Declarations that everyone is welcome in a community are insufficient for Jews who do not identify as white. Jewishness is not the sole or primary identity for those who are oppressed and endangered because of the color of their skin.
You asked me to write, recognizing the need to update the longstanding Reconstructionist understanding of inclusion, based, as it is, on the flawed assumption that Jewish identity will always trump all others, making a tent of unity, and that as long as all Jews are invited into that tent, the question of inclusion has been solved. And my first thought is: This is because whiteness is invisible to those who hold it.
Jewish inclusion has many borders to open—borders of gender, ability, class, political views, spiritual practices and the very definition of who counts as Jewish, but what’s grabbing my heart today is the ways that whiteness invalidates invitation and blocks the way in. The assumption that Jewishness is a kind of dominant gene of identity, always more significant in the lives of all Jews than any other is historical. It has roots that can be traced, but it’s utterly inaccurate for here and now, and in order to pose the alternative, I have to trace those roots.
There have been times and places, specifically in Christian-ruled Europe, when Jewishness was the primary location of our danger and therefore of communal mutual aid, although poverty and sexism were at the root of much of our people’s daily suffering. Sometimes, Jews were racialized as “oriental” or “Semitic,” but the core of our danger was our role as a pressure valve for class, used to misdirect the rage of the poor and working-class Christian majority away from the Christian aristocracy. Our day-to-day levels of insecurity rose and fell according to the needs of the rulers and how many social ills they had to find someone to blame for. For my shtetl ancestors who were subject, like all those around them, to the greed and arbitrary power of the rich, their Jewishness was what left them the most vulnerable to violence of every kind—not only from church and state, but quite often from the neighbors with whom they shared the burden of carrying the aristocracy on their backs.
But when their children came to Turtle Island, mostly in the last 150 years, they stepped into a wildly different social landscape of ongoing indigenous genocide and land seizures, of ferocious anti-Black racism and an abolition of slavery that only shifted the ground of an endlessly adaptable and infinitely brutal exploitation, of anti-immigrant laws and bigotries targeting the many peoples displaced by European and U.S. imperialist expansion into Asia, Africa and the rest of the Americas.
Here, the pogroms burned through places like East St. Louis, where in 1917, rampaging white mobs dragged Black residents from their homes and murdered them, or burned them alive inside those homes, places like Wounded Knee Creek where in 1890, U.S. soldiers massacred 300 Lakota, hunting down the wounded, including children, because settlers wanted their land. From coast to coast and border to border, whiteness (and the impunity it conferred) was the coin of the realm. Jewishness was not exempt from harm, but it was very far from being the most dangerous identity.
I write these words as the granddaughter of a shtetl-born woman from Kherson province in Ukraine, who, following her father’s earlier flight to the United States from the tsar’s draft, came to New York City as a child, in 1906, with her mother, aunt and uncle. They were garment workers, Socialists and Communists, feminists and organizers, who arrived in New York City to discover that they were no longer at the bottom of the heap. In spite of anti-Jewish slurs and exclusions, they found themselves in possession of a social currency that exists only in relation to those who are denied it: whiteness. Of course, not all the Jews arriving in New York Harbor and other ports were granted it, and not all its value was available right away. But the majority acquired and in time consolidated whiteness as part of their new identities in this place, while still navigating their worlds with a map whose compass points were the historic risks of Jewishness: bone deep insecurity, and the sure knowledge that the Christian rulers of the United States could still brush off and weaponize their anti-Semitism whenever it proved useful. So although the Wounded Knee massacre had been only 16 years earlier, and a Missouri mob lynched and burned three Black men the spring of their arrival, my radical great-grandmother’s question about most issues was, “Is it good for the Jews?”
I also write as the granddaughter of two Puerto Ricans who left the island of my birth as impoverished minor landed gentry, who, in spite of the hidden Taino and North and West African branches of the family tree, and persistent rumors that some of the family were “spoiling the race” with interracial reproduction, had resided in the white column of Caribbean racial accounting, and who, arriving in New York in 1929, promptly lost rather than gained whiteness, and went from being of the “buenas familias” of Naranjito to being Harlem spics. My wealthier but darker grandfather was hidden out of sight while my grandmother, her revealing bone structure hidden under pale skin, applied for apartments by pretending to be Italian.
The only work my grandfather, a licensed schoolteacher, could get in New York was as a janitor, and he got that because when a member of the small Puerto Rican community was promoted, they jointly decided that, because of my newborn mother, my grandfather should get the vacated job and so took him down at night to learn to use the industrial vacuum cleaner so he could apply in the morning. My grandmother entered the garment trade as my Jewish relatives were on their way out. My mother, who grew up in Harlem and the Bronx, was punished for speaking Spanish in school, and like many brown children, when she did well on a paper was accused of cheating. My two sets of grandparents passed each other going different directions on the ladders of class and race.
The goldeneh medina—the land of opportunity and upward mobility for migrant European peasants and workers—was also a land of lynching, Indian boarding schools, chain gangs, sharecropping and urban slums with which the arriving Ashkenazim had to become complicit in order to rise. There is no need to bristle. We are all complicit with some kind of wrong. Complicity doesn’t mean conscious collaboration. Mostly, it means accepting the way things are and not looking at what will make that difficult. The ideas of white supremacy completely saturate our society, and living by its terrible rules is at the core of assimilation for those permitted to join. This, and not some unique capacity for hard work, is the reason that my Jewish family went from sweatshop worker to university professor in two generations. They acquired whiteness.
The Europe from which our Ashkenazi ancestors came was the birthplace of those racist principles, but Europe’s colonies were outside Europe, and most day-to-day European contact with people of color happened somewhere else. Certainly, our people absorbed the same racist, colonial ideas about people in Africa, Asia and the Americas as their neighbors. We know this because early European Jewish settlers in Palestine openly expressed their contempt not only for the peoples of the region in general, but also for Middle Eastern and North African Jews whom they regarded as uncivilized, and their dreams were also openly colonial. But for the Ashkenazim boarding ships to America in the ports of Europe, their lived experience of oppression was about class, gender and Jewishness.
In the United States, in a settler colonial society built on the extermination, dispossession and enslavement of others, they were, however grudgingly, classified as white people and could cash in on the special privileges accorded to white people, a category of human that exists only by contrast. In reality, many Jews are excluded from that category—not only mixed-heritage Jews like myself, but also Jews of North Africa, the Middle East, Ethiopia, China, India, Uganda. The forging of a universalized white U.S. Jewish identity erases the global nature of our people.
As European Jews—the majority of them from Eastern Europe—found their way into the American version of whiteness, they came to see themselves as the center of Jewish identity, to assume that if they were now white, all Jews were white and those who weren’t, weren’t really Jews—so much so that Black and brown Jewish friends of mine are continuously challenged in Jewish spaces, are assumed to be hired help. Recently, a Black Jewish man I know was set upon by a mob of white Jewish men for carrying a Torah scroll down the street after teaching a student, his life threatened under the assumption that if he was Black and carrying the Torah, then he must be a thief.
To assume that Jewishness is the one unifying identity, the primary common ground for all Jews, the place where we find safety together, is to take whiteness for granted. I am a Latin American, Caribbean Jew of indigenous, African and Iberian ancestry, and a direct colonial subject of the United States from a country relentlessly looted for centuries. My Jewishness is precious to me, a deep root of my being, but for me, the threatened, those of my people who are dying for the enrichment and power of others, are not Jews. They die in Puerto Rico from deliberate, murderous neglect disguised as natural disaster. They die from death squads killing journalists, labor leaders and largely indigenous environmentalists across my continent. They die from a poverty that is, as Eduardo Galeano wroteGaleano, Eduardo, Open Veins of Latin America, 1971 , a direct result of the wealth of the land. They die from the actions of mega-farming, oil and mining companies, many of them made up of white U.S. men, including Ashkenazi Jews.
Take the example of Schmuel Zmurri of Kishinev, who came to the United States at 14, peddled bananas in New Orleans and ended up ruling much of Central America through the United Fruit Company, financing and organizing his own military coups in Honduras and Guatemala. United Fruit was notorious for its ruthless interventions; for brutal anti-union repression throughout the region, including a massacre of banana workers in Colombia; for blocked land reforms that would have returned farmland to the mostly indigenous poor and inflicted major ecological harm on the landscape, none of which is abstract for me. Those who suffer and die are my kin. Now known as Chiquita Brands, the company is currently financing death squads in Colombia who protect the company’s interests by silencing labor organizers and intimidating farmers to sell only to Chiquita. My point is, the fact that Zmurri and I share Ashkenazi heritage means we are related, but it doesn’t make us allies.
My home base, my community of necessity and hub of communal resistance, begins where the greatest harm is being done—not with white Jews, but with the Black, brown and indigenous peoples of the global south, including migrants and their descendants in the United States. Identity roots where it must, where kinship is most urgent for survival. The only way to make a Jewish tent that is a true home for Jews of Color is by understanding and accepting this truth. Otherwise, the price of admission is to abandon ourselves and fake our belonging. Inclusion means learning all the reasons why opening the door isn’t enough.
Real inclusion requires us to own all the ways that the immigrant survival strategies of most European Jews were built on joining whiteness, which means built on the pain of indigenous people and people of color, including other Jews. Inclusion must take into account the high cost of that whiteness—for everyone because assimilation into privilege is always paid for in deep losses.
Each one of us is weighed down by unearned punishments and unearned rewards, so that it seems natural to have more and better and easier, and we are oblivious to whole provinces of the social terrain where our own privileges settle like fog, to hide the landmarks of other people’s suffering … [But] whatever our complicity in the deprivation of others, whatever we’ve allowed ourselves, in the name of comfort or fear, to accept instead of freedom, is not worth having. Injustice was already here when we were born, is much bigger and older than our mistakes, and claiming each other is much better than lying low.From “Tai: A Yom Kippur Sermon” in Levins Morales, Aurora, Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals, Duke University Press, 2019
The fact that white Jews remain vulnerable to anti-Semitism doesn’t change the necessity of facing race. For there to be space in the heart of Jewish communal life for Jews of Color, Indigenous, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, white Ashkenazim need to place themselves all the way into a U.S. context and recognize that whatever their ancestors fled, here, they live within their whiteness (not conscious, not individual, not chosen, but deadly nonetheless), must recognize its unwitting impact on the rest of us, and consciously step away from the center they occupy to make room in that heart for us. This is the teshuvah of race. Not to forsake the richness of Ashkenazi culture (full as it is of the passion for justice), but to shift its dominant place and end its complicity with what kills the rest of my people.
Then the work of turning to face truth, of bringing our full selves into the commons, becomes joyful beyond measure. When the fog is burned off, what remains is an illuminated landscape, where the entire geology of our lives is laid bare, and we see how we are woven together, see the ground of solidarity we must walk, to reach the future we love.Ibid.
How do we do it? I offer you this invocation, written for the racial justice initiative of my own synagogueKehilla Community Synagogue, Piedmont, Calif.:
We who have hovered at the edges, with our bundles of silence, our cracked rage, our suitcases full of dispossession, our not rocking the boat for fear of drowning, our letting our white cousins massacre our names, our letting our white cousins ask if we are the help, aching to be known, aching to speak our Jewishness in accents you have never heard before, we who are called indigenous, called Black and of color, we Jews beyond the Ashkenazi pale, will step, hobble, roll into the center, unassimilated, fiercely lovely in our unedited truths, bringing all our ancestors speaking all their languages into this room, saying we are not confusing, singing we Jews are a garment of a thousand threads, a coat of 20 million colors, for the heart of the Jewish world lives equally in every Jew, and no one is exotic, and every one of us is Jewish enough, and however we travel through the world is a Jewish path.
We who have held the center, raised the roof beams, wrestled old words into new melodies, carried our treasured scraps of Yiddishkeit next to our hearts, carried our shtetls, our Europe, our ship’s passenger lists, our landings in the goldeneh medinah, we who walked unknowing into the occupation of other people’s worlds, walked unknowing into whiteness that coated us bit by bit like layers of shellac, deadening our senses, we who are etched with the pain of separation from all our others, we settlers hungry for unsettling, we will step, hobble, roll outward to the rim of the circle and hold space for our kin, will fast from speaking first, will fast from being the ones who know, will feast on listening, will let the varnish crack and peel, saying we will not be confused, singing the heart of the Jewish world lives equally in every Jew, and no one is the norm, and every one of us is a real Jew, and traveling together through the world is our Jewish path. And stepping in and stepping out, we will weave a dance of justice right here in this room. One two three, one two three, dance!