Several Jewish Facebook groups erupted with racist and derogatory comments after the Forward published an opinion article Monday by an African-American Jewish woman arguing that American Jews with light-colored skin are “functionally white.”
The response led three Jews of color and frequent posters in those groups to rescind their membership. In solidarity, the administrators of some Jewish Facebook groups suspended their groups altogether, hiding their content and not letting their members put up any new posts. Administrators and members of the suspended groups together started a new group meant to address the concerns of the Jews of color who had left in protest.
All of this happened on what is known as “Jewbook,” the loose network of Facebook groups run largely by and for American Jews whose total membership runs into the thousands. But it hasn’t led to a conversation about Jewish “whiteness” — Nylah Burton’s chosen topic. Instead, it’s started a reckoning about racism, both overt and inadvertent, across Jewbook. Allies of the groups’ Jews of color have rushed to repair the damage and keep them from leaving Jewbook completely. But for Burton and other young Jews of color, the incident shows that racism on Jewbook mirrors racism in the real-life Jewish world, and it might be driving them from Judaism altogether.
“I always knew that the world was like this, and that the Jewish community had a problem with racism,” Burton, 23, told the Forward. “But when you confront it, and when it’s happening to your friends — it paralyzed me. It’s really made question where do I go from here.”
Burton is a freelance writer based in Denver. Like thousands of other politically active Jews, she uses Facebook as her platform of choice to discuss Jewish issues with other Jews. Burton has compared Jewbook to “an online synagogue” — just without the steep membership dues. Because there’s no master list of Jewbook groups, it’s impossible to say how large it is. Some of the more popular groups, like “God Save Us From Your Opinion,” have nearly 20,000 members, while others have memberships in the low hundreds. In most of the groups there is a core membership that posts and comments frequently, with a larger number of observers. The groups have administrators and moderators that try to set the tone of the conversation in the groups, and who approve new members.
The term Jewbook has been in circulation for years, although not always with its current meaning. Until last year, the term was used more frequently by anti-Semitic users with the suggestion that Facebook, which was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, is controlled by Jews and Jewish interests. Now the term refers to a collection of groups that represent a broad spectrum of political viewpoints and cultural preoccupations, yet share overlapping membership rosters. And while each group may have its own flavor — the group “Is The Forward Ok?” questions the relative merit of this site’s articles — they frequently share discussion material.
When Burton’s piece was published Monday morning, it was quickly posted to several groups. While in some parts of Jewbook it prompted an animated discussion on race and Jewish “whiteness,” in others it provoked anger, disbelief and racist and race-baiting comments.
“Some of the comments seemed like they were in good faith. They brought up legitimate points. They didn’t seem hostile,” Burton said. “And then it just started to get pretty racist. It really just happened so fast.”
Burton wrote her article in response to Jews with white skin objecting to being called “white.” She argues that those Jews should not call themselves “white-passing,” even if they agree that many Ashkenazi Jews benefit from having white skin. She says that Jews enjoy the benefits of whiteness, like a higher rate of loan approval, or being less likely to get pulled over by police. But additionally, Burton says, Jews do not have to hide their ethnicity, like someone who is passing would. Burton asserts that this is because American anti-Semitism is not now systematic, and is not comparable to what she sees as the racist underpinnings of national gaps in education, wealth, health and achievement between black Americans and non-Hispanic white Americans.
Burton said that many of the people who commented on her article on Jewbook argued about it respectfully. Several people in the group Torah Trumps Hate, which has over 2,200 members, agreed with her Ashkenazi Jews benefit from “white privilege,” even if they can also be victims of anti-Semitism from white people. In the group Progressive Zionism, which has over 3,000 members, some posters disagreed, citing their own history of anti-Semitic discrimination, including name-calling, threats and exclusion from certain neighborhoods.
The most racist comments appeared to come from the group Jewbook Thunderdome, which has no moderators and whose description reads in part, “Keep it civil, or don’t. Whatever.”
A post in Thunderdome mocked Burton for writing in the article that she recently feared for her life when police were searching her Denver neighborhood for a suspect in connection with a local crime. She said that she worries for all the black men in her life, including her brother and her partner.
“This is why white Jewish people are not people of color,” she said. “Because if you are black in America, you understand that fear. You would never mock it.”
Several comments in other groups angered her as well. One person, she said, claimed that Jews were also victims of police brutality, and were sometimes identified as Jewish by the yarmulkes on their heads.
Another commenter compared Burton’s views to David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, because she was naming other people’s racial identity for them. Duke has strenuously objected to claims that Jews are white. The post was made in the group “Sounds like your ‘intersectionality’ doesn’t include Jews but ok,” which discusses the views on Israel and anti-Semitism held left-wing social movements.
Bentley Addison, another active Jewbook member, said that the comparison of Burton with Duke was itself a symptom of racism.
“There are 100% ways to disagree, and ways to say the perspective that Nylah gave is wrong and offensive,” Addison said. But, he added, “If it was a white person saying this, it just wouldn’t have gotten this kind of flak.”
Addison, 18, is black, and says he has also been the victim not only of racist comments, but of the kind of overreactions to his posts that he feels are a symptom of racism. Once, a person on Jewbook told Addison, who recently completed his freshman year at Johns Hopkins University, that he only got in through affirmative action. Another time, when Addison asked a Jewbook group member not to use the word “n*gger” in a post, the person responded with angry comments. This week, in defending Burton, Addison says was called an “oreo”: someone who is black on the outside but white on the inside. In other places, when Addison was defending Burton, commenters openly debated whether he was Jewish, and if so, how. He says he does not know if he wants to remain part of the groups.
Helena Thompson Cohen was the third black Jew to leave Jewbook groups over harassment. She said that she feels that there is little opportunity for her to speak about her unique experience as a Jew of color.
“If a Jew of color says, ‘Here, this is what is added to my experience by me not being light skinned,’ or however we’ll step around saying someone is white, then they get mad,” she said. “We experience Jewishness in a way that someone who isn’t black and Jewish could never experience it, and thats all we’ve been trying to say.”
Cohen added that the harassment has been frustrating because she thinks Jewbook is “an excellent resource.” Addison and Burton say the incidents hit home particularly hard because the people making those comments were not random internet “trolls,” like the people who insult them on Twitter. Instead, the people are frequent posters on the groups, and friends of their friends.
Some of those friends rose to their defense. In solidarity with the Jews of color feeling targeted in Jewbook groups, some administrators of more liberal groups decided to temporarily archive their groups, suspending posting and commenting. The groups skew young and are about two-thirds American, according to Rachel Pearl Parker, an administrator and moderator for several Jewbook groups. She estimated that about a dozen archived themselves in solidarity. Their memberships are in the hundreds to low thousands, and their names riff on Jewish culture, politics and internet in-jokes, like “sounds goyish but ok” and “Sounds Like Your ‘Intersectionality’ Doesn’t Include Jews.”
The administrators of the archived groups then created a new group, “jewbook conversations,” as a venue to talk about how to combat racism in online Jewish forums. Parker said that the plan is to keep the other groups archived until administrators and moderators agree on a pledge to combat racism and intolerance in them. Parker said there is currently a draft of the pledge circulating.
Burton is not sure that a pledge will have the desired effect of tamping down on racism in much of Jewbook.
“A pledge is great,” she said. “But the thing about pledges is that they’re easily broken.”
While only a few groups have made the decision to archive, other, more prominent Jewbook groups support their decision. Victoria Cook, an administrator for Torah Trumps Hate, said that group is “100% in solidarity with the archive action.” She said that her group did not archive because they are planning “resistance events.”
Cook said that the group “believe[s] that there is systemic racism within the online liberal Jewish community. We see it in our own group and are working to dismantle it in ourselves.”
Jewbook commenters on the other side of the issue have trouble understanding why the conversation is happening at all. They don’t understand what Judaism has to do with race.
“We should not be importing racial issues from outside our community into our community,” said Joshua Seidel, a frequent commenter in groups like “Jewbook Thunderdome” and “Sounds like the left hates Jews but okay.” “We need to see ourselves as Jews first, and not as either white or black.”
Seidel added that he’s never seen the conversations in Jewbook groups more toxic than they have been this week.
Burton is concerned that incidents like the response to her article can have far reaching implications for Jews of color in the wider American Jewish landscape.
“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 added.
Update, 7/6/18, 9:35 a.m. — This post has been updated to specify that a commenter compared Burton’s views to David Duke, not her directly. The article now states in which group the comparison to David Duke was made.
Update, 7/6/18, 10:00 a.m. — This article has been updated to put an asterisk in the word “n*gger.” The article was originally published with the full word.
Update, 7/6/18, 11:00 a.m. — This article has been updated to remove the name of the third Jew of color who left Jewbook groups after experiencing abuse at the request of that person, who cited harassment concerns.
This story "An Oped About Race Sets Jewish Facebook Aflame" was written by Ari Feldman.