Jews of All Colors

Chloe Tribich

The Colors of Jews:
Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism
by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz
Indiana University Press, 2007, 320 pages, $24.95 paperback.

IN THE COLORS  of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, a long-time feminist activist, disabuses the Jewish left of its most common assumptions: that Jewish culture is Ashkenazi culture and that Jews are white people. [“Ashkenazi” refers to Jews of eastern, central and northern European origin — ed.]

Kaye/Kantrowitz does not deny that the vast majority of Jews in the United States are white. Rather, she insists that if activists are to build a world based on principles of justice, we must think of identity as intersectional and dynamic. If Jewish leftists can understand Jewish identity as multifaceted and diverse, we will be better equipped to challenge racism, nationalism and gender oppression in all its forms.

This isn’t a liberal argument for inclusion of Jews of color. Though inclusion is high on Kaye/Kantrowitz’s agenda, the most important case is for what she calls “radical diasporism,” which

“recognizes our identity as simultaneously rock, forged under centuries of pressure, and water, infinitely flexible (222)…Radical diasporism meshes well with feminism in valuing a strength and heroism available to those without armies and suits queerness in rejecting the constraints of traditional gendered existence” (xii).

Using individual testimonies, history, academic theory and examples from the work of radical Jewish organizations, Kaye/Kantrowitz thoroughly deconstructs Ashkenazism, the term that refers to the invisible prioritization of the experiences of white European Jews. Much as race studies scholars have exposed the particularities of whiteness and thereby advanced the work of anti-racism, so too does Kaye/Kantrowitz’s work constitute a challenge to the assumptions of Zionism, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, and racism in general.

The success of organized American Zionists and their Christian allies in welding Jewish identity to Israel following the 1967 war sparked decades of dissent, albeit of a sort that varied in consistency and effectiveness. Spanning the spectrums from liberal to far-left and from secular to ultra-Orthodox, dissenting Jewish formations sought to challenge the Jewish right in the United States and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  

Many of the most radical formations, however, remain grounded in an unacknowledged Ashkenazi perspective. As Kaye/Kantrowitz points out, this is both a moral failing and a strategic mistake: How much more effective would the work of peace activists be if the institutional racism targeted at Mizrahi Jews [Jews of Middle Eastern and north African origin —ed.] in Israel formed the foundation for a critique of Israeli imperialism?

The Colors of Jews is rife with personal narratives that explode myths of Israel as Jewish safe haven, such as this first hand account of Arab Jewish family’s immigration experience, as recounted by the writer Ammiel Alcalay:

“We thought as the plane landed that Israel would welcome us warmly…how wrong we were! A worker approached us and sprayed us all with DDT…they herded us into a train, which was so crowded that we were stepping on each other…when we reached the [absorption] camp they ‘gave’ us new Hebrew names.”  (Quoted, 77)

Identity and Justice

But The Colors of Jews is more than just a recitation of instances of Israeli and Ashkenazi racism against Jews of color. Kaye/Kantrowitz wrote this volume for a concrete purpose, to “strengthen the identity and practice of Jewish antiracism, including the often buried strand of economic justice.” (xi)

With that in mind, she spends a large chunk of the book discussing the organizing work of U.S.-based Jewish organizations. About 40 pages are dedicated to Ashkenazi groups doing explicitly anti-racist work. They include Jews United for Justice in St. Louis, a new group that organized against a Jewish nursing home that was busting employees’ unionizing efforts, and Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis which has used an institutional organizing model to bring synagogues into a coalition to protect immigrant rights and channel city resources to affordable housing.

A similar space is devoted to Jewish organizations of color, such as the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, which focuses on study of Afro-Judaism and the African and Jewish diasporas. Another is Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a primarily Black synagogue in Chicago whose Rabbi emphasizes the significance of Africa in the Torah and has assisted Jewish communities in Nigeria to form their own congregations. A separate lengthy section is dedicated to the mythologization and the complexities of Black-Jewish relations in the United States.

One of the most informative parts is focused on Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), a New York City-based group that Kaye/Kantrowitz helped to found. In the 1990s JFREJ built its reputation as a white ally organization that defended principled positions on police brutality and workers rights, often putting bodies in the street for civil disobedience and protests.

More recently, JFREJ began a process of interrogating its identity as a white organization. This required evaluating the ways that, as Kaye/Kantrowitz puts it, “most thinking on progressive Jewish history and culture has been defined by Ashkenazi experience.”

JFREJ has addressed this in several concrete ways. One is simply by identifying a Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) equivalent for the Yiddish phrase “In Gerangl” (“in struggle”), used widely in JFREJ literature. Another way is forging more deliberate partnerships with local groups like Ayecha and Beta Israel of North America which are comprised of Jews of color.  

As a socialist and a Jew, I’ve always found it powerful to resurface the Yiddishist strand of Jewish tradition to challenge Zionism’s claim on Jewish identity. I’ve participated in countless political events that deploy some aspect of Yiddish culture as a counterpoint to Israel-centric Judaism. Replacing the Israeli national anthem with Bundist hymns, or elevating the work of the Russian Jewish garment workers on the Lower East Side over that of Zionist pioneers in Palestine, are ways of showing that all of Jewish history does not point inexorably towards the founding of a Jewish nation state.

But Kaye/Kantrowitz’s argument suggests there is danger in replacing one reified ideal of Jewish identity with another.  If we replace Israel with the Yiddishist tradition, where does that leave Jews from Arab countries, or African Jews, or children of color who have been adopted by white Jews?

Though Kaye/Kantrowitz maintains that “diasporists don’t want to dilute Judaism into a shallow anything-is-Jewish-tradition-because-I-say-it-is (223),” the logical conclusion of her argument implies otherwise. After all, if radical diasporism “demands that we mix it up in ways we don’t even know yet” (221), just as queerness constantly reinvents gender, then at the end of the day there may be little that unites those of us who claim Jewishness.

Queerness, Judaism, Anti-Imperialism

Perhaps this is already the case. What do Orthodox Ashkenazim, whose organize their lives by rabbinic law, have in common with Ethiopian Jews, who don’t share this tradition?  Do Hebrew Israelites — Blacks who observe Yom Kippur and Hanukkah but don’t call themselves Jews because the term is associated with whites — have more in common with white Jews or with secular Black nationalists?

But if our goal — as Jews of all colors, as Blacks, as queers, as women, as radicals and revolutionaries — is to build a world free of oppression, maybe these are not the right questions. Maybe, like Kaye/Kantrowitz, we should be making links among people who want to share in a radical political project.

At this point I am reminded of one of my favorite protest slogans — one that, by highlighting the connection between national oppression and gender oppression in an unlikely context, embodies the essence of radical diasporism. It is “Sodomy, not imperialism, queer Jews for a free Palestine.”  The Colors of Jews is a timely reminder that the lifeblood of radical work depends on these connections.  §

ATC 138, January-February 2009

1 comment

  1. I have always drawn similarities between gays and Jews in coping with discrimination. Both can hide their identity by name change (Jews) or behavior (gays). Both feel shame in their subterfuge. Both are bullied by the majority. I am kind of surprised as are my friends that a presidential candidate seems not to have been in the least bit impaired when he was id’d as a perp in a group attack upon a gay HS student where he tackled the victim to the ground and shaved his head bald. The lack of public indignation is more frightening to me on a gut emotional level than anything else about this election because all those images of Jews dragged in the streets by Brown Shirts and having their beards cut with laughing crowds is a distinct possibility in the US.

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