Here at InterfaithFamily.com, one of our missions is to encourage the Jewish community to be welcoming to people in interfaith families.
A key issue that we don’t often discuss in this connection is race, and this hopeful, inclusive moment seems like a great time to do it. Because the majority of Jews in the United States are descended from the large wave of Eastern European immigration from roughly 1880-1920, we feel safe assuming that all Jews look about the same. Well, that’s not a good assumption. All Jews do not look the same, and all Jews are not white.
Even among the Ashkenazi Jews that are the majority, we come in a lot of different complections and with a lot of different sorts of hair, and that’s leaving out Jews from the Middle East and North Africa and all the other Jewish communities that have come to the United States on both earlier and later waves of immigration. It certainly ignores Jews who are children or descendants of interfaith marriages and conversion and people who chose Judaism in this generation, Jews who were adopted and a lot of other Jewish experiences.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of Jewish bloggers discussing this issue. Y-Love discusses White Privilege in a Jewish Context. Walter Isaac writes On Dr. King’s Legacy and American Jewish Segregation: A Moment of Honesty.
Aliza Hausman, who also writes for IFF, wrote a blog post on her Limmud session on race and the Jewish community. She had a lot of good things to say, as usual. One thing she wrote kind of bugged me though. I felt it as a call to action:
Look, I have a cute white husband and great white friends who remind me constantly that some of the inappropriate comments people make are not meant to be hurtful and aren’t even understood as hurtful by the perpetrator. I try to take a deep breath whenever I feel like I’m being attacked and I try to think about where the person is coming from.
I get that it’s helpful to Aliza to have people to support her and help her think the best of people, which is an important Jewish value. As it says in Pirkei Avot, we should judge each person on the side of merit.
I just don’t think it should be my role to tell Jews of color that white Jews don’t mean it when they say things that are racist. No, as a white Jew it’s my role to tell the person who says such things that they should stop. Yes, I agree, I don’t judge people to be racist just for saying racist things. They probably don’t mean it; racist assumptions are in the ambient air, and people have to make an active effort to reject them. But they don’t get to keep doing it. It doesn’t matter whether you meant it, it matters whether you fix it.