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Jews of Color Get Personal and Political at First-Ever National Gathering

If you want to get black Jews, Mizrahi Jews and a Palestinian-American Muslim to burst into tears at the same time, invite Yavilah McCoy to talk about hair.

Speaking at the opening plenary of the Jews of Color National Convening, which took place May 1–3 in Manhattan, McCoy gestured at the woman beside her, a fellow black Jewish leader named April Baskin. “I was there one night when she was just a girl and she was crying with joy on the shoulder of another black woman, because that was the first time she’d worn her hair in a full afro in a Jewish space — the first time she felt like she could show up as her full self.”

Hearing this memory brought to life, Baskin teared up and diverted her gaze from the 100-plus Jews of color who had piled into the synagogue sanctuary at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which hosted the conference.

But McCoy wasn’t done. She turned to the audience and said, “Everyone here needs to hear this: You are beautiful. You are gorgeous. Anyone who told you otherwise was lying in the name of white supremacy.”

I was just starting to get unexpectedly emotional (if you grow up Mizrahi in North America, as I did, and you don’t meet the prevailing white standard of beauty, you can’t help feeling feelings as you hear a message like McCoy’s) when an elbow poked me in the ribs. “Is she crying?” the Mizrahi woman beside me whispered as she pointed to someone in the front pew: Linda Sarsour.

I clicked my tongue to say no way — why would the leader of the Arab American Association of New York, who constantly crosses swords with haters on Twitter and eviscerates them with panache, be crying?

Then I looked closer. Sarsour was crying. She was wiping away tears from her eyes with a leopard-print scarf that she’d paired with a stylish purple hijab.

Black and Jewish: Yavilah McCoy and April Baskin (far left) listen to their co-panelists at the opening plenary. Image by Rafael Shimunov

When it was Sarsour’s turn to get up on stage and address the gathering in her capacity as a Muslim ally, she told us how proud she was to be here with Jews of color. “We’ve been waiting for you. You are the piece that was missing, that piece that can bring us together, whether it’s on African-American issues or on Israel-Palestine issues,” she said.

With a catch in her voice, she added: “I know there are people who don’t want you and I to be here together in this space. But I want to say, especially to my Arab Jewish brothers and sisters, that you don’t only have a space in the Jewish world, you have a space in the Arab world, too. We will welcome you and embrace you in your full complexity. We’re waiting for you at the Arab American Association.”

As if she’d turned the tap on some hidden faucet, the Mizrahi women all around me instantly teared up. No point denying it: I did, too.

Sarsour’s message was so simple, but so powerful, if only because we never hear it. Many of us who identify as Arab Jews don’t realize how much we’re dying to find someplace where we can be seen as our full selves — both Arab and Jewish — until someone comes along and offers it. We definitely don’t get that invitation within the Jewish world, at least not beyond the occasional token Mizrahi melody or couscous dinner.

This desire to own all aspects of a hyphenated identity at once was probably the most pronounced unifying theme for the conference participants, who spanned the gamut of skin tones and religious observance levels. We shared the experience of feeling like outsiders, and many shared an overlapping constellation of marginalized identities like non-whiteness, queerness and far-left politics (although it soon became clear that not everyone had the same political views on Israel and Palestine). Presented by the Jewish Multiracial Network and by Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, the event included African Americans and Latinos and Asians alongside Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

Some called the gathering “a family reunion.” Others called it “a love letter from us to ourselves.” Still others could be found joking in the halls between sessions that this was “a Jewish discontinuity conference” — because, although matchmaking efforts abounded (hell, I was directed to a #Twinder hashtag for Jews of color and a queer dating Google doc), the sense was that the couples who might emerge from this conference were not the sort that the Jewish establishment wants to see.

But the atmosphere wasn’t all peace, love and kumbaya. There were tense moments: confrontations in the halls, tearful late-night geopolitical debates.

Mostly, those moments were a credit to the conference organizers, who could have shied away from tough topics but chose not to. In the session on Mizrahi history, for example, Ilise Cohen gave a tour-de-force, lightning-speed slideshow that covered things I’ve never heard spoken aloud in a Jewish space before, like the ringworm affair (which saw Mizrahi children subjected to devastating levels of radiation, a treatment that was meant to cure them of ringworm but that actually caused cancer) and the kidnapped Yemenite babies affair (which saw children taken from their parents in the newly founded state of Israel). Even a Yemenite Jew in the workshop had never heard of the Yemenite babies affair until that moment, which goes to show how under-discussed this history is in mainstream Jewish education.

Then there was the session on “Understanding and Navigating Anti-Semitism as a Jew of Color.” Not exactly an easy subject to tackle, especially at 10:00 a.m. on a Monday, and especially in a space dominated by youngish left-wing Jews (including a robust Jewish Voice for Peace contingent) who tend to bristle at the increasing tendency to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. But workshop leaders Yasmin Safdié and Julián Padilla thoughtfully explained why this conversation was important.

“Anti-Semitism can be a wedge between our communities and ourselves, and also within us, making us feel torn between different identities we hold simultaneously,” Padilla said. “Personally, I have put aside fighting anti-Semitism at times to fight for racial justice, but now I want to bring my full self. I’m done picking.”

Image by Rafael Shimunov

Ironically, the worksheet passed around to this group of Jews of color to explain anti-Jewish oppression itself replicated an Ashkenazi view of anti-Semitism. “This doesn’t really take into account how Jews of color would have experienced oppression” in the Middle East or North Africa, one of the participants told me, pointing to a line about how Jews were “the buffer between communities of color and the white, Christian, ruling elite.” But the leaders seemed well aware of that — Safdié had opened by acknowledging that “our prevailing concept of anti-Semitism is a European construct” — and even this critique emerged in response to the leaders’ request that we point out anything lacking.

Inevitably, when we broke into small groups, conversations turned to the intersection of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Afterward, one participant told me she was concerned about the “super triggering” reaction she got when she stated that for her, “being pro-Israel and being pro-Palestine are not mutually exclusive.” Another participant told her that she was wrong, that Israel should cease to exist and that Israeli Jews should have to live elsewhere. Hearing this, she didn’t dare mention that she identifies as a Zionist. “I would never in a million years admit that I’m a Zionist!”

There was pain in that admission, and a sad bit of irony, too. Here was an ultra-progressive environment where people had gone to great lengths to make the space inclusive and accessible — no fragrances, no flash photography, no addressing people without first determining their preferred pronouns — and yet had apparently also yielded a space where some Jews felt afraid to voice their political opinions.

A later panel on “U.S. Social Justice Movements, Israel, Palestine, and the Role of Jews of Color” also provoked tension. As the panelists discussed Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement in relation to Palestine, a clear split emerged between those who support intersectionality (the idea that these liberation struggles are inextricably linked) and those who find the analogy counterproductive. This perennial tension within intersectional social justice movements — the question of what’s lost and what’s gained when we create these linkages — was on full display, but it didn’t get worked through. I wished that the panelists had modeled a way to intellectually grapple with that tension.

For Oraneet Shikmah Orevi, a 30-year-old Mizrahi legal aid attorney from the Bay Area and one of few Israeli-Americans at the convening, the issue with the panel was that it was “very America-centric,” since none of the panelists said they’d lived in Israel or Palestine for any meaningful duration. “I have been desperate for the opportunity to discuss this topic in the framework of Jews of color, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews,” Orevi said. “But we are missing the point if we’re having this discussion without inviting Israelis living in Israel and Palestinians living in Palestine to be the starting point of the conversation. We’re using our own privilege in a super f—ked up way, because we don’t live there, we don’t live the daily conflict. And we can’t call white Ashkenazim out on their privilege if we don’t call out our own.”

This preoccupation with privilege was a dominating concern at the conference, for obvious and well-founded reasons. But for some, particularly among the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, this preoccupation meant that they almost self-policed themselves out of attending the conference in the first place. “Do I have too much privilege to be here?” I heard one Mexican-Iranian Jew wonder aloud. Another Mizrahi, Keren Soffer Sharon, who helped organize the conference and who has roots in Baghdad, said, “I had so much guilt about participating in this space as a light-skinned Jew. But it was actually my JOC friends who were like, ‘Just shut up and come with us.’”

Baghdadi Reunion: The author (center) with Annabel Raby and Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani. Image by Courtesy

I’m glad they did come. For me, it was extremely powerful to meet my Mizrahi sisters from Bombay and Baghdad. (Okay, not literally sisters, but we probably are related somehow.) For the first time in my life, I found people outside my nuclear family who know what halek is: Baghdadi haroset made of date juice and crushed walnuts. And when one of them started singing an Iraqi melody for the “Ma Nishtana” song, which she had never heard anyone outside her family sing and was starting to think her relatives had just invented, another woman ran up behind her and carried on the tune. The three of us almost passed out from laughter and happy tears. That’s how good it feels to finally see your story reflected in another human being.

Beyond these moments of personal connection (which, among other things, yielded very important tips on which hair products work best on our specific type of curls), I appreciated the concrete suggestions as to how Jewish institutions can get better at diversity. As Chava Shervington, the president of JMN, told us, “We can’t just wait for people to be inclusive. We have to make suggestions. We have to find out what moves each person — and that requires research on our part.” For example, she said, an Orthodox synagogue might be convinced by language like “We’re all created in God’s image,” but that’s not going to work on federations; they’ll start to care when you bring them statistics like “12% of Jewish households in the New York area include a person of color.”

Jews for Justice: Chava Shervington (far left) and Sara Goldberg at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Image by Rafael Shimunov

Right before the conference morphed into an after-party, complete with some seriously impressive Jewish twerking, castanets and ululations, I caught up with Baskin. When I asked her what she’d want people who weren’t at the conference to know about it, she said, “You will continue to see us chipping away at the myth that Jewish is synonymous with Ashkenazi. This is one piece of that, but there’s much more to come. Get ready now so that you don’t act all surprised. And get excited. One of the many things Jews of color bring is that there are so many ways to embody Jewish identity. So — you’re welcome!” Baskin laughed. “You can thank us later. In the meantime, just be kind and make space.”

Being kind and making space: Those sound like good orders of the day for all of us moving in these circles.

Sigal Samuel is the Forward’s opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SigalSamuel

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