Out of Exile, Jews Are Not a Color-Centric Binary

Anyone who knows anything about Jewish peoplehood knows that Jews are among the most diverse peoples in modern times.

As a proud Black Jewish woman married to a Russian Jewish man with four Black Russian Jewish children, I am sometimes bewildered by the dialogue around race and racism in the Jewish community. The American Jewish community seems to have adopted the anti-racist discourse prevalent in the larger society, and in so doing we have failed to define and defend our own diversity. In an op-ed for The Forward, Ilana Kaufman discusses her concerns about diversity within the Jewish community, criticizing Jewish spaces for not being sufficiently “multiracial” and “antiracist.” Unfortunately, she relies on the same black-and-white thinking that has been used to divide people by their immutable characteristics. Kaufman’s insistence that “Many of our white leaders come from predominantly white communities” erases the very Jewish diversity she insists is being ignored. This example highlights the problem with accepting a racial binary that fails to include the complexity of Jewish peoplehood.   

Anyone who knows anything about Jewish peoplehood knows that Jews are among the most diverse peoples in modern times. Out of exile, the Jewish people came to live on every habitable continent on earth. There is thus no one way to look or be Jewish. However, that does not mean that the diversity of the Jewish people has been fully realized in Jewish institutions. It has not. We need to do a better job of acknowledging and celebrating the entirety of our people, eliminating perceived and real slights, and ceasing the erasure of specific groups of Jews. Organizations like JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and SHIN-DC (Sephardic Heritage International) hold a wealth of knowledge about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, for example, but are underutilized in Jewish learning spaces. Too many Jews in America are unaware of the experiences of their Sephardic and Mizrahi sisters and brothers. Further, the stories of Ethiopian Jews in refugee camps in Sudan, yearning to return to Zion and crossing scorching deserts, are underappreciated. We need to do better.   

The way to uphold our diversity is not to accept American-centric colorism, which racially categorizes and judges people based on their skin-color, but to embrace the full diversity of the Jewish people. Insisting on identifying fellow members of the tribe as “white Jews,” claiming that there are “affluent, cisgender, white men” chanting on the bimah, or stating that Jewish organizations hold legacies of “white supremacy” is insulting to all Jews and ignores the fact that we are all targeted by white supremacy. Being ashamed of Jewish success, using “affluent” as a slur, and accusing those who established Jewish institutions and places of learning and worship as holding privilege overlooks the obstacles Jews have overcome in order to build these organizations.     

The way to uphold our diversity is not to accept American-centric colorism, which racially categorizes and judges people based on their skin-color, but to embrace the full diversity of the Jewish people.

Too often, diaspora Jews have adopted views on race and ethnicity that are fundamentally at odds with what it means to be a Jew. The shrinking of Jewish identity to a color-based racial identity erases the majority of Jewish people. It ignores real diversity, including diversity of thought, of heritage, of language, of levels of observance and instead judges Jews based on the color of their skin. It is no surprise that adopting American-centric race-based colorism gives rise to a diversity approach based solely on skin color. Although I agree that issues regarding the embrace of Jewish diversity must be addressed, it’s a mistake to use the same color-based ideology that produced these tensions in the first place. Establishing color-based litmus tests for who gets to be part of Jewish organizational leadership is not a solution and only contributes to the problem. Inviting Jews to commit to color-based initiatives is a simplistic method of addressing a complex issue. Instead of establishing diversity committees, Jewish organizations and places of learning and worship should revisit ideas about what makes someone a Jew and reject race-based ideologies that fail to value the diversity of the Jewish people. 

Indeed, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives that institutionalize colorism are not what the American Jewish community needs. Kaufman suggests that it is wrong to “prioritize the rarefied, traditional training” of rabbis simply because the fact that there are not enough “clergy of color” who receive this training is racist. Hiring rabbis to lead congregations should be based on knowledge and skill, not on a watered-down scholarship or dogma designed to gain favor with political progressives. We don’t need to continue committing to programs that fail. We need to embrace a Jewish way of seeing ourselves in our splendid diversity, where “a Jew is a Jew is a Jew” regardless of skin color. We need to counter an ideology born in the diaspora that has divided us as a people. In the words of Menachem Begin z”l “We were all born in Jerusalem.”

Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky is the Director of Education and Community Engagement with the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV). Her focus is on developing intercultural opportunities that enhance liberal democratic ideals. 

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