Posts Tagged ‘Jews of color’

WHAT IS A JEW?

On December 11, President Trump held a Chanukah party at the White House where he signed an executive order combatting anti-Semitism. The New York Times reported that the order defines America’s Jews as sharing a national origin. It doesn’t. So what is a Jew?

The order relates to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on, among other things, national origin. But the order targets not discrimination against Jews but those who call for the delegitimization or destruction of Israel. It also states that federal agencies “shall not diminish or infringe upon any right protected under Federal law or under the First Amendment.” Confusing.

There should be no confusion that Jews are not defined by country of national origin. Many American Jews were born overseas. Most were born in the U.S.A. So what is a Jew?

To many Christians, a Jew is an adherent of the Jewish religion. But Judaism defines only part of the Jewish world. Most American Jews maintain no synagogue affiliation yet still identify as Jews.

Jews are a people. We’re joined not only by religion but any combination of secular factors such as family descent; shared history; use—even limited—of Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino or Jewish Arabic; Israel; humor; education and attitudes; and to no small extent food.

Jews do not constitute a race. For over 2,000 years, Judaism identified anyone born of a Jewish mother as a Jew. Four decades ago, the Reform movement accorded Jewish identity to children of non-Jewish mothers but Jewish fathers if the children received a Jewish education. In either case, the “other” parent can be of any ethnicity.

Sadly, genetics have doomed non-Jews. Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws  defined a Jew as anyone with one Jewish grandparent. Many “Jewish” Holocaust victims were Catholics or Protestants. In response, Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent to reside in the country, although he or she may not be considered Jewish by government-sanctioned religious authorities.

More reason to abandon the racial hypothesis: Anyone may convert to Judaism. At the recent Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointed out, “Between 10 and 20 percent of North American Jews are Jews of Color.” Many are born-Jewish children and grandchildren of converts.

Anti-Semites, alas, will keep hating Jews, even if they have no idea what a Jew is, believes or stands for. Sadly, the White House again offered anti-Semites a measure of support.

When the president signed his executive order, guests included the evangelical Christian leader Robert Jeffress. An ardent supporter of Israel, Jeffress, like many evangelicals, believes that only when all Jews go to the Holy Land will Jesus return. Jews then can accept Jesus or go to hell. As Jeffress said in 2010, “You can’t be saved by being a Jew.”

I wonder how the president’s daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared and grandchildren take the news that they can’t go to heaven.

Here on earth, Jeffress’ and other pastors’ statements, made in the name of theology and thus supposedly above reproach, create an image of Jews as “less than.” As Chanukah nears, they not only fail to light a candle in the darkness, they add fuel to the fires of anti-Semitism the president claims he wants to put out.

Happy Chanukah, Marry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa—Peace!

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DON’T TURN AWAY

The January 25 issue of J! The Jewish News of Northern California reported on Jews of color rising to take their places in the Jewish community. I applaud this. But the article also made me nervous.

Yes, Jews of color have faced difficulties in a religious and cultural world led by Ashkenazim—Jews of European descent (like me). Yet the Jewish world is incredibly diverse. It includes those born of two non-Ashkenazi parents—of color or not—or one. And Jews by choice. At my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, we’re majority Ashkenazi but include Sephardim (descended from the Jews of Spain), Mizrachim (Jews from the Middle East) and congregants with genes from Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’m not sure about Native American descendants, but that would be cool.

Still, Jews of color often are asked, “What brings you here?” and “Are you Jewish?” Many Ashkenazim have no idea regarding Jewish diversity and non-Ashkenazi legitimacy. It’s only natural and right that Jews of color demand an equal place at the table.

Lest you think this problem is confined to North American and Europe, consider Israel. Wander through its cities and towns, and you discover Israeli Jews’ wide genetic and cultural backgrounds. Jews have immigrated—or fled—from the West, Latin America, North Africa and the Arab Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Ethiopia. Some have come from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East.

Yet pre- and post-state Ashkenazim often exhibited racist attitudes. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews were welcomed to swell the young nation’s population but under-funded regarding housing and education. In his book Spies of No Country, Israeli author Matti Friedman notes how Mizrachi Jews spied for Israel’s “Arab Section” during the War of Independence but were looked down on as “blacks.”

Racism isn’t gone, but it has been much reduced. Mizrachim and Sephardim make up half the population—and vote. Also, military service and a growing economy have brought together Israelis from all backgrounds. My cousin Maxine has a son-in-law whose family comes from Iran and Yemen. We spent last Passover with our cross-cultural family at the ancient fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. I love Tsachi’s family the way I love the varied backgrounds of my fellow Sherith Israel congregants and friends newer to Judaism—African-American, Korean, Mexican, Chinese and other. 

The Torah states, “The stranger (ger, later considered by the sages to mean proselyte) who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:34).The commandment to love the stranger appears at least 36 times in the Torah. I hope Ashkenazim everywhere take this to heart.

I also hope that Jews of color will refrain from turning inward. Be’chol Lashon (“In every tongue”), headquartered in San Francisco, runs programs and a summer camp for Jewish kids of color. It enables them to look in the communal mirror and see themselves. That’s good. In a Christian-dominant society, Ashkenazi Jews don’t always get to do that, either. But will Be’chol Lashon remain necessary ten or twenty years from now? It would be wonderful to see the organization eventually disband because it’s simply not needed.

So, I extend a plea to Jews of color: Don’t turn away from me. That would hurt us all.

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