Brandeis U. Press and a historian split over how to talk about Jews and white supremacy
Marc Dollinger’s book, “Black Power, Jewish Politics,” sold more than expected in this year of racial reckoning, and by September, there were only 150 copies left.
Since the police killing of George Floyd in May, Dollinger and his book have been in high demand in liberal Jewish communities grappling with structural racism. Dollinger, a historian at San Francisco State University, has given dozens of Zoom lectures in the last seven months, and his publisher, Brandeis University Press, rushed to put out a fourth printing of the 2018 book with a new preface reflecting the current discourse.
Dollinger penned a 2,400-word essay describing the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, writing that suburban white Jews were increasingly recognizing how their upward mobility had “reinforced elements of white supremacy in their own lived experience.”
Editors at the Press objected Dollinger linking Jews with the term “white supremacy.” Dollinger objected back.
The dispute deepened until the publisher not only sent the book to press without the preface, but also took the unusual step of handing Dollinger back the rights for future printings.
For Dollinger, the imbroglio illustrates that even as many white Jews clamor to understand American racism, they are still deeply uncomfortable confronting how bound up they are in its structures.
“‘White supremacy’ is triggering,” he said in a recent interview, “and the meta question is, why that kind of response from that word?”
The directors of the press, however, see an author who refused to accept constructive criticism.
“We’re not uncomfortable about terminology,” said Sylvia Fuks Fried, the editorial director of the press. “We have a long track record at Brandeis of publishing cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields. The only thing we’re uncomfortable with is bad scholarship.”
What may seem like an ivory tower debate over semantics in fact reflects an enduring fissure in many parts of the American Jewish world. Black Jews are pushing white Jews, who have long considered themselves uniquely devoted allies in the fight for racial justice, to reexamine how they have benefited from whiteness and been unwelcoming or even discriminatory toward Jews of color within their synagogues, schools and community centers.
The preface dispute in some ways reflects a broader debate over the American Jewish story. Is it one of immigrant achievement aided by democratic and meritocratic values? Or of a white ethnic minority gaining access to the dominant racial caste of a racist society?
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, and the editor of the series that includes Dollinger’s book, said implicating American Jews in “white supremacy” gives disproportionate weight to the role of racism in their success.
“In Jewish circles, where Jews know that their parents or grandparents struggled, and were kept out of jobs, and were kept out of universities, and couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods, forgetting all of that and just saying, ‘Ah, they got there because of white supremacy,’ is not only wrong, but deeply hurtful,” he said. “Instead of that struggle, it’s all, ‘Well, they got ahead because their skin was white.’”
Yet amid a rise in antisemitic violence and hate speech, much of it at the hands of white supremacists, many white Jews recoil at even being considered white.
“It almost feels like white Jews, who often have a tough time claiming their whiteness, are some of the most fragile white people around,” said Ginna Green, a nonprofit communications strategist, who is Black and Jewish and speaks frequently on the topic of Jews and race. “Part of that fragility in the Jewish community is because even when Jews were white, they were still ‘other.’”
‘Not for the faint of heart’
Dollinger, 56, offers synagogues and other groups four (virtual) lecture options. The one about Jews and racism, he warns in what he calls a “cheat sheet” he sends to rabbis, is “not for the faint of heart.” He said he donates any honoraria he gets for the hour-long lectures to San Francisco State’s fund for students facing personal crises.
He starts by giving his Jewish bona fides: past board member at his synagogue and his daughters’ day school in the Bay Area; alumnus of Camp Swig, the first Reform movement summer camp on the West Coast. Especially with older listeners, he explained in an interview, “if they see ‘nice Jewish boy,’ then they can find me more endearing.”
He considers it a pedagogical trick — one that helps the audience handle the harder parts of the message he is delivering — a message they may not feel as comfortable hearing from a Black Jew or non-Jew.
“About half the time, at the end,” Dollinger explained, “we’ll get to Q&A, and I’ll say, ‘I just want you to know how privileged I feel, that I can sit here and talk about how racist all of us are, and you’re all smiling and saying thank you.’”
Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews Of Color Initiative, who is Black and Jewish, said she is grateful to Dollinger for telling white Jews the hard truths she can’t always tell them on her own. “My story is not their story,” she said. “They can’t see themselves in me.”
That barrier extends even to the kinds of terminology that Dollinger uses in his preface. “Sometimes Jews of color will have invitations to talk about ‘bias’ and ‘racism,’” Kaufman said, “but they can’t talk about ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white nationalism,’ because those terms make people uncomfortable.”
‘“White supremacy” is such a loaded phrase’
Dollinger never expected his 2018 book — “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s” — to be popular with lay readers. The book is a historiography — a history of the historical writing — of the Civil Rights era, and argues that even while the Jewish community recoiled from the Black Power movement, that movement’s nationalism and racial pride inspired Jews’ own cultural and Zionist revival in the late 1960s and 1970s. Over two years, it sold out three printings.
When the Brandeis press asked for the new preface in September reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, there were fewer than 150 copies left in store. Three weeks later, the number was under 100, according to Sue Berger Ramin, the press’ executive director. (Ramin said the press does not share print run totals.)
Besides his reference to “white supremacy,” Dollinger also wrote in the preface that “evolving Jewish communal consciousness” around race has helped white Jews recognize the “mistreatment” of Jews of color within the Jewish community, including that Jews of color “have been erased from almost all of the historical literature in American Jewish history, this book included.”
Ramin and Fuks Fried asked him to reconsider the language.
“Could ‘white privilege’ or some such phrase be used instead as ‘white supremacy’ is such a loaded phrase,” Ramin wrote in an Oct. 13 email that Dollinger shared with the Forward.
A day later, however, the editors sent another email, saying that, based on critiques of the preface they had solicited from “some other readers,” they had decided to start the fourth printing without it.
“We know that the subject generates controversy and engenders different opinions,” Ramin wrote. “The comments that we have on the essay has left us realizing that it would better serve the book placed as an OpEd rather than appearing at the front of the book.”
Dollinger wrote back that the decision was both “disappointing” and “unsurprising.”
“While I don’t know the details, I can only imagine the pushback is actually an affirmation of the need for the new preface,” he said in an Oct. 14 email.
Dollinger later shared the preface and the correspondence about it with colleagues. The academic rumor mill kicked into gear. Fuks Fried said in an interview that she and Ramin were subject to “abuse” over the issue, and feel that Dollinger “besmirched” and “lambasted” them in further emails and calls with them.
Academics who heard about the disagreement speculated that Sarna, the best-known historian of American Jewry and a powerful voice at Brandeis, decided against the inclusion of the new preface. In an interview, Sarna said he had read the preface in his capacity as series editor for Dollinger’s book, but declined to answer direct questions about his role in the editing process.
After further back and forth about the preface, Ramin and Fuks Fried suggested in a Dec. 1 email that Dollinger take back the rights to the book altogether.
Ramin and Fuks Fried insisted in a joint interview that the situation is about Dollinger’s unwillingness to take basic edits for the preface, such as not sufficiently explaining why he used the terms “white supremacy” and “erasure” of Jews of color. Having those provocative, unexplained phrases in the preface, they said — as well as his suggestion that his own book was part of the “erasure” — would simply turn readers off.
“It’s not about politics,” Ramin said. She shared an excerpt from one of two critiques she said the press received, keeping the writer’s identity shielded in keeping with academic practice: Dollinger, the anonymous reviewer wrote, “has abandoned the dispassionate scholarship that made his book noteworthy and instead embraced passionate advocacy.”
Fuks Fried said they handed back the rights, despite the Press’s 17-year relationship with Dollinger, because of his unhappiness with the situation, noting that they had eventually agreed to Dollinger’s request to include a version of the preface in the electronic edition of the book. She suggested that the multiple stresses of 2020 may have played a role.
“Two years ago, Marc would not have responded this way,” Fuks Fried said. “I think he’s under a great deal of pressure.”
Dollinger rejects the notion that he is under any special pressure. He said, “The act of dismantling the new preface, it’s a political act.”
From ‘the noble fighter’ to ‘complicity’
As the dispute unfolded, Dollinger consulted several colleagues who study Jews and race, and they encouraged him to keep fighting for his original phrasing. In separate interviews and emails with the Forward over the past week, the scholars said they thought the publisher had made a grave mistake.
Besides the substance of the argument, there is a question of protocol: While the Brandeis editors said it is their policy to send every piece of writing for anonymous peer review, several of the professors said it is unheard of for prefaces to be subjected to such critiques, because they are generally reflective essays rather than scholarly work.
“The only thing the editor has the right to do is suggest if there are grammatical errors, or if something isn’t clear in the writing,” said Hasia Diner, a professor of Jewish history at New York University, and the series editor for books on American Jewish history at N.Y.U.’s academic press.
Diner and other scholars who Dollinger shared the preface with also said they think his terminology — both regarding the “erasure” of Jews of color and how white Jews have allowed themselves to benefit from “white supremacy” — are accurate and appropriate.
Lewis Gordon, a Black and Jewish professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, who read excerpts of the preface at the Forward’s request, said that Dollinger was pointing out that the “investments in whiteness” of white Jewish scholars had led them to write a history of American Jews that was monochromatic.
They said that many academics and activists are now increasingly using “white supremacy” as a more forceful way to describe systemic racism.
“It’s not a political screed,” Eric Goldstein, the Emory University historian who wrote “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity,” said of Dollinger’s phrasing. “It’s a thoughtful, challenging, helpful approach that is intended to get his readers to think more deeply about the subject.”
Other scholars disagreed.
“White supremacy” should only be used to refer to the far-right hate movement that targets both people of color and white Jews, argued Pamela Nadell, a professor of Jewish history at American University. “That is not the right phrase to talk about the American Jewish community,” she said. Jews of color, she added, have been “largely absent” from scholarship about American Jews but “not totally erased.”
This dispute over whether to link Jews with “white supremacy” gets at diverging ideas about American Jewish history. Nadell says that Jewish ethnic culture is equally important as white skin for understanding why Jews achieved economic status in America.
“Jews bought into the idea of meritocracy,” Nadell said, pushing their children to get high school and college educations at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. When employment bans and restrictive covenants against Jews became illegal, they were therefore well prepared to broadly ascend into American society’s upper echelons.
Yet even in 2020, white American Jews are only beginning to understand the importance their race played in their ability to succeed, said Cheryl Greenberg, a professor of American history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and the author of “Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century.”
“We’re shifting from the victim, the noble fighter, to complicity” in systemic racism, Greenberg said of the way scholarly understanding of Jewish history has changed in the past two decades. “And it’s incredibly difficult to come to grips with that.”
For Sarna, however, the blow-up over the preface represents a threat to the peer-review process that is core to academic publishing. He compared Dollinger’s reaction to the edits, and the other scholars’ response to the dispute, to “cancel culture.”
“I can understand why the progressives want to put forth that argument,” he said. “Cancel culture often tries to work that way. They use bullying, but I don’t buy it.” If they succeed, he added, “then it will be impossible, basically, to have peer review.”
“As is so often the case, the extreme right and the extreme left merge, and both, I think, are doing great harm,” Sarna said. “And, as I often find myself, I’m in the middle, and trying to stand for what I think are traditional academic values.”
Though Brandeis and Dollinger’s relationship is now over, the press continues to promote the book, and includes it in a holiday gift guide under “New and Noteworthy.”
Dollinger said that several other academic presses have reached out to him to publish the next printing, though he would not name them or say who he planned to contract with.
And while he once was open to editing the preface, he now wants it published as is. He said the dispute has made the essay a primary source of its own, reflecting this moment of ambivalent enlightenment.
“It’s going to sit there with its imperfections,” he said.