This piece was adapted from Eric K. Ward’s remarks during his acceptance of the Inspirational and Leadership Award at Moment’s 2023 gala.
My mom, who passed a little over a decade ago, used to tell me as I traveled around the Pacific Northwest and the country, often attending antisemitic meetings hosted by white nationalists, “The further away you are from home, the more well-behaved you should be—because I won’t be there to get you out of trouble.”
Now, you might wonder how, as a Black man, I was able to get into those meetings. I was able to because at the core of white nationalism is antisemitism. It’s not just a part of it—it is the core philosophy that drives that movement. But as I learned very quickly, the truth is that white nationalists didn’t bring antisemitism into our communities: They merely organized the antisemitism that already existed. Those many decades ago, traveling the backwoods of rural America and urban centers, I learned that there is no left-wing antisemitism. There is no right-wing antisemitism. There is merely antisemitism, and the ways different political formations and tendencies choose to consciously or unconsciously tap into it. There was another lesson as well: that by tackling antisemitism, we could inoculate our communities from an age-old conspiracy that conflates the complex problems and relationships of our society into a bigoted theory that Jews control the world and seek to destroy the human race.
Antisemitism has been used not only to attack the Jewish community but also non-Jewish communities. I think of mass killings here in the United States: The attacks on Latinos in El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, California; attacks on African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, and Buffalo, New York; and, of course, the attacks on the Jewish community in places like Pittsburgh and elsewhere. While certainly racism and xenophobia drove those mass shootings, at their core, each killer believed that they were waging a war against the Jewish community, and that we as Black people and immigrants were nothing more than puppets being pulled on the strings of our Jewish masters.
Antisemitism denies the legitimate grievances of marginalized communities in this country and flattens it to nothing more than a conspiracy to be ignored. This is why I’ve chosen to take on antisemitism, not as an ally, but as my own struggle: Black liberation, the right to live free from fear and bigotry in this country, cannot happen except through the liberation of all people—and that means taking antisemitism on headfirst.
We don’t make peace with our friends, we make peace with our enemies. And to make peace with our enemies means seeing each other’s humanity, even in the hardest moments. It’s essential, each and every day, to build these relationships before we get into moments of tension, before we are “in our feelings,” so that when we sit around the table, we understand we must stay at the table. It is a time for serious leadership, both in this country and outside the country.
Serious leadership models what it looks like to disagree and still be committed to moving forward together. Serious leadership builds a movement, a society, where everyone has the right to live, love, worship and work free from fear and bigotry. Serious leadership does not function as walking memes nor does it simplify things: Serious leadership brings complexity and nuance, and demands more information, not less. Our debates must strengthen democracy, not weaken it.
When I was a kid, we used to play a game called “If I Were.” If we were driving down the freeway and the brakes went out, what would we do? If we were at the zoo and the lion got out of the cage, what would we do? As kids, we would argue about what we would or wouldn’t do. The question that came up time and again was, if we were in the midst of the 1960 Civil Rights Movement, what would we do?
As kids we were full of bravado. We were sure about what we would or wouldn’t do, and we would argue. We didn’t understand the choiceless choices of our parents and grandparents, in the same way that it’s hard to understand the choiceless choices of those who found themselves in the midst of the Holocaust. That question, “What would I have done if I were?” has always haunted me.
Ten years ago, I realized I no longer had to wonder what I would do if civil rights were under threat. And I’m here to tell you, neither do you. I’m here to tell you, whatever it is you would have done in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement will be whatever you do when you finish reading this.
We are in a moment that isn’t about left or right or conservative or liberal or Democrat or Republican. It is a question of inclusion versus exclusion. It is about moving forward together or battling our way into disaster through silence. It is time for humanity to lean in together. If we only do one thing, let us stand in solidarity, even in disagreement, even on the hardest days. Through the pain and the horror and loss that is occurring in this world right now, in Israel and Palestine and elsewhere, let us commit to holding space where we can come together to disagree and to love.
And understand this: Through the hardest and the best days, I’ll continue to stand with you.
Featured image: Moment editor Sarah Breger, Ward, Judge Ellen Heller and Representative Jamie Raskin at Moment’s 2023 Benefit & Awards Gala.