Culture, Identity, Justice, Politics

Identity Politics and SCOTUS

Justice Benjamin Cardozo
News outlets have been buzzing about Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court as the first Hispanic nominee to this position. But who counts as Hispanic? Turns out, this question is just as tricky as who counts as a Jew, and as NPR pointed out yesterday, these two debates converge around the figure of Justice Benjamin Cardozo, a Sephardic Jew whose family came to the US from Holland, although they likely ended up there following the expulsion of Jews from Portugal. Was he the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice?
I can already hear the chorus of “who cares?” bubbling up in the comments, and to a certain extent, it doesn’t really matter at all. We certainly don’t want to take any ounce of honor away from Sonia Sotomayor. But I can also imagine that rethinking Cardozo as a Jew of color could create a very powerful role model for kids who don’t often see Jews like themselves represented on their Hebrew School classroom walls.

17 thoughts on “Identity Politics and SCOTUS

  1. Every ethnic group assigns great significance to their “firsts” and it is important not to take anything away from SCOTUS-nominee Sotomayor by discussing Justice Cardozo.
    Regardless of who can claim the title of the first person of Latino-descent to the Bench, I do agree that it is sociologically-important for our kids to see a complete panorama of who we are and how we look in order to see themselves as part of the tapestry.

  2. A Latino Jew advises the Jews not to steal this triumph away from the Hispanic community:
    And Ron Kampeas says Sephardim are not Latino:
    Personally, the quarter of me that is Costa Rican thinks Sotomayor is awesome. And my Jewish side of me acknowleges that the Jews hold tons of positions of authority in America — why do we need to hoot about one more?

  3. KFG, I think the only way in which claiming Cardozo as a “Jew of color” is powerful is the way in which he provides a role model to Jews of color today. As someone whose only color is “white” (if Jews are allowed to be white), I don’t really have an opinion as to whether or not Sephardim “count” as Hispanic or Latino or what the difference is between “Hispanic” and “Latino.” But as an educator, I do see the value in uncovering and foregrounding as many different kinds of Jewish role models as exist.

  4. I think your question has an unfortunate premise. Society did not view Cardozo as Hispanic. He was a Jew… It seems foolish to speculate on whether he was Hispanic or not because his experience in no way reflected that of what we know as Hispanic Americans.
    It may seem like it’s a tricky question a la “Who is a Jew?” but it’s just not. Cardozo’s family came here via Holland as Jews. Regardless of his Iberian ancestry, that’s what he was when he got here, so his “Hispanic”-ness is really irrelevant.

  5. By saying Cardozo is a role model for Jews of color, you kind of are expressing an opinion on all those things you say you don’t have an opinion about (Sephardim vs. Latino vs. Hispanic).
    Did Cardoza ever identify himself as Hispanic?
    I don’t think “Hispanic” was an identity in Cardozo’s day. Hispanic means Spanish-speaking (and a lot of people extend it to include Portuguese speakers), so people who are Spanish are technically “Hispanic,” thought I have never met a Spanish person who identified that way. Latino is an ethnic identity and includes race and culture and generally means someone who comes from or whose family comes from the Spanish (or Portuguese) speaking countries of the Americas. Cardozo definitely was not Latino.
    And my Jewish side of me acknowleges that the Jews hold tons of positions of authority in America — why do we need to hoot about one more?
    I agree with this.

  6. But I can also imagine that rethinking Cardozo as a Jew of color could create a very powerful role model for kids who don’t often see Jews like themselves represented on their Hebrew School classroom walls.
    Is it just me or does he look a little like Conan O’Brien in that picture?

  7. “Jew of Color”? He was European. Dutch. It doesn’t make him half indian just because he had a spanish name. Puh-Lease.

  8. I can understand when you cast Ethiopean Jews, or converts from Africa/Latin America/East Asis into the colonial color thing, but Sephardim are just as European as Ashkenazim. Really.

  9. Wrong on both counts. “Latino” does NOT mean Mestizo, which is what you were referring to in the first post. Second, while a case can be made for Western Sephardim such as Cardozo, do say that Sephardim are “just as European” as Ashkenazim is to deny the Arab-Muslim component of their culture, which continued in most of the lands that they settled in. Turkey trying to enter the EU doesn’t make them European!

  10. 1. many hispanic groups do claim cardozo as a role model. Yes, he was an english speaker from a comfortable background. He has a very different life story and a different culture. but that doesnt preclude him from being a person that a latina person could choose to identify with. I have no problem with people choosing to find role models where they find them. and I certainly dont think that people are so dense as to not be able to engage in conversations about the different types of hispanic peoples and how well they do and do not represent the diversity of the hispanic community.
    2. when cardozo was alive, the spanish portugese jewish community was the elite, wealthy and educated jewish community. This was especially true in contrast to the poor and uneducated eastern european jewish immigrants coming to this country. so while now sephardi jews are often the “other” in many jewish communities- this was far from true for justice cardozo.

  11. It might be a good idea to trouble yourselves to walk over and actually look up the definition of Latino and Hispanic. It troubles me that a bunch of Jews that know nothing about being either think they should be allowed to define what one is.

  12. The person who should have been appointed to this position was elected president in Nov. ’08.

  13. May i remind the panel that arabs and muslims are also part of european heritage. The o. Empire was long considered part of europe, and albania and kosovo have a muslim majority. Colonial and post colonial discourse just does not fit here.

  14. Also, people can choose to model themselves after whom they choose, that’s fine. But I don’t really see “Jews of Color”, whomever they may be, using the image of a wealthy Dutch Jew to “see someone like themselves” in the classroom.
    It is a sad truth that the origins of Judaism are in the Mediterranian Basin, where it essentially stayed (barring small forays to the Caucaus, India and China). It will take a while for a great number of “prominent” Jews “of color” to come into existence.

  15. Jews of Color?
    Obviously, some Jews are darker than other Jews– and clearly sometimes Jews do not accept, or are even hostile to Jews from other backgrounds.
    But, to agree with dlevy, I’m not clear Jews have ever been “white.” I grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line (in Washington D.C.) where the racial hierarchy of black and white was still in effect (even if glossed over with a veneer of politeness) but it was pretty evident to me that the whites would not see me as one of their own. There was an extent to which blacks might perceive Jews as “white” but actually interpersonal contact frequently caused those perceptions to be revised.
    Any “whiteness” granted to an Ashkenazi or European-Sephardic Jew, is a.) easily revoked; b.) ignores all that is particular about our heritage, c.) and even if when it is granted, we are presented as a somehow substandard “white” since we neither look nor act like them.
    As far as the distinctions that exist amongst Jews, be we Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, et cetera, it’s best we discuss Jewish plurality on our own terms, and not in terms that have very little to do with our Jewish identities.
    The post-1492 Sephardim lived in a very different world than the Mestizo of the New World, with very different histories and struggles.

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