Do you want to be an ally in these times? Let the world think you’re Jewish

Screenshot of social media video of protests outside Café Landwer in downtown Toronto.

There’s a 1972 episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that addressed antisemitism. Mary makes a new friend who turns out to be a big ol’ hater of Jews (as opposed to Phyllis, who is merely anti-Rhoda-specifically). Mary claps back, as it were, by letting the friend know that she can’t go to the private no-Jews club either because guess what, she’s Jewish as well. Which, of course, she is not. She’s just Rhoda’s best friend, and a good person.

Mary Richards, Jewish? The audience is meant to find this absurd, an act of solidarity from the most gentile lady that ever there was. Or are they? It’s not as if Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda Morgenstern, was any more Jewish than Mary Tyler Moore. Anyone can be Jewish, so why not Mary?

There’s been some discussion lately about how to be an ally to Jews at this time. Tablet published a guide from a non-Jewish perspective. At this point virtually every conversation I’ve had with a non-Jewish friend or acquaintance in the past couple weeks has begin with them asking me if I’m OK. I’m reassured that there are people who, despite not being Jewish themselves, are horrified.

Here is what would, I believe, be the most effective:

Be publicly Jewish-seeming. That is, be publicly willing to be confused for someone who is. Do an I-am-Spartacus and with whichever signifiers you choose (an Israeli flag or Jewish-specific bio emoji; a mezuzah; a sign saying ‘this is a Jewish-owned business’ even though it’s not; a star-of-David necklace) and let the haters assume they hate you, too. Eat in a Jewish restaurant, not because your heritage demands it but to put yourself in the line of antisemitism.

Ah, you might say, but isn’t this cultural appropriation? Jewface, even? Honestly? Who cares. There are much bigger concerns. I just read about a Detroit synagogue president, Samantha Woll, killed in front of her house. Police have said there’s no evidence of a hate crime, but I am nevertheless thinking, because how would I not be thinking this: Was a 40-year-old woman, not that far from Toronto, just killed for being prominently Jewish, and if so, where does that leave a 40-year-old editor at The Canadian Jewish News?

I’m wondering whether I can send my kid to school pyjama day in the Hanukkah set, or if that’s an unnecessary risk, while at the same time tempted to go around in Hanukkah pyjamas myself, because I want people to know that if they know me (in day-to-day life; if you know me for my writing in The CJN, there is no mystery) and don’t want me dead, then well, anyway. I think of all the Ukrainian flags I’ve seen in the neighbourhood—not a Ukrainian neighbourhood—and wonder what would happen to a house that put up an Israeli one because you sure aren’t seeing that.

At any rate I’m not even asking anyone to put on a performance of being Jewish, but to just go a bit out of their way to risk the possibility someone might think they were. It’s not the same as blackface, because, as we have established, anyone can be Jewish. Nor is it asking anyone to claim a religious affiliation other than the one they hold—the Jewish people are not just a religion, and some of us aren’t even believers. And! I’m not even asking anyone non-Jewish to say they’re Jewish. Just to wear the Hanukkah pyjamas and let others assume accordingly.

I now regularly walk past a flyer on my street with one of those concert-bombing parachutes on it. Always a nice thing to see, while pushing a stroller with one’s Jewish child in it. Do I take the flyer down? Do I want to be seen (or, because modern times, filmed) doing this? I find myself thinking that if my entire family were murdered, there would be takes along the lines of, Actually, if you zoom out and look at the big picture, it was worth it to draw attention to the Palestinian cause.

And it’s not even a your Jewish friends are not OK because, while we are not, it already goes beyond this, even without my little allyship experiment. If your partner and/or kids are Jewish, if you or your kid does activities at a JCC, if you sometimes eat at a ‘Mediterranean’ restaurant, etc., then in this climate, you too could be Jewish enough to be, as they say, impacted.

So let the world think you’re Jewish. If you are Jewish, you don’t have much choice, but if you’re not, and see yourself as an ally, give it a whirl. I suppose I’m asking this mainly of white people, who are not already baseline harassed in society for being racialized, but anyone who wants to participate is in, as far as I’m concerned.

What I want now, even more than back-channel, behind-closed-doors words of support, is to see a bunch of ordinary people saying, you come for Jews, you’re coming for me.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.