places one person in the position of power and it’s a nasty term to use. [We should] share and spread the stories of Jews of color like Sephardic Jews that are actually people of color and are experiencing racism on a day to day basis. Now I’m hearing my grandmother saying “never forget” and I think that term often gets conflated with the idea that anti-Semitism is never going away. And yeah, it’s a problem and we should deal with it, but I think “never forget” is a bigger message. It’s not “never forget what happened to the Jews” — because there were other groups of people whom the Nazis were [also] trying to exterminate.
RK: Thank you so much for being so receptive and having such good answers.