Jewish Word | Jews of Color

The power—and limitations—of a porous term
Jews of color

Last year, I spoke with a group of Israelis studying for master’s degrees in American Jewish Studies at Haifa University. They were on a two-week tour of the United States, and Washington, DC was one of their final stops before heading home. As I was describing the contours of the American Jewish landscape, I said something in passing about Jews of color. One of the Israelis interrupted me: “All we’ve been hearing about on our trip is Jews of color,” he said, visibly exasperated, while the other students nodded. “I’m Mizrachi [a Jew of Middle Eastern or North African descent]; am I a Jew of color?”

It’s not surprising that this expression felt foreign to these Israeli students. While “Jews of color” is not an exclusively American term, it was born of this country’s complex interrelationship between race and identity. It highlights both the usefulness and the limitations of taxonomies, as well as their power. And as understandings of race and diversity continue to evolve, the term “Jews of color” is evolving as well, reflecting the Jewish community’s reckoning with race and its own racial blind spots.

Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, remembers first hearing the term in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was an extension of “people of color,” then being used to build coalitions between different marginalized groups. More specifically, it was a way to see beyond the binary of Ashkenazi Jews (whose families come from Central and Eastern Europe) and Sephardi Jews (whose families originated in the Iberian peninsula) when discussing Jewish identity. An umbrella term, it encompassed Jews with family origins in African, Asian or Latin American countries or those who identified as Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous or of mixed heritage. Sometimes Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews were included, sometimes not.

Even those who considered themselves Jews of color were sometimes surprised by how many other Jews identified in the same way. In 1997, when Gordon was a professor at Brown University, he remembers being asked to serve as a faculty adviser for a Jews of color club. “I expected 35 of us to show up,” he recalls. Instead, he walked in “and there were 300 students in the room.” A trend developed, and communities for multiracial Jews and families began forming nationwide. Groups such as the Jewish Multiracial Network on the East Coast and Be’chol Lashon in California were met with enthusiasm.

The term “Jews of color” really came into its own in 2001 when Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends published an issue titled “Writing and Art by and for Jewish Women of Color,” featuring submissions by Jewish women of African, Asian, Latino and Native American heritage. In the issue’s introduction, journal editor Shahanna McKinney-Baldon advocated for the term “Jews of color” to be widely adopted. Using it, she wrote, “can be a political act” as well as a way for people to tell their stories, think critically about identity—and “have conversations about things like the personal and political significance of labeling oneself and being labeled.”

As with all questions surrounding Jewish identity, whether one identifies as a Jew of color is complicated. It depends in part on how one views oneself and how one is viewed by others. It is also “influenced by geography, by generation, by socioeconomic status, by denomination of Judaism and by the kind of relationship you have with Judaism in the first place,” says Aaron Samuels, cofounder of Blavity Inc., a digital community for Black millennials, and a poet whose work includes the collection Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. It’s also possible for a Jew to be perceived as white in the wider world, but as a Jew of color in the Jewish community, or vice versa. It’s not uncommon, says Lindsey Newman, the director of community engagement at Be’chol Lashon, even for Jews from the same family to identify differently. “‘Jews of color’ is a very broad term. It has porous boundaries,” she says. “And that is part of its power and also part of the challenge that it poses.”

For Mizrachi Jews these challenges can be especially acute. Rachel Sumekh, the founder of Swipe Out Hunger, a group that addresses food insecurity among college students, says that as an Iranian-American Jew, she is legally classified as white but “when it comes to moments in life, someone can label me very differently from what a form says I am.” Sumekh identifies as a Jew of color and finds it odd that people assume she would rather be considered white. Her identity, she says, is much more nuanced. “That’s why I love the phrase ‘Jews of color,’” she explains. “Because it’s all-encompassing.” Hadar Cohen, a Syrian-Iranian Jew who also identifies with the term, feels more ambivalent; she says programs and communities for Jews of color can still be Ashkenazi-centric. “Just because it’s a space for Jews of color, it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be an understanding of Mizrachi Jews,” she says, or of their distinct racialized history.

Conversations about the term “Jews of color” cannot be disentangled from the ongoing debate over Jewish whiteness. According to Lewis Gordon, both Jews and anti-Semites of past generations would be surprised by the phrase, even finding it redundant, as historically Jews were not considered white. “It’s very difficult to make your location the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe and be homogeneous,” he says. After the Roman exile, in the rabbinic period, Jews dispersed all over the world, taking on a minority status in the societies they entered. Whether it was Ethiopia, Persia, India or Italy, “everybody thought their Jews were ‘The Jews,’” says Gordon, meaning they assumed all Jews looked like those they encountered.

(Photo credit: Marissa Vonesh)

“This wouldn’t have mattered, if not for the fact that the people who came to dominate much of the world were European people,” explains Gordon. “European colonialism spread, and with it, the racist idea that to be a full human being was to be a white human being.” And while Jews were considered a different race in Europe, over time in the American colonies, as skin color became a determining factor in the construction of race, the distinctions blurred. That some Jews were regarded as white “was not in itself particularly problematic,” says Gordon. But soon, the idea that there were white Jews morphed into the view that real Jews are white, “which just doesn’t match the experience of the rest of Jews around the world.”

Jews themselves often wanted to change their framing from a race to an ethnicity, says Bruce Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and author of The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America, which was something that they accomplished with some degree of success in America. “Jews were trying to assimilate, and that assimilation was on the color line.” While Jews of European descent still faced discrimination and anti-Semitism in America, over the course of the 20th century they were able to benefit from much of the privilege associated with being white in the United States. Jews who weren’t white, says Haynes, were often left out of the equation.

“I think that’s why Jews of color came into being: to try to remind people that Jews were diverse,” says Gordon. But even as the term became mainstream—taking on the abbreviation JOC—Jews of color still reported feeling marginalized: mistaken for maintenance workers when they walked into synagogues, asked repeatedly to tell “their story” at university Hillels. “When I talk to other Jews of color, it is a very common experience that they say they are treated like a unicorn, as a one-off, literally the exception,” says Yoshi Silverstein, founder of Mitsui Collective, an organization aiming to build community through “embodied Jewish practice and multiracial justice.”

But they aren’t a one-off. And in an effort to prove it, in 2018, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative (now called the Jews of Color Initiative) commissioned a group of researchers at Stanford University and the University of San Francisco to calculate the number of Jews of color in the United States by conducting a meta-analysis of existing Jewish population studies. But when researchers looked at the data, they realized they couldn’t. The methods used to ask about race and ethnicity in the studies were wildly inconsistent—sometimes questions would focus on ancestry, sometimes on heritage and sometimes on place of birth. Sometimes Sephardi and Mizrachi were viewed as religious categories, sometimes as cultural ones. The biggest problem, says Ari Y. Kelman, one of the study’s lead researchers and a professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford, was that only 41 percent of Jewish community studies conducted since 2000 included any questions about race and ethnicity in the first place. “If we don’t ask, we don’t know,” says Kelman. “It’s a kind of confirmation bias, where failing to ask these questions produces a kind of blindness about the diversity of American Jewry.”

“When I talk to other Jews of color, it is a very common experience that they say they are treated like a unicorn, as a one-off, literally the exception.”

Using the metadata, the group estimated that 12 to 15 percent of all American Jews were Jews of color. This statistic was not without controversy. Demographers Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, who conducted many of the analyzed Jewish population studies, challenged the findings in a controversial piece titled “How Many Jews of Color Are There?,” published in eJewish Philanthropy, in which they argued against the study’s methodology and posited that the number was closer to 6 percent.

A recent complaint about the term is that it is too general, flattening out each group’s concerns and experiences. In this way, “Jews of color can make you feel invisible again,” says Haynes. This echoes the broader conversation over the term “people of color.” Some people now prefer BIPOC—an acronym for Black, Indigenous, People of Color—as a way to emphasize the unique experiences of Black people and Native Americans and to acknowledge that not all people of color face the same level or type of discrimination. To that end, as McKinney-Baldon notes in a recent column, even more designations have emerged, from “Jews Targeted by Racism” to “Black Indigenous Jews of Color, Sephardim and Mizrahim” to “Jews of the Global Majority.”

That some minorities are facing greater discrimination than others has become glaringly obvious in the past few months. In the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, Be’chol Lashon’s Newman, Blavity’s Samuels and Swipe Out Hunger’s Sumekh cowrote an open letter from “Black Jews, Non-Black Jews of Color and Our Allies.” The letter called on American Jewish federations, foundations and organizations to combat anti-Black racism in the Jewish community and actively create more leadership roles for Jews of color. “There was this moment of radical possibility in the air,” says Newman. “We wondered: What would that same radical possibility look like for the Jewish community?”

Specifically, by choosing the language of “Black Jews, Non-Black Jews of Color and Our Allies,” Newman explains, they wanted to point out “the need to focus on Black identity and anti-Blackness; and the condition of Black people in this country and within the Jewish community.”

So does the term “Jews of color” remain useful? “It’s a means to an end,” says Silverstein of the Mitsui Collective. “It’s a way to uplift the identities and the experiences of people of color in the Jewish community and to push the Jewish community to recognize how multiracial we are.” But while he doesn’t want the community to be colorblind, he hopes in the future “it will be so commonly understood that if you’re talking about Jews, you’re talking about a multiracial community, that we won’t need ‘Jews of color’ in the same way.” Getting caught up in semantics, warns Hadar Cohen, can divert attention away from the real problem of racism inside and outside the Jewish community. “I would like to see the Jewish world focus more on the harm being done than on what people are called.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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