Are Light-Skinned Jews
“White Passing”or “Functionally
White,”and Who Are Jews of Color?
“Let’s start with that phrase, black Jews. When is the last time you heard someone refer[r]ed to as a ‘white Jew’?” asked Tamar Manasseh, the founder and president of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, in an article she wrote this January for The Forward, a magazine for Jewish Americans. “I can tell you the last time I did — it was never. And yet the phrase ‘black Jew’ has followed me around my entire life.”
“My whole life has been one of constantly explaining who I am and why I am because I was never allowed to be just a Jew, the way Jews who aren’t black are,” Manasseh continued.
“My whole life has been one of constantly explaining who I am and why I am because I was never allowed to be just a Jew, the way Jews who aren’t black are,” Manasseh continued.
Nylah Burton calls light-skinned Jews “functionally white” and tells them to stop saying they’re “white-passing.” Jewbook erupts with racism.
Racist rhetoric intensified in several Jewish Facebook groups after Denver-based freelance writer and African-American Jew Nylah Burton penned an opinion article for The Forward on July 2, 2018, in which she asserted that “white Jews aren’t white passing,” but “functionally white.”
She recounted how some light-skinned Jews took offense to the phrase “white Jew” after Alma published a roundtable discussion that explored the mistaken beliefs and microaggressions that Jews of Color encounter in Jewish spaces: questions such as “Oh when did your family convert?”, “Were you adopted?”, or “You’re not REALLY Jewish though, right?” One black rabbi, for example, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that she is sometimes mistaken for a member of her synagogue’s janitorial staff.
Burton argued that despite their preference not to identify as such, “many Jews actually are white.” She contended that, notwithstanding Jews’ vilification by white supremacists, some of whom are Aryanist Neo-Nazis, “at this point in time in America, anti-Semitism is not comparable to systemic racism,” and that the label that some light-skinned Jews prefer — “white passing” — insinuates a false “need to hide.” She acknowledged the prevalence of anti-Semitic prejudice and hate crimes; however, she opined that “most systemic benefits of whiteness will not be taken away from white Ashkenazi Jews who possess them if someone discovers their Jewishness,” whereas “a white-passing black person may get some privilege due to their appearance, but will still be subject to systemic economic disparities.”
“You may not feel white, but that doesn’t take away the privilege,” she wrote. “In America, race is not a choice. It’s assigned. To change the assignment, you have to change the system, and that requires being willing to look it in the eyes. Merely claiming that you aren’t white does nothing to change racism.”
In an article she wrote for Alma in June, Burton referred to Jewbook, the collection of Facebook groups managed predominantly for and by American Jews with a following in the thousands, as “a whole team of brothers and sisters” — the place where being black didn’t “make me feel like an intruder, or worse, like I’m invisible.” Yet, following the publication of “White Jews: Stop Calling Yourselves ‘White-Passing,’” disparaging and discriminatory comments engendered her and two other targeted Jews of Color, reported The Forward, to emancipate themselves from this virtual family and depart from Jewbook. (Burton noted, however, that, despite this racist backlash, many who engaged with her article did so respectfully.) In solidarity, approximately one dozen administrators have temporarily archived their online communities, thereby halting posting and commenting until they can approve a pledge to counter racism on Jewbook.
“I would never — could never — delete my Facebook account in protest,” Burton declared in the aforementioned June article. “I love being Jewish too much.” Yet Burton told The Forward that she is disturbed by the toxic reaction to her article and what it represents: “racism in the real-life Jewish world,” as American journalist Ari Feldman specified.
“This is why people of color do not want to join Jewish spaces,” she said. “Because they feel this racism. And what does that do to our community? It’s certainly not growing it or enriching it.”
“I am losing faith,” she admitted.
What is a Jew of Color?
Ask someone in the United States to name a famous Jew. Far likelier than not, they will select one of European descent: perhaps Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Adam Sandler. They will choose an Ashkenazi Jew. Ashkenazi Jews, categorizes Encyclopaedia Britannica, are the descendants of Jews who, following the Crusades, migrated into Eastern Europe from northern France and western Germany. Today, over 10 million Ashkenazi Jews, according to a 2014 study in Nature Communications, derive from a population of about 350 from the Middle Ages and compose more than three-quarters of the worldwide Jewish population.
It follows that Ashkenazi Jews, as MyJewishLearning.com describes, constitute “the Jewish identity most readily recognized by North Americans — the culture of matzah balls, black-hatted Hasidim and Yiddish,” in contrast with the far fewer and less genetically analyzed Sephardic Jews (the progenies of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who, due to persecution and expulsion, escaped originally to Northern Africa and other parts of the Ottoman Empire) and Mizrahi Jews (whose ancestors resided in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the Caucasus; some relocated to India, China, and elsewhere in Central Asia), as characterized by Encyclopaedia Britannica.
But there are also Jews of Color, many of whom seem to transcend these conventional classifications. Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute found that 11 percent of Jews in the United States are ones of Color, who, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) explains, “may identify as Black, Latino/a, Asian-American or of mixed heritage such as biracial or multi-racial” and “whose family origins are originally in African, Asian or Latin-American countries.” The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) claims that this percentage nearly doubles when Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are taken into account, but not all Jews of Color label themselves as such.
Jews of Color around the world can indeed join Judaism through conversion and transracial or transnational adoption, but, despite a popular misconception, many are born to one or two Jewish parents of color. Although they might not come as readily to mind, Drake, Rashida Jones, and Tracee Ellis Ross also have Jewish heritage; each was born to an Ashkenazi Jew and an African American. On Ross’s parentage, Wikipedia writes, “Her father is Jewish, whereas her mother is African-American.” That this statement contains a subordinating conjunction seems to suggest that being black and being Jewish are mutually exclusive identities, that Judaism is linked inextricably to whiteness. This attitude resonates in Jewish institutions, who tend to “favor light-skinned Jews with Eastern European heritage”; Feldman is not the first to christen this phenomenon “Ashkenormativity.” Ashkenazi Jews’ interpretations of religious texts, for example, have dominated Orthodox Judaism and come to prevail over those of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, who, as the title of an article in The Jewish Chronicle demands, “need to stand up for their Rabbinic tradition.”
Despite having been excluded from “just about every Jewish survey of note to date,” Jews of Color are, according to Tablet, becoming increasingly visible and constitute “the future of Judaism.”
American journalist David Kaufman described fellow Jews of Color in an article for The New York Post as “a minority-within-a-minority” that “defy America’s obsession with identity politics.” Similarly, Eric Goldstein, an associate professor of history at Emory University, was quoted in a 2016 article for The Atlantic as describing Jewish identity in the United States as “inherently paradoxical and contradictory.”
“What you have is a group that was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, a persecuted minority,” he said. “In the space of two generations, they’ve become one of the most successful, integrated groups in American society—by many accounts, part of the establishment. And there’s a lot of dissonance between those two positions.”
Jews respond to “White Jews: Stop Calling Yourselves ‘White-Passing.’”
Bentley Addison, a black Jew and rising sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, was targeted by racist comments — he described them as “vicious knee-jerk reactions” — following the publication of Burton’s article. The Forward reported that, while defending Burton on Facebook, he was “called an ‘oreo’: someone who is black on the outside but white on the inside.”
Addison, who decided to change his Facebook name to his Hebrew one after his mother was threatened in an online comment, told Brown Eyez Publishing Company that someone on Jewbook once searched through his profile and told him that his admission to Hopkins was attributable solely to affirmative action. He was, consequently, not entirely surprised by the racism that erupted throughout Jewbook; he has seen and sustained it before.
“A couple weeks before, Nylah had published an article in Alma about sex-positivity and Judaism. She was the recipient of ridiculous amounts of racist hate, as she is every time she or we reminded people of the existence of Black Jews,” he said. “And I had already been the recipient of a ton of racist vitriol in these groups from the moment I joined.”
Addison expressed his lost senses of camaraderie and security.
“This stuff has real-world consequences. These people are stealthy and malicious, and even if they’re not, they’re definitely encountering black people in their daily lives, with this racist mindset,” he said.
“I’ve met so many people that I legitimately love from Jewbook — amazing human beings who I have really amazing relationships with,” he added. “But then I saw these people in screenshots deciding whether I was Jewish.”
Addison accepted, in an interview with The Forward, that there were legitimate ways to contest Burton’s perspective, but reasoned that, had she been white, she would not have “gotten this kind of flak.”
One objection was raised by a commenter who wrote, “You’re insisting that you have a right to brand other Jews with a racial identity. In that, you mirror David Duke.” (Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has vehemently denied the notion that Jews are white.) Some might say that American attorney Micha Danzig, who has served in the Israeli Army, echoed a less anti-Semitic version of this sentiment in his Forward response to Burton’s article.
Danzig argued that Ashkenazi Jews like him “may appear white,” but, as Jews, “maintain a distinct racial and ethnic identity,” despite their passing for white “due to years of colonialism, expulsion and exile in European lands” where discovery of Jewish identity by authority figures meant “your life and/or property was definitely in danger.” He criticized those whom he thinks “impose ‘whiteness’ on Ashkenazi Jews” and “castigate them for their alleged white privilege.”
Danzig deemed Burton’s saying “[t]he misuse of the term white-passing erases my own family, where many appear white, but accessing the full benefits of whiteness was and remains near impossible” hypocritical; he posited that her designating Ashkenazi Jews as white erased two millennia of their history in Europe, where they were “always considered part of the ‘Hebrew race,’ an ‘other’” — “at times persecuted,” “oppressed,” and “subject to mass murder.”
He conceded that some Ashkenazi Jews, “for approximately the last half century of American history, have enjoyed the privileges associated with passing for white,” but maintained that “300 years of American history does not define either race or identity, and it certainly doesn’t define Jewish identity.” He also specified examples in which Jews fell victim to discrimination in the United States, where Ashkenazi Jews “had long been classified as ‘Asiatics,’” and questioned when Ashkenazi Jews became white in America.
Ultimately, he averred that, “regardless of where we were exiled, or had to flee to in order escape persecution, Jews are a tribal Levantine people with a tribal Levantine faith.”
Larisa Klebe, the Associate Director of Programs and Education at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and also a white American Jew, authored her own Forward interpretation of the debate. She articulated the difficulty for light-skinned Jews “to acknowledge that we benefit from white privilege while also contending with a long history of Jewish oppression,” but prescribed the hard pill to swallow: “some Jews are white.” Although she acknowledged the existence of anti-Semitism in the United States, she distinguished between discrimination and racism; white Jews do not experience the latter.
Unlike Danzig, Klebe holds that the belief that “some Jews benefit from white privilege doesn’t erase or undermine Jews’ long history of oppression” and sided with Burton’s standpoint, though, “as someone with Holocaust survivor grandparents,” she claims she understands “why it’s difficult for some Jews to accept that they benefit from white privilege.”
There is racism against Jews of Color in the Jewish community.
Jewbook, for Burton, may seem to have transformed quickly from a “loving family” (albeit one with microaggressions) into a “space that violently reacted to my speaking my truth.” But racism against Jews of Color within the Jewish community is not without precedent. Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, postulated in a March 2016 article for The Forward that a piece of the white Jewish community “has made its peace with, and found a comfortable privileged place within, an oppressive racial order.”
In May 2016, a record-high number of Jews of Color gathered at a conference in New York organized by the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) to discuss their isolating, invalidating, and “uncomfortable experiences.”
Lindsey Newman, the program coordinator at Be’chol Lashon, an organization that seeks to expand and diversify the Jewish community, observed that, due to “the high rate of intermarriage, and adoption,” Jewish spaces are becoming “increasingly diverse.”
“The Jewish community is obsessed with losing people,” she told The New York Jewish Week. “If we keep building up barriers to keep people in, it’s really just going to keep people out.”
This year, the Israeli government has rejected thousands of African migrants and refugees. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have, historically, endured prejudice in Israel. After Israel won its War of Independence, many Mizrahi Jews migrated there and, by the 1970s, comprised half of the country’s population, yet faced institutional discrimination, chronicled The New York Jewish Week. In response, several formed the Black Panthers, who sought to achieve social justice for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.
In an August 2016 article for Tablet, Stacey Aviva Flint, a Jew of Color, chastised the decision of Black Lives Matter (BLM), another activist movement, to denounce Israel — the nation that welcomed “the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Ethiopia, North Africa, and Arab lands who were persecuted and driven out of their ancestral homes.”
Conversely, Donald Trump pledged during his 2016 presidential campaign to “Build that wall!” in order to prevent immigrants from seeking refuge in the United States. In February, writer and activist Elad Nehorai took to The Forward to expose how the political climate following Trump’s victory has precipitated an increasing number of Orthodox Jews to abandon “casual racism” — American writer Moshe Schulman revealed to The Forward that his ultra-Orthodox grandparents taught him “to fear black people,” whom they dubbed “vilda chaya” (“wild animals”) — and adopt “all-but-the-anti-Semitic aspects of modern white nationalist philosophy.” He referred to Trump’s calling Haiti and other African nations “shithole countries” in January and cited instances in which Orthodox Jews, a majority of whom voted for Trump, parroted this rhetoric — “that countries dominated by blacks are shitholes.” A majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump, he wrote, and “are the only group in the United States reporting approval ratings of Trump” — up to 71%, according to the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Nehorai characterized the lack of Orthodox community leaders’ response to Trump’s “defense of white supremacists with the claim that some neo-Nazis are ‘fine people’” after their August 2017 march in Charlottesville as “deafening.”
One Jew of Color told The New York Jewish Week that he hoped those rallies at the University of Virginia would “lead to increased bridge building between Jewish and black communities across the country.” Nehorai, however, alluded to the article “I’m an Orthodox Jew in Israel but liberals have become so deranged with hypocrisy, I’m actually standing with the KKK on Charlottesville” to elucidate how some Orthodox Jews became so disgusted with the left wing that they “started to soak... up” the “alt-right worldview” propagated by media like Breitbart and Fox News. He hypothesized that the racism of white nationalists appeals to Orthodox Jews, some of whom are “virulently pro-Israel,” as a justification for their Islamophobia. But such individuals are regurgitating “talking points that ultimately would call for their own destruction,” which protects neo-Nazis, he reasoned, by relaying the message to the American mainstream right that they are not promoting neo-Nazi ideology — that their “ideas are acceptable, because Orthodox Jews accept them.”
The irony is that the alt-right, who profess that Jews manipulate the news media to their advantage, are able to benefit from the Orthodox community’s endorsement of their hate speech.
“Indeed, to white nationalists, Jews are in fact the key to the whole problem,” Nehorai wrote. “It is the ‘globalist’ Jew who can hide in plain sight as a white man who has pushed forward the liberal agendas.”
And, with this in mind, the controversial term “white-passing” takes on a whole new meaning.
What is the global history of some Jews of Color?
There are dozens of examples of Jewish communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and South, East, and Central Asia listed on the Wikipedia page “Jewish ethnic divisions,” and extensive Wikipedia pages on the history of Jews in China and India. The Cochin Jews are a group that first settled the Malabar Coast of India, according to local legend, as narrated by American anthropologist David G. Mandelbaum, as early as 70 CE following the Roman Empire’s Siege of Jerusalem. Kaifeng, one of the Eight Ancient Capitals of China, was, says New York Times, a “cosmopolitan center on a branch of the Silk Road” from the 10th to the 12th century. Although scholars still disagree about when they first arrived, Sephardic Jews, either hailing from “Persia and India as traders” or “fleeing the Crusades,” built a community in Kaifeng; traces of this once prosperous community remain today in their 50 descendants.
In 2011 the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics tallied over 125,000 citizens with Ethiopian heritage, who originate from the tens of thousands of immigrants of the Beta Israel — House of Israel — that made the exodus from “drought- and war-struck Ethiopia” to Israel in several waves during the late 20th century, alleging descent from the Queen of Sheba and the legendary King Solomon, notes Encyclopaedia Britannica.
French ethnologist Edith Bruder, who wrote The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity, told Haaretz that there are Judaic tribes in Ghana, Mali, Uganda, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, some of which observe Jewish laws and rituals. Many claim to be descended from the lost 10 tribes of the Bible’s 12 Tribes of Israel, who delineates Encyclopaedia Britannica, were converted and assimilated by other peoples following the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE. According to CNN, historians do not find it “unlikely that these tribes migrated westward to Africa.”
In 2000, American geneticist David Goldstein, as he told NOVA, discovered, after examining the Lemba people, black South Africans, who adhere to “kosher-like dietary restrictions and slaughter practices” and “male circumcision rites,” that about 10% of individuals studied had the Cohen modal haplotype: six Y chromosomal markers Nature speculated a majority of today’s Kohanim (the patrilineal Jewish priestly caste) share. (2014 research published in Frontiers in Genetics, however, suggests that this DNA analysis may be inadequate support for Jewish ancestry.)
King Eze A.E. Chukwuemeka Eri of a community in Aguleri — commonly regarded by Wikipedia as the “cradle of Igbo civilization” — is one of many who believes that the Igbo, a Nigerian ethnic group, are the “Jews of West Africa.” He proclaimed to CNN that the Igbo are descendants of Eri, the son of Gad, the founder of one of the lost tribes. Indeed, historians have noticed that Igbo customs, such as “circumcising male children eight days after birth, refraining from eating ‘unclean’ or tabooed foods, mourning the dead for seven days, celebrating the New Moon and conducting wedding ceremonies under a canopy,” mirror those of the Jews and were observed before their “exposure to the Bible and missionaries.” The word “Igbo” might even be an alteration of the word “Hebrew.”
Rudy Malcom is an Intern Writer with Brown Eyez Publishing Group
Kiara Timo-Vaughn is a Lead Intern with Brown Eyez Co.