Identity, Justice

“Diversity" Won't Challenge Jewry's Role in White Supremacy

Jews of Color National Convening on May 1-3 in NYCJewschool is proud to be a media partner for the first ever Jews of Color National Convening on May 1-3 in NYC and to host this series written by Jews of color about their movement for greater racial justice within and by the American Jewish community. These articles represent their authors and may not reflect the views of sponsoring organizations. Read the full series here.

[pullquote align=right] Would a more diverse congregation have prepared our white, liberal, and colorblind community to address the realities of racism for Jewish youth of color like myself?
[/pullquote]In addition to my own mother, “Linda” was the only other Asian American woman at the Reform synagogue I grew up attending. It was a friendly, liberal, and white Jewish space in our affluent New England suburb, a space where I often felt welcome while always, at some level, aware that I could count the number of people of color in our synagogue on one hand. That didn’t stop my indomitable mother from becoming more and more invested in our Jewish community. But amidst her drive and commitment to her adopted community was a twinge of cynicism: when she became our temple’s president, she joked that she only did it so that people would finally stop confusing her with Linda.
I wonder — would our temple peers have been better able to decipher my mother’s “foreign” face  if there were simply more of us? Would a more diverse congregation have prepared our white, liberal, and colorblind community to address the realities of racism for Jewish youth of color like myself? To prepare my youth leader to unpack why El Al security singled me out for questioning during my 9th grade trip to Israel? Or to provide my white Jewish peer with the language with which to challenge the Hasidic man who questioned her of my presence on our flight there?
[pullquote align=left] “Diversity” means people of color can be included in white-dominated spaces, so long as we don’t rock the boat.
[/pullquote]It’s been six years since I left my childhood synagogue. During that time, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to the language and lens with which to unpack my childhood experiences of inhabiting a racialized Asian body in predominantly white and/or white Jewish spaces. During that time, I’ve had the honor to learn, build, and organize with other Asian Americans and other communities of color in movements for racial justice. Relatedly, in those six years I’ve rarely re-entered Jewish spaces outside of my family, and when I do it is with the trepidation with which one dips a toe into a potentially frigid pond.
It’s with that same trepidation that I approached a friend’s suggestion to get involved with Jews for Racial Economic Justice (JFREJ). But when I learned that JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus was building a space by and for Jewish people of color, a space closed to our white Jewish allies, however well-meaning, my interest was piqued. I hoped I had finally found a space in which I could inhabit my multiple diasporic, marginalized, and misunderstood identities — free from judgement, exotification, or tokenization.
[pullquote align=right] This is why I question the value of diversity for diversity’s sake in the Jewish community.[/pullquote]I found a community I’m proud to be a part of. JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus (and our overlapping Mizrahi and Sephardi Caucus) is doing the important work of challenging our Jewish communities to move beyond the language of diversity and inclusion. Such language, as Kyra at Model View Culture writes, is dangerous because it prevents oppression from being named and challenged and thus allows it to be perpetuated. “Diversity” means people of color can be included in white-dominated spaces, so long as we don’t rock the boat. Diversity might have meant more people like my mother and Linda joining my childhood synagogue, but it wouldn’t mean questioning why members of that community were socialized to see their faces as indistinguishable in the first place.
What I hear when people of dominant identities talk about diversity is this: “we” will allow “you” into our spaces. But we will not change the way we operate. This is the guise of multiculturalism, the system that allows a black man to ascend to the presidency but nonetheless continues to systematically degrade and destroy black lives. Multiculturalism couches the affirmative action debate in how diversity benefits white students, rather than in terms of reparations owed to the descendents of those on whose labor and land the country’s most storied institutions of higher education were built. Multiculturalism has two Latino Republican presidential candidates insulting each other’s Spanish skills while debating who would deport more immigrants if elected. It is a system that here in New York City allowed a black District Attorney and a Korean judge to provide leniency for a Chinese NYPD officer found guilty of shooting and killing an unarmed black man in the stairway of a public housing unit. Multiculturalism allows us to climb the ranks within a system that continues to oppress us; it is an olive branch of upward mobility that obscures the possibility of liberation; it is white supremacy operated by black and brown faces.
[pullquote align=left] The relatively marginalized position of Jews does not erase the reality of Jewish participation in white supremacy.
[/pullquote]This is why I question the value of diversity for diversity’s sake in the Jewish community. As Jews living in the United States, we are constantly bombarded with the messages and mechanics of white supremacy, messages which those of Ashkenazi European descent are most susceptible to internalizing and reproducing. In a racist society, especially for those able to access the privileges and power of whiteness, there is no such thing as neutrality. That is why this week’s Jews of Color National Convening challenges predominantly white Jewish communities and institutions to do more to interrogate their complicity with the U.S. and its racist power structure.
To do so means having tough conversations about the historically tenuous relationship between Jews and whiteness in the United States. Yes, the foundations of power in this country are solidly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, and it is within living memory that explicitly anti-Semitic scientific racism, eugenics, and immigration laws dictated popular thought and public policy here in the US. But the relatively marginalized position of Jews in the United States does not erase the reality of Jewish participation in the processes of white supremacy. We must make space for the contradictions of Jewish histories of trauma, displacement, and genocide with the realities of Jewish American experience. Once slaves in the land of Egypt, as our Passover tradition teaches, Jewish Americans participated in — and profited from — American enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendents. Once confined to the tenements and slums of the Lower East Side, today some of New York City’s most notorious “slumlords” are members of our Jewish community. Once a people yearning for a home, the American Jewish lobby now funds Congress’s near-unflinching support of the Israeli government — no matter how heinous its violence and displacement against Palestinians becomes.
[pullquote align=right] My rejection of diversity for its own sake is a rejection of this invitation.
[/pullquote]I admire my mother’s tenacity and her ability to thrive, and lead, in spaces in which she is “the only one.” But it’s an ability that I don’t possess, nor one that I wish to. I believe my apprehension in entering Jewish spaces is justified: I’m simply not interested in being included in Jewish spaces that don’t actively work to challenge racism and white supremacy, work which in white liberal circles is so often diluted and conflated with simply getting more people that look like me in the room.
Though this week’s convening was supported in part by the labor of white Jews working alongside us in solidarity, the space will be closed to all but self-identified Jewish people of color. To me, this isn’t reflexive tribalism or identity politics: it is a political statement that we, as Jews and people of color living at the intersections of anti-Semitism and racism, will speak for ourselves — building new spaces for ourselves and our politics outside of the confines and limitations of existing white and white Jewish structures.
Too often, the promise of diversity is linked to the presumed inevitability of assimilation: assimilation into dominant cultural practices, and into structures of power and privilege. My rejection of diversity for its own sake is a rejection of this invitation. If our Jewish communities take anything from the unprecedented convening of Jewish people of color this week, I hope it is to stop questioning how to get more of us into the room, and instead ask whether a room that perpetuates white supremacy is one that any of us should be occupying in the first place.

11 thoughts on ““Diversity" Won't Challenge Jewry's Role in White Supremacy

  1. I don’t doubt that there is white privilege, but there is also Christian privilege. A Black Baptist minister told me that the Jews who died during the Holocaust are now in Hell. Too often Jews are caught between antisemitism on the left and on the right. I’m not sure how to best deal with this fact.

  2. Powerfully argued. I just gave a talk about the status of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in contemporary Jewish discourse that stressed this precise point — that “inclusion” can’t simply mean inclusion into narratives already present in Ashkenazi spaces, as the Ashkenazim had already constructed them. If our approach to “inclusion” is simply to seek out members of the minority who will validate the thoughts we already have — “Looking through the crowd and picking out our friends” — then we don’t really want inclusion at all, we want assimilation. True inclusion has to be inclusive at the point of differentiation — we must be willing to consider that our narratives might have to change in response to those whom we had previously not considered.
    All well and good. But it is worth noting that *none* of us — no matter who we are, no matter how “left” we consider ourselves — are immune from this obligation. It *always* requires sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our leftist commitments that are put on the altar. Loolwa Khazzoom presaged your point in her essay titled “We Are Here and This Is Ours,” her entry in “The Flying Camel” — the first modern collection of writings by Mizrahi women (and a phenomenal work). She challenged the perceived entitlement of Ashkenazim to dominate what it means to be Jewish — for Jewishness is hers just as much as theirs. And she likewise challenged the perceived entitlement of Muslim Arabs to dominate what it means to be Middle Eastern — for Middle Easterness is hers just as much as theirs. Some of the positions she challenges would make the contemporary Jewish left smile. But some — her defense of Zionism, her belief in Jerusalem as an undivided Jewish capital — would be more challenging. Are we equally prepared to demand of the left that they cease trying to subjugate that narrative? Or do we exclude her until she assimilates?
    We can put the problem in stark terms: To the litany of things multiculturalism has brought us, perhaps we could add that it allows for the formation of a “Mizrahi caucus” in leftist Jewish spaces, without challenging the campaign to boycott and isolate the locale where the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim live. Of the many, many arguments I’ve read regarding BDS, one that I have not heard discussed is the simple reality that — given the demographics of Israel versus the diaspora — it functionally acts to dramatically shift the locus of Jewish power away from Mizrahim, Sephardim, and Ethiopian Jews and towards Ashkenazim. It takes power from the East and transfers it to the West. In its Jewish manifestation, it is almost entirely an attempt by the Jewish west to exert power over the Jewish east. We can be in denial about that, and we can look through the crowd and pick out our friends who will validate our position and let us pretend it isn’t so. But that is precisely the type of faux-“diversity” that is so powerfully indicted in this piece. If we are honest in terms of respecting non-Ashkenazi Jews at the point of differentiation, well, one point of differentiation is that Mizrahi Jews are far more likely than Ashkenazim to live in Israel and far less likely to endorse the contemporary (Ashkenazi-dominated) left-wing politic.
    And so the real question becomes: “What do we do when *we’re* the Ted Cruz?” That’s the question that haunts the Jewish left today, and I’ve found very, very few people among my fellow progressives who have been able to answer it without flinching.

    1. You have raised an incredibly important point that I haven’t seen elsewhere: the immense condescension toward Mizrahi Jews shown overwhelmingly on this site by people supposedly “concerned” about them. They are deprived of all agency, character and power by those who see them as merely “victims” of Ashkenazi oppression and deny them their own voice. At this time of year in particular, I’m thinking of the hundreds of thousands of Moroccan Jews gathered on the hillsides of Jerusalem, celebrating Mimouna, and what they’d think of this contempt for them functioning in the guise of “sympathy.” Not much, I think I can guarantee.

  3. This captured everything I’ve been trying to tell people! I just wish the conference wasn’t too expensive – otherwise, I would have extended my trip to NYC just to attend it.

  4. This is the dumbest thing I’ve read today. You had a perfectly good childhood and your mom was president of a synagogue without any indications of racism. But you choose to be petulant why?

  5. There is something to be said Jewish expulsion into the Diaspora and having many of there identities colonized by there host countries. However, I take issue with the fact that Arab-Muslims participated in the African slave trade at ridiculously higher rates than Jews, yet somehow this article depicts Arabs as absolute victims of systemic racial supremacy (as if Israel’s actions towards Palestinians resembles white supremacy) and Jews as it’s main perpetrators. I mean some black Muslims call the Muslim-Arab slave trade an ‘Orientalist myth’. Talk about religious/cultural hegemony colonizing black conscious to white wash the oppression against them. It’s like token blacks under white, Christian hegemony who say racism doesn’t exist, ‘blacks traded slaves to’ and BlackLivesMatter is pointless.

  6. This article is really a bunch of self righteous nonsense with a clear intent to set a special standard for Jews mostly ignoring the 2000 years of extreme persecution Jews have suffered in the diaspora. I am sorry the writer of this article was confronted by rude people during his travels or at his synagogue. I would suggest perhaps a thicker skin.

  7. You don’t get a pass to write antisemitic articles just because you’re Jewish. Let’s look at the history you distort: you conflate individual Jewish slumlords (even though many Jews live in bad buildings), the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict (SO complex, plus Jews have been victims too of this conflict, including Mizrahi Jews who make up 50% of Israel’s population), AND participation of Jewish individuals in the slave trade (even though this participation was not in greater proportion to the rest of the West’s ‘white’ population, and even though Jews fought for the North in the Civil War and were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement)…all to argue that Jews are complicit in white supremacy! Jewish communities sometimes need to be more sensitive to Jews of color (and the situation is changing for the better these days). There have been bad Jews in history, and many good Jews too–Jews are part of the societies in which they live. Jewish communities are not complicit in some kind of vile racist superstructure you talk about; in fact, Jews often seek to welcome people of all backgrounds. The distortions and labels in this article are unreal, and totally unacceptable–this antisemitic piece should be retracted by the author immediately.

  8. My simplistic takeaway from all this: Jews suck, Ashkenazi Jews suck more, white Jews suck most of all. My son is a Jew of Color, and I’m white, so we can’t occupy the same space. I’m Ashkenazi, and he’s Latino, so we can’t occupy the same space. I’m gay, and he’s straight, so we can’t occupy the same space. In fact, under the rules of privilege and intersectionality, my son is my own oppressor, a novel concept! The only thing we can do together is have contempt for Israel. I thought multiculturalism would mean that we could all together celebrate the marvelous varieties of being Jewish. I guess I was wrong.

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