2018 CSJO Conference Keynote by Jordi Shuster
Courage, Conviction, and Jewish Resistance
Good morning everyone! My name is Jordan Shuster. Many of you know me already, but in case I'm a new face and you didn't skim my bio, here's a little bit of background about me! I am graduating in three weeks from Drexel University with degrees in civil engineering and architectural engineering, and I actually just signed a job offer two days ago to work after I graduate at a civil engineering firm in my hometown of Philadelphia. I love to sing, to read, to pet dogs, and to eat! My true career goal is to be a beekeeping astronomer librarian dog-walker lyric soprano, but for now I suppose I'll stick engineering.
I have been coming to CSJO conferences for 9 years - since I was 13 - and have been involved in leadership roles for the past 7, from "alternate youth rep to the board" to "youth conference coordinator" to now, for the past two years, the "youth representative to the executive committee". And now I have the honor of being your keynote speaker! I'm particularly excited because as a member of the executive committee, I actually had a hand in naming this year's conference theme - "Courage, Conviction, and Jewish Resistance" - before even knowing that I would get this chance to speak on it.
This idea of "resistance" is one that I am certainly familiar with, in terms of my Judaism and in other aspects of my life. As a white, able-bodied, college-educated person living above the poverty line in a major U.S. city, I have more privilege than I know what to do with. But just like everyone here, my identity is more complex than that, and there are aspects of my life that are frequently met with resistance. Like all of us here, I am a secular Jewish person living in a climate where anti-Semitism still runs rampant. I am a woman who works as an engineer, which despite becoming a much more diversified field in the past few decades, is still undeniably male-dominated. I am a bisexual person repeatedly faced with the fact that even much of the queer community refuses to respect bisexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation, much less the rest of the world.
But as much as I'm faced with opposition for these aspects of my being, I am also fiercely proud. I've felt at home in the secular Jewish community since I was 5 years old. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be paving the way for more women to follow in my footsteps and join engineering and technical science fields without prejudice. And embracing my queer identity with abandon has completely changed how I live my life, from the friends I make to the content I enjoy to the activities I pursue after work. I face resistance for all of these aspects of my character, and I resist right back, just like my Jewish ancestors taught me to do. In fact, resistance seems to be a core part of what has molded us as a people. My friends and I always joke that the real basis of every Jewish holiday is: "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."
We celebrate that our ancestors were persecuted, but they resisted, and ultimately we survived as a people. And then we stuff our faces. But not every kind of resistance is the same. There are two distinct types of resistance that I want to discuss that we see over and over throughout time, not just in Jewish history but also in the history of countless persecuted minority groups. I think that when people think of courage and conviction and resistance, they largely think of Moses standing up to the Pharaoh to speak for his people or the Maccabees rising up against the Greeks or Mordechai and Esther scheming and acting to overcome Hayman's political power. And this type of resistance is crucial! When the status quo is unjust, it takes revolutionary thinking to overcome that status quo and force society into a more equitable tomorrow.
In some cases, this type of resistance is physical. Sometimes it's emotional. It's always hard. Otherwise it wouldn't be resistance. Sometimes this type of resistance puts members of the oppressed party in harm's way. Sometimes that may be necessary. However, I don't think that anyone is ever obligated or should be made to feel obligated to endanger themselves in the name of resistance. That must always be done on a purely voluntary basis, or else doesn't that become an oppressed group oppressing itself even further? If I, in the name of resisting anti-Semitism, pressure other Jews into risking their own physical well-being, am I not then becoming just one more force they have to resist? This type of resistance, that which involves overtly standing up to oppressive powers, requires delicate planning and strong leadership, lest it become counterproductive.
The other type of resistance - the one that I think is most often overlooked or not even considered to be resistance at all - is simply surviving. When someone's goal is to destroy you as a people, the greatest act of resistance is to do the opposite: to survive. During the Spanish Inquisition, countless Jews were forced to convert from Judaism or face expulsion from Spain. Many Jews chose to continue to practice their faith, but in secret, while pretending to convert in order to stay in the only home they'd ever known. This in itself was a massive act of resistance. They didn't have the power to rise up against their oppressors, so they did the next best thing that they could: continue to live their lives in the face of adversity, and live to pass on their legacy to the next generation.
People tend to unjustly criticize survivors who resisted by surviving rather than by rebelling. And it is true that history is truly made and changed by those who are willing and able to take a stand and fight for change. History glorifies Moses and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Marsha P. Johnson because they deserve to be glorified. But that does not make the accomplishment of a person who continued to live their life despite being stripped of their rights any less worthy of praise. Survivors of the greatest human tragedies in history are some of the strongest people in history. They faced their oppressors head on and had the courage and conviction to continue living, as well as they were able.
I could continue giving examples of times throughout history that Jews have been unfairly treated and have resisted, in either of the two ways I've described. In 1862, when General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11, which ordered the expulsion of all Jews in his military district, including portions of Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee, because he claimed that they were collectively responsible for the black market cotton trade, yet many Jews refused to be expelled. In 1913 when the lynching of the falsely-convicted Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia led to the rebirth of the KKK but also to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League by B'nai B'rith to combat discrimination against Jews. In 1943 when a Canadian gallup poll resulted in Jews being named the third most "undesirable" potential immigrants to the country, and again in 1946 when they came in second, and yet Canadian Jews still persisted in the face of this adversity. But listing every example of the injustices that we've faced and overcome would take much longer than I have with you this morning, and frankly would be a waste of time. Every single person here knows that we've faced troubles as a people.
And yet, I still hear that anti-Semitism doesn't exist today. I know this isn't true. I read and see stories of anti-Semitism with a frequency that alarms me. Just last year I drafted a statement for CSJO's social action committee about the anti-Semitism still occurring what feels like constantly. A bomb threat being sent to a Jewish community center; swastika graffiti found in my own progressive city of Philadelphia; the vandalization of a significant Jewish cemetery. The Anti-Defamation League released a statement last year that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 57% in 2017 - nearly 2,000 recordable accounts, according to their 2017 audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. In fact, this yearly audit, run since 1979, has been showing a downward trend, with recordable anti-Semitic acts decreasing steadily. Until the past two years, when we saw a 35% increase in 2016 and the 57% we saw last year. Looking at American politics, it's not surprising, though it can be disheartening, to see this trend.
While any high school statistics student can tell you that correlation does not imply causation, I do think it's safe to point out that since the beginning of this current presidential tenure, hate has been on the rise. Beyond the ADF's audit alone, we've seen a 250% increase in specifically anti-Semitic white supremacist activity on college campuses in the U.S. in the current academic year. When bigots are emboldened, the need for resistance skyrockets. We may not be facing blatant genocide anymore - thankfully - but that does not mean that we aren't facing resistance. Even when we're not facing blatantly anti-Semitic acts, there are anti-Semitic ideals ingrained into our culture. In April, Cardi B released her new album. I am all about supporting women rappers, so the day it dropped I was sitting down to listen. But I got about a minute into the third track and turned it off. I'm sure it wasn't meant with malice, but I don't really want to listen to music about how her "lawyer is a Jew." Just like when people say they got "Jew-ed" to describe how they got short-changed or cheated. It's probably not blatant hate, but something that they're so used to being okay that they even don't consider it. And so I want to focus now on a third type of resistance: education.
I firmly believe that it is not the duty of any minority group to educate their oppressors. But I also know that many challenges we face today are the results of ignorance, like I just described. And so we balance on a fine line of educating when we are able, out of obligation to ourselves, and not out of obligation to others. When I educate others on Jewish or queer or gender issues, I do so when I am able and when I deem it necessary. It is not for others to dictate to me when I have to act as the representative of my group for their education. I would never walk up to a person of color that I know and demand that they explain racism to me. It is up to that person to decide when they are willing to educate and to what extent and to whom. Also, some people are better suited to education than others! Most of the time, I am personally happy to educate, because as you can tell from the past few minutes, I love to hear myself talk. I like to think that I have valuable things to say, and I like to share them. I know that my experiences are unique to myself and to the cultural groups to which I belong, and that because I am able to share those experiences, I should.
I also speak out for other oppressed groups whenever appropriate. It is not enough to resist for just myself. When I started this speech I listed a number of the ways in which I experience privilege within this society. That privilege puts me in a unique position where other privileged people will listen to me. It honestly amazes me that so many people aren't willing to listen to certain minorities when they try to describe their inequality. Rather, they will only listen when it comes out of the mouths of their peers. This logic seems twisted, since they're then relying solely on second-hand sources. Why not shoot for a primary source if you have the opportunity? But nevertheless, often that is the case. And in that case, if we're clever, we might be able to trick them into listening at the source. What do I mean by this? It is great for me to speak in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and speak out against transphobia when I hear it. But what's even better is for me to use my privilege to make a space for oppressed groups to speak for themselves. I can resist alongside them by making it more possible for them to resist by speaking out rather than simply resisting by surviving.
While Jews are an incredibly diverse group of people, it is also true that the majority of us in North America are white and socioeconomically comfortable. This gives many of us, as Jews, a prime opportunity for resistance! Many of us are able to use our privilege in the exact way that I just described. By listening to affected communities and making space for them to speak, in the same way that we want others to do for us when we speak out about anti-Semitism. Often, a community will speak up so loudly for themselves that they are practically shouting, and yet everyone else refuses to hear them. And it is not until a majority group speaks out as well that anyone begins.
We can use our privilege to speak out when we see black Americans being treated unfairly by the police officers that are supposed to protect them. We can use our privilege to hold Justin Trudeau accountable for the promises he made to the First Nations people that he has now apparently completely forgotten about. We can use our privilege to remind the media that the majority black community in Flint, Michigan has now been without water for over four years, and that parts of Puerto Rico have not had electricity for 248 days. If we open the door for the discussion, we can then step aside and let everyone speak for themselves.
I've been speaking a lot about resistance, which is the part of this year's conference theme that stood out to me the most in terms of this speech. But I want to start wrapping up this discussion by talking about courage. Not necessarily courage that we muster specifically as Jews, but courage that goes hand in hand with our education of others. We cannot justify speaking out for any cause until we have the courage to self-reflect and address the ways in which we each contribute to systemic oppression. Just like others who are ignorant in their use of casual anti-Semitic phrases, many of us use slurs and make offensives references without even noticing. We must be willing to call ourselves out, and those we love. We have to have the courage to say "I've been wrong" and the conviction to truly commit to doing better.
Just like resistance, courage and conviction come in all shades. There is no one way to have courage, and there is no one way to show your conviction. Courage could mean standing up to an oppressor directly, by organizing protests. Or courage could mean continuing to practice your faith in secret after it has been outlawed because you are not willing to see it die. Holding firmly to your convictions in the face of adversity is something that requires a good amount of courage, and it is hard to muster your courage if you don't have a strong conviction towards your cause.
I hope that if you've gotten anything out of this speech this morning, it's the fact that courage, conviction, and resistance - as the conference theme suggests - are inextricably linked. And so I truly believe that once we have reached the point where are courage is high and our convictions are strong, we can truly start to resist, both for ourselves and for others. Resistance is a part of who we are as Jews. It's in our blood. It's in our history. We're still here because we never sat back and just accepted our lot. We worked for everything we got and we're still working today. It's unfair, but we don't focus on that because what's the point? Instead we pour our efforts into having courage, displaying conviction, and living in resistance, together .