Identity, Peoplehood, Religion

Reject racism, not Judaism

On December 13th, The Forward posted the incoherently titled, “Jews With Asian Heritage Pose Growing Identity Challenge to Jewish Establishment,” as an apparent attempt to deal with racism in the Jewish community. This is actually a much-needed discussion – our community remains stubbornly insistent that Jews are Ashkenazi, white, and from New York city, while the actuality is that Jews in America are a splendidly diverse group. The Jewish community is certainly not free of racism, not by any means:  whether it’s as blatant as Jews saying to other Jews, “But you’re X [black, Latino/a, Korean]; you’re not really Jewish!” or more subtle, in the sense of assuming white guests to be Jewish and synagogue guests or new comers to not be Jewish, or to question them about it before offering an aliyah, our communities still need to self-examine, and uproot with the racism we deal out and that we experience (because Jews of color are Jews and it’s their community too!).
But this article isn’t it.
I wish the Forward – which should know better- would distinguish between the “challenge” of actual racism (you’re not really Jewish because you don’t look white” or some variant of that) and the challenge of the fact that children whose mothers aren’t Jewish aren’t halachicly Jewish without conversion -regardless of their mother’s skin color.
Children whose mothers are Jewish and Asian (or anything else), or who have been converted to Judaism are Jewish. Not half-Jewish, not part Jewish. They. Are. Jewish. Anyone who says otherwise is violating Jewish law. Anything they are aside from that (Asian, Latino/a, African, Native American, Australian Aboriginal, whatever) is fine and has nothing to do with being Jewish or not being Jewish, and if they want to explore that heritage culturally, that’s awesome. And has nothing to do with their being Jewish or not.
People whose mothers aren’t Jewish and haven’t been converted is a different matter, and shouldn’t be lumped together with Jews of color who experience the particularly (and particularly ugly) racism of being told that x’s aren’t Jewish. Again, that’s not to say there isn’t racism inherent in people being more likely to ask the children of mothers who don’t look Ashkenazi whether they were converted or not, but the question of their Jewishness is a separate one.
Although the Reform and Reconstructionist movements assert the validity of patrilineal descent, this is a position rejected by the majority of the Jewish world – including the Reform movement outside the United States – and The Forward by assuming that such a position is the norm, rather than a rejection of it, by not making a distinction between a halachic position and one which is genuinely racist is being sloppy.
In fact, that’s precisely the point. By not making that distinction, the Forward is claiming a halachic position is essentially racism. It’s not. There’s no racial barrier (halachicly) to conversion, and describing this so-called “challenge” as if there is one is very very problematic. Either way, the writer MUST make that distinction. If they wanted to be clear about the Reform and Reconstructionist positions, then they should fully spell out that when people in the American branch of these movements fail to recognize patrilineality that’s a racism problem, but in Conservative and Orthodox movements that’s not what’s going on.

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