Jewish People and Black People Share Intergenerational Trauma, Which Makes Black Lives Matter a Jewish Issue, too.

When I was a kid, I accidentally wore my Jewish star necklace in a passport photo. My mom didn’t notice until after the photo was taken. That’s the first time I remember being told that some people hate Jews just for being Jews, and some countries would not let me in or out if they knew. Luckily, the passport photo was small enough that the necklace wasn’t visible.

MOTHER WITH BABIES, 1974, ROMAN HALTER

When I first started dating I asked my mom, “do I have to only date Jews?” Her response was that she’ll share what her mother told her: I didn’t have to only date Jews, but 6 million Jews died for being Jewish, which means Jewish family members were taken too soon. If I marry a Jewish person and have Jewish children, I would be doing a mitzvah (good deed.)

In High School, a classmate made a fake myspace profile of me named “Ingrid Jewburger” and talked about turning me into smoke. My family wasn’t surprised that someone could put that evil into the world and explained that this was a lesson about being cautious.

The Jews, collectively, have been in pain. In 2018, a gunman opened fire on the congregation at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jews while they were praying on Shabbos. The act of terror didn’t surprise me or start a new fear for me. Rather, it confirmed a fear that my ancestors had warned me about. It confirmed a fear that the Jewish people have always been training for. As anti semitism continues to rise in the US, many Jews have been asking themselves “will I know when it’s time to run?” and “Have I learned enough from my ancestors about what to look for?”

Just as my parents had explained to me, I find myself explaining to my convert husband to make sure our passports are always up to date and to do our best to have emergency money tucked away. This planning is a trauma response triggered by the intergenerational trauma that holocaust surviving grandparents passed on to their children, and which was then passed on to their grandchildren.

Two nights a year, we gather around a table with our family and read a story about when Jews were slaves in Egypt. We recline with comfort and cushions while taking stock of our privilege. There are so many stories that include “and they tried to kill the Jews.” That’s the knowledge that we carry with us wherever we go. Crises where Jews were enslaved or forced to flee their homes have been traced back for over 2000 years, and Jewish tradition influences us to continuously remember and reflect on the tragedies and oppression our people have survived. Our traditions frame our history as resilient.

Learning about the trauma we inherit from our parents and grandparents teaches values in anti-bigotry because it exposes us to the fact that even small acts of anti semitism can have dangerous systematic implications. There is a concept in Judaism called Tikkun Olam, which translates to “repair the world.” Tikkun Olam is the motivation behind much of Jewish giving and social activism, because responsibility is on both the Jewish individual and on the Jewish people as a unified community to do good for this world. Along that same logic, Jewish people can’t be separated from the bad behavior of individual Jews. There’s an understanding among Jewish communities that when one Jewish person acts badly, it creates risk for hatred of all Jews. Just look back at the scandal of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. His crimes served as a “lighting-rod for anti-semitism,” fueling harmful stereotypes that date back to biblical times, encouraging “acceptable” Jewish bias. Our actions speak on behalf of many and have lasting impact, so we must work to be good to the world so the world sees the Jewish people as good.

Image by Adam Garvey

16 year old, Adam Garvey, understands Tikkun Olam as a direct call to support Black Lives Matter because “standing up against injustice is a huge part of Jewish values.” Garvey understands that policy change and being vocal against bigotry is positive representation of Jewish core beliefs. He’s using his statement “Tikkun Olam means Black Lives Matter” to raise funds for the NAACP.

As protests soar across the US (and the world,) it’s undeniable that white consciousness of racial injustice is growing. The similarities between Black trauma and Jewish trauma are palpable. Black people demand we Say Their Names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade as they mourn over the same sentiment that Jews have expressed, that they’re not surprised but rather tired and rightfully angry.

In Jewish history, numbers hold symbolic value. Romans destroyed a Jewish temple and the oil menorah burnt miraculously for eight nights. Jews wandered the desert displaced for 40 years. Six million Jews were tortured and murdered during a holocaust, creating a need for the word “genocide.”

The history of racism against Black people has some astounding numbers, too. 246 years of slavery in America. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Black mothers are 3.2 times more likely to die during childbirth than white mothers. Jews can be racist against other Jews, too. In Israel, 90% of Ethiopian Jewish youth convicted by the court were sentenced to imprisonment, compared to one-third of other Jewish youth. Racial Trauma plagues a community when they have to gather statistical data about their race being systematically and lethally oppressed to prove theres is a national and system-wide problem, while simultaneously having to demand to be treated as a person and not a number. Monnica T. Williams, PhD, ABPP says racial trauma is the reason why people of color have a higher rate of PTSD than white Americans.

The fear Jews hold is internalized because our intergenerational trauma has trained us that we always need to exercise a degree of censorship on our Jewishness, to protect us from possible anti semitism. It’s as little as knowing I shouldn’t wear a star of David necklace in a passport photo and the thought that if the wrong person knew we were Jewish, they might come after us, too.

The keyword in knowing that Jews experience oppression differently than Black people is “too,” as we are reminded every day that Black lives are stolen at a disproportionate rate while white Jews benefit from our privilege. Our own internalized fear makes racial injustice feel so personal, especially if you’re a Black Jewish person who has to navigate the fear of anti semitism, racial injustice at a national scale, AND micro-aggressions from your own Jewish community. Addressing these differences are instrumental within activism for policy change because they afford white Jews privilege that can be used to uplift Black people, which includes Black Jews. We may all share similar fears about white supremacy, but we have unequal power in social agency.

Judaism could be considered a religion and a culture, with a geopolitical force. Diaspora (which Black people have also experienced in their history,) created a racially diverse Jewish people, which has made the Jewish community torn on whether anti semitism is racism. Intergenerational oppression has occurred differently for Jewish people than Black people and other people of color, as many of us are able to walk in public without being detected as Jews. At the same time the media was quick to blame Jewish people for the spread of Covid, someone explained to me, “I didn’t know you were Jewish! You don’t look Jewish!”

Jewish people can be riddled with fear, planning for the next time we have to run from something, and yet so many of my friends have told me they’d like to be Jewish. I find myself repeatedly explaining to my convert husband that we need to have exit strategies, just in case. While Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song plays for laughs sandwiched between sets of a dozen Christmas jingles: “All Jewish people are funny and rich!” with no recognition that there’s lifelong planning to feel safe as a proud Jew in the world.

When I first saw white people sharing the compassionate quote, “I understand that I’ll never understand, but I stand with you,” I felt like I did have some understanding. After some self-reflection, I recognized that though I was taught to be alert for signs of anti semitism, it doesn’t compare to a black mother training her black child how to talk to those who protect and serve not to shoot you for existing.

I can acknowledge my privilege and that I benefit from racism as a white person, while also understanding that as a Jewish person, I experience forms of oppression.

Many well-meaning Pittsburghers shared a Pittsburgh Strong Jewish graphic after the Tree of Life shooting, yet I’m still meeting people who think I’m the first Jewish person they’ve ever met. It makes me wonder, is anti semitism less of a threat than racism or is the violence labeled less as a hate crime because who knows the face of a Jew? I’m still trying to understand this phenomena, but I think it speaks to a level of privilege that allows me to censor my Judaism to protect me from the dangers of anti semitism.

We have a reoccurring joke in my house: When examining the Torah or Jewish history, the Jews are always being hunted. “What a surprise!” one of us will exclaim. “Haman wanted all the Jews dead!” I can understand that there’s no humor in a sarcastic joke like that for Black people, when white Jewish people have a dark history of minstrel shows and blackface. Though Jewish and Black people have experienced similar crises and oppression, white Jews have to own up that we’ve used our privilege to keep Black people down in social equity.

At the height of my fear in 2018, I wrote “There are times where the world seems so small, but in these times of crisis it feels gigantic. It feels scary and unpredictable. Each time someone sings a song of peace or a Jew leaves their house even though they’re scared, the world gets smaller and more comfortable again.”

For Black people mourning lives that shouldn’t have been taken, there is no place proven to be safe for them. They’re pulled from their cars, held down and suffocated in the streets, and shot while they’re sleeping in bed.

For Jews, we call on our ancestors to teach us how to stay safe.
Molly S. Castelloe Ph.D. says, “Transgenerational transmissions take on life in our in dreams, in acting out, in ““life lessons”” given in turns of phrase and taught us by our family. Discovering transmission means coming to know and tell a larger narrative, one from the preceding generation.” We read the Torah or listen to our grandparents for experiences on how to protect ourselves when people come for us. Black crisis is happening right now, in front of our eyes, relentlessly for more than 400 years. While our plight has similar themes from diaspora to micro-aggression, it is not the same. They’re not holding life lessons from their parents and looking out for a possibly dangerous white person that they may encounter. Hundreds of years of consistent community crises at a universal, unconditional level means that there are no trustworthy white people.

Internalized and intergenerational trauma gives Jewish people the unique ability to transfer our learned coping to lift up Black folks. Since Jews have experienced similar community violence and oppression across generations, we have the tools to educate white people about racism so that Black people don’t have to carry that labor. We have an understanding of mourning the result of large-scale hatred, so we can hold space and take on some of the work. All the while, we must recognize that Black people who are also Jewish carry the weight of thousands of years of this trauma, without specific hashtag activism to support support them.

White Jews owe black people reparations because we’ve had a hand in racism and have benefited from it. White Jews should be a source of compassion and a proponent of social change in support of all Black people with direct donations, emotional energy, and sharing the intergenerational healing we’ve learned from our story-telling traditions. Tikkun Olam DOES mean that not only do Black Lives Matter, but that any other viewpoint is against Jewish ethics and therefore, a Jewish issue.

The Case Against Trigger Warnings

TW: This piece may contain material that is upsetting or offensive to some audiences.

On the Origins of the Trigger Warning

Trigger warnings (TWs) on the Internet began as an earnest, potentially useful way to give audiences a heads up before delving into serious issues like rape, eating disorders, or domestic violence. This way, individuals who may not be emotionally prepared for that kind of discussion (generally victims themselves) could safely, comfortably dip out when necessary, for self-preservation. Simply, the early TW was a refreshing dose of online empathy for those battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Even so, the effectiveness of TWs for people with PTSD remains to be seen, but we’ll come back to that. Trigger warnings were assigned to a fairly narrowly defined set of subject matters, and, in fact, were borne out of the feminist blogosphere.

But as its usage has evolved and expanded over time, it’s been rendered, at worst, condescending, infantilizing, and anti-intellectual and, at best, meaningless. Trigger warnings have infiltrated an ever broader scope of subject matters, they’ve popped out of online forums and into university classrooms, and the definition of “trigger” itself has become a catch-all for things that may cause discomfort and/or not align with our belief system. These days, the TW is doing more harm than good.

Overkill

Many opposed to trigger warnings have argued they’re a grand, exhausting exercise in political correctness, an attack on the final remains of our oh-so-endangered (Gasp) FREEDOM OF SPEECH! A) Yawn. B) How many people who make this unoriginal, misguided argument could accurately define “freedom of speech”? That’s rhetorical. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

I’m not bothered by TWs because of their PC nature, but rather because I believe—assuming they ever were—they are no longer serving their intended purpose. And in the meantime, they are stifling our ability to have complex conversations about difficult subjects.

In their well-intentioned quest to protect the emotionally vulnerable, they have, at once, politicized mental health and  protected the easily offended from critical thinking.

Let’s take, for example, academia.

Dr. Mark Neumann is a professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication. He believes some students use triggers warnings as a means to “[…]object to hearing something they disagree with, something that might challenge their world view.” “I’m not here to insulate you from ideas,” he says, “Faculty don’t choose course material because they’re trying to harm or upset. They choose material because they believe it illustrates a point worth making and discussing. It’s a disservice to students to create an environment that’s entirely comfortable.”

He offers up a report on trigger warnings, published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) last year. The report, he says, is representative of his own views.

The authors write, “Institutional requirements or even suggestions that faculty use trigger warnings interfere with faculty academic freedom in the choice of course materials and teaching methods.” They question the ethics and effectiveness of taking away a level of autonomy from educators.

The AAUP report reads:

There are reasons, however, for concern that even voluntary use of trigger warnings included on syllabi may be counterproductive to the educational experience.  Such trigger warnings conflate exceptional individual experience of trauma with the anticipation of trauma for an entire group, and assume that individuals will respond negatively to certain content.  A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had, focusing them on one aspect of a text and thus precluding other reactions.  Trigger warnings thus run the risk of reducing complex literary, historical, sociological and political insights to a few negative characterizations.  By calling attention to certain content in a given work, trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g., dismay, distress, disapproval), and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.   Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.

Under this far-reaching, broadly-defined idea of a “trigger,” students are given permission to opt out of discussion for the sake of comfort. “Being unwilling to confront some other idea that isn’t your own—that’s not PTSD,” says Neumann. There is a distinct difference between those suffering from PTSD and those who are opposed to new perspectives, but he fears the culture of TWs has blurred the line.

Worse yet, TWs allow students to leave class simply because they can. A friend of mine observed this in a graduate-level course at NAU. His professor provided a trigger warning for a conversation about rape. “Half the class, mostly skater bros, left. They started laughing as soon as they got into the hallway,” he says.

Neumann says, “I don’t know what students are going through, or what their past looks like, but memory is very associative, and I cannot try to anticipate for a class of 375 students what will be triggering to any one student. It could be a song, a smell, any number of things. Nobody is saying, ‘Well, fuck the people who have PTSD,’ but mandating a policy on [trigger warnings] opens the door to a lot of things. The spirit of trigger warnings is empathy, but what’s the scope of that? That’s where it becomes a problem.” Essentially, TWs could very well be accidentally inviting willful ignorance into institutions meant to represent the very antithesis of ignorance.

Some faculty, however, do use TWs voluntarily in the classroom. Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor of English at Colby College, contributed an opinion piece to the New Republic wherein he argued that both students and professors need trigger warnings. Faculty across the nation remain divided on the issue.

But the authors of the AAUP report write, “The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD,” a medical condition for which TWs are an “inadequate” and “diversionary” response. Perhaps then, the Internet is no better of a home for TWs.

The Psychology

In clinical psychology, trauma triggers refer to anything that causes a person to experience flashbacks from a traumatic event in their life. Triggers will often cause people to again feel intense emotions that they felt at the time of the original trauma. Trauma triggers are associated with PTSD sufferers.

Trauma triggers are, by definition, rare. A 2001 study in Biological Psychiatry found that while trauma is a common human experience, developing PTSD from it is far rarer. The authors surveyed 2,181 adult subjects, finding that 89.6% had experienced a form of trauma, but just 9.2% developed PTSD. That said, among survivors of sexual assault, PTSD is markedly more common, but many rape survivors who meet the symptomatic criteria for PTSD immediately following trauma will recover from these symptoms within months. A study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress examined 95 survivors of rape or attempted rape, and found that while 94% met criteria for PTSD roughly two weeks after the trauma, that number dropped to 47% by roughly three months after the trauma.

“So what if a comparatively small portion of the population suffers from PTSD? It takes so little time and effort to throw out a #TW. Just because they are few doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protection!” I hear you, empathetic Tumblr user I made up. I really do.

But a famous study by the Institute of Medicine found confronting trauma triggers is more effective than avoiding them. In fact, avoidance of triggers can actually exacerbate symptoms of PTSD. Moreover, making trauma a central part of one’s identity—something TW culture may aid in—has negative effects on mental health. In other words, hypersensitivity to triggers may very well be more harmful to a PTSD sufferer than helpful.

Miri Mogilevsky disagrees. Her opinion piece for Daily Dot details how she, as a trauma survivor, engages in complex, but positive ways with trigger warnings online. She doesn’t always use them to opt out of reading triggering material, but rather to emotionally prepare herself for the material. Mogilevsky resents the “You must be exposed to triggers in order to overcome them” argument against TWs, believing it is arrogant, ersatz concern for a survivor’s well-being. She feels TWs help put her in control of her own mental health.

Mogilvesky writes, “In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma—the ones that get triggered by things—are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare ‘instead’ of asking for trigger warnings.”

Neumann responds, “Suddenly now she’s the spokesperson for [PTSD] because she has anecdotal examples? I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it as the end-all-be-all.”

Her story does capture perfectly what the trigger warning was intended to do. It’s functional. I get it. I like it.

But the problem remains: Trigger warnings have become so widely used and in so many contexts that they currently cause far more problems than they solve.

So what’s your point?

Trigger warnings have outlived their original intended function and, subsequently, their greatest potential for good. A friend asked me, “Is over-sensitivity a crime? Isn’t life shitty enough? Why can’t we live life in bubbles?” I wondered, too. Is it really a problem if people are extra sensitive? Does long-term exposure to difficult subject matters really make us healthier, more open-minded, more free-thinking people? In short, the answer is yes. The general consensus of the scientific community is that empathy is a function of exposure.

In the case of the skater bros leaving class simply because they were given permission to, the TW was detrimental. Here, exposure to a meaningful conversation about rape might have otherwise incited some empathy.

So, how do we handle triggers? Some have suggested that instead of using “trigger warning” we use “content warning.” I’m not so convinced that a small shift in semantics would settle this one. But I’m also not convinced that saying, “Life’s triggerin’, baby, and that’s the way it’s gonna be” would settle it either. It might just be time to re-evaluate the meaning and function of  trigger warnings by untangling the increasingly intertwined meanings of the words “triggered” and “offended.”