Saturday, August 18, 2007

Jewish rainbow

When I walk into a room and say to people I meet "I'm Jewish" often I will get the response "But you're Black." I often want to say "no kidding," but the usual response I give is "Yes, my family has been practicing Judaism for at least three generations, now." The point that I aim to make is that it would make it easier to just "BE" as a Jewish person of color if "black" and "Jewish" identity were not so commonly assumed to be mutually exclusive. Historically, Jews have been multiple skin colors and it's unfortunate that the passive internalization of color consciousness that happens so easily in American society, helped us to forget the freedom from identifying around color that is a part of our Jewish history. (p. 27)
The above quote comes from Yavilah McCoy, as recorded in a fascinating book I just read, Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz's The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism. Designed to raise awareness about Jews of color, the book presents numerous anecdotes about the experiences of nonwhite Jews, followed by stimulating discussions on the implications of this research. The book is marred for me by its anti-Zionist standpoint, which culminates in a final chapter that has very little to do with the rest of the book. The back cover sports endorsements by Tony Kushner, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Adrienne Rich, all left-wing thinkers squarely in Kantrowitz's ideological camp. I get the sense that Kantrowitz underestimates her audience, thinking that her discussions about racial diversity in the Jewish community either will appeal only to those with her positions or will inevitably move readers toward those positions. Instead, her dogmatic advocacy of ideas that most Jews find offensive will likely turn away many readers who would otherwise find much value in the information she presents.

What types of nonwhite Jews are there? The question is not as easy to answer as one might expect, because it depends on how one defines "white" and "Jewish," both highly contested categories. Most Americans today assume that the prototypical Jew (which usually means Ashkenazic Jew) is white, but that was not always the common perception in this country. The very act of designating Jews as white or nonwhite can be a political statement, because it is taken to suggest something about their status and position in society. (I have known Jews who mark themselves as "other" in forms asking for their race.)

With these precautions in mind, Kantrowitz considers several types of people: (1) African American and Asian American converts to Judaism (2) nonwhite children adopted by Jewish families (3) children of mixed marriages (4) Ethiopian Jews and other black African communities that have practiced Judaism for centuries or more (5) the most ambiguous category, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, some of them quite dark-skinned, others scarcely distinguishable from their Ashkenazic brethren.

One reason this information has value is that Jews, despite a long history of crucial involvement in the civil rights movement, also have a history of racism that persists today in some religious communities. The historical tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim can take on racial overtones. More pertinently, many Jews have trouble accepting the very concept of a black Jew--it seems an impossibility, a contradiction in terms.

One anecdote really struck home for me, reflecting the type of compartmentalized behavior I've witnessed. McCoy, the woman I quoted before, attended a Hasidic school as a child. On one occasion when she complained to classmates who were denigrating non-Jewish blacks, they assured her they weren't talking about her. The inconsistent thinking required to sustain this kind of attitude demonstrates why Jews of color may help stem the tides of bigotry coming from both Jews and non-Jews.

Kantrowitz wishes to uproot the perception that "black" and "Jewish" are mutually exclusive categories, and to reveal the Jewish people as a racially diverse group. She feels that recognizing this reality will ease the tension between Jews and blacks. Her point is that if the two categories can overlap, people will be less inclined to view the two groups as enemies of each other.

She weakens her argument, however, by trying to downplay the well-documented fact that a disproportionate level of anti-Semitism exists among African Americans. She fails to discuss any of the official studies, such as Harris Polls taken over the last several decades. As Charles Silberman noted in his book A Certain People, black anti-Semitism is not a mirror image of Jewish racism. The latter is far more marginalized in the Jewish community than the former is in the African American community. The problem is not that most blacks agree with Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic pronouncements, but that leaders like him exhibit far greater influence than any comparably racist figure in the Jewish community.

She also wishes to blur the line between "Jew" and "Arab" by emphasizing the strong Arab element of Jews who are the product of Arabic land, culture, and language as surely as American Jews are Americans. She eagerly embraces the term "Arab Jew" to highlight this dual identity.

She correctly observes that Islamic countries in the Middle Ages generally treated Jews far better than Christian countries from the same era did. The height of this relatively peaceful coexistence occurred in the Golden Age of Spain from the eighth to twelfth centuries. But the picture is more complicated than she would like to believe. This period, when Jews enjoyed more rights and privileges than any time until the modern age, ended not because of the fifteenth-century Christian rulers who instigated the Inquisition, but because of violent Muslim invaders from two centuries earlier.

In addressing this fact, Kantrowitz performs a remarkable sleight of hand. She quotes Victor Perera saying, "[u]ntil the arrival of bloody-minded Almohade Berbers in 1146, bent on implanting Islam in all of Europe, Spain's Jews generally lived at peace with Muslim rulers and their Christian subjects; and they thrived culturally and commercially as never before or since" (p. 81). She immediately comments, "This peace persisted until the Christian conquest of Iberia and the Inquisition," which is not only false, but directly contradicts what she just quoted!

The final chapter of the book is little more than an essay on forging a Jewish identity apart from Zionism. Too bad. There is considerable merit to her thesis that recognizing racial diversity among Jews will help improve relations with other people. She doesn't seem to accept, or even consider, that Jews can support Israel and still be fully committed to peaceful relations with non-Jews. I hope that intelligent readers will be able to overlook the book's flaws, because beneath the rhetoric lies some valuable material about forgotten portions of world Jewry.

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