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Cries of racism, profuse apologies and a petition: A debate about Jews of color heats up

The publication of an article by two professors about how to count American Jews of color has spurred a passionate outcry in the latest flare-up of longstanding tension around the subject of how to count Jews of color, and discrimination against them.

On May 17, eJewish Philanthropy, a web-based publication serving Jewish non-profits and donors, published the article, which put the proportion of Jews of color in the United States at about 6% of 7 million, or 420,000.

That piece, by Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut and Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, contested the 12% to 15% estimate posited by another study by four researchers, from Stanford and San Francisco universities. The Forward republished the eJewish Philanthropy article the next day.

The scholarly debate set off a furor that included accusations of racism, the dissemination of a petition, internicine online debate and an apology from the publisher of the piece.

“Are you kidding me?” wrote “Des” in the eJewishPhilanthropy comments section in response to Dashefsky and Sheskin on May 18 at 8:18 a.m. “Seriously? We’re out here leaving the community on mass because everyone is so damn racist, and then you publish this.”

The professors had their defenders, however: “Thank you for this thoughtful and illuminating look at Jewish demographics. Unlike many of the commentators, I wish to publicly state that I stand with accurate data — period,” wrote Neal Loevinger on May 19 at 11:35 p.m., in response to Des and other critics.

On a scholarly level, the dispute boils down to which national research outfit the two camps consider the most reliable. The academics who claim Jews of color are at least 12% of the population cite work by the American Jewish Population Project, out of Brandeis University, as the most rigorous. The American Jewish Population Project estimates the percentage of Jews of color at 11.2% of the total. They also use studies of New York and the Bay Area to support their claims. The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative commissioned the paper with the 12% estimate, led by Stanford University professor Ari Y. Kelman.

Sheskin and Dashefsky discount the New York and San Francisco-area research because those parts of the country have disproportionately high populations of Jews of color, and they also hold a different operation as their gold standard — the Pew Research Institute.

It’s Pew that put forward the 6% number in its landmark 2013 study of American Jewry. Even if the 2013 data is somewhat old, they said, the population of Jews of color couldn’t have doubled, although it may have risen by as much as 1%.

The controversy around the scholarship was not only about numbers and methodology, however. Jews of color have reported repeated incidents of discrimination in the Jewish world, where they longed to feel safest.

The publication of the Dashefsky and Sheskin article reopened those wounds, said the petition. “The fact that Jews of Color experience racism consistently in Jewish spaces demonstrates the urgent need for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work,” it says.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, CEO of the Union of Reform Judaism, also said that Dashefsky and Sehskin’s article reflected racism:

“It is appalling that the authors chose to publish their article at all, but especially during such an uncertain, devastating period such as the one we’re enduring now. Sadly, their words reflect the stark reality that racism does indeed exist here, in our Jewish community,” Jacobs wrote on eJewish Philanthropy, along with coauthor Chris Harrison.

In some cases, supporters of Jews of color turned on each other.

The petition did not include the names of its writers. It was circulated on Twitter and Facebook. April Baskin, Ginna Green, Abigail Levine, Shahanna McKinney and Jordan Namerow led the effort, said Jared Jackson, founder of the advocacy group Jews in All Hues.

Jackson did not help write the petition but talked with its writers about it to make sure it aligned with his mission, he said. All five are noted activists; Baskin, for example, works for the Jews for Social Justice Roundtable; Green for Bend the Arc.

The petition serves a purpose merely by existing, said Jodi Bromberg, CEO of 18Doors, the organization that used to be InterfaithFamily and that serves many Jews of color. “The Jewish community has not historically done a lot to show Jews of color—or people of color who are part of Jewish life, or adjacent to Jewish life — that they are valued. This petition shows JOCs and the people who love them—in a real, concrete way—that they count.”

Jackson said he also is an admirer of the Pew Research Institute, but added that no institute or researcher is perfect. “Everybody has blinders,” he said.

Indeed, the editor of eJewish Philanthropy, Dan Brown, has apologized for running the article, saying he never would have done so had he known it would hurt anyone’s feelings.

Sheskin and Dashefsky denied that they are racist. From their perspective, quantifying Jews of color at 6% of the population is tantamount to characterizing them as a very important group — three times as big, they noted, as the population of Jews in the general U.S. population.

The article by Dashefsky and Sheskin is an adaptation of a chapter from the American Jewish Year Book’s 2019 edition, of which they are the editors.


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