Black Jewish Voices Are Finally Being Heard. So Is The Racist Backlash.
As Jews of Color gain more visibility and representation in the Jewish world and beyond, we are pushing the boundaries of Jewish conversations on inclusion, race, and politics. Many in the Jewish community see the value of our contributions. But we are also facing a racist backlash.
The most recent example of this occurred earlier this month, when longtime Times of Israel writer Debbie Hall took to her TOI blog to specifically erase the Jewish identity of Jews of Color and Jews by Choice whose politics and racial justice commentary she disapproves of.
Hall’s basis for attacking the Jewishness of those mentioned in the article is a conspiracy theory she has developed, in which left-wing groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine are “convincing some of their recruits to portray themselves as Jewish.”
Using the term “Jewface,” she wrongfully accused four left wing Jewish women, including myself, of faking our Jewishness as “a planned strategy to add a kosher certification to the demonization of Jews.”
Left to her own devices Hall could simply be dismissed as a crank. But she has unfettered access to a mainstream publication like the Times of Israel – and not only that one.
She cites her conspiracy theory as the basis of her choice to target New York State Senator Julia Salazar and boasts of having contributed “research” to a Tablet article questioning her Jewishness during her campaign last year. While Tablet editors and writers justified the piece on Salazar as newsworthy due to her campaign, Hall’s TOI article makes it impossible to separate her participation in it from her undeniable pattern of racist harassment and abuse.
And thanks to her access to TOI and Tablet, she’s able to normalize these racist smears, not only against the left wing Jews of Color she personally targets, but potentially any Jewish person of color who exists in public.
It’s hard to put into words the absurd and existential violence of having your Jewish identity, faith, culture, and family torn apart by someone who has no compunction about harming you and apparently lacks the imagination to think someone like you could possibly exist in real life.
But the truth is it’s really just the most extreme and hateful manifestation what Jews of Color face every time our identity is questioned.
In fact, one of the cruel ironies of Hall’s piece is that it uses Jews of Color’s actual engagement with Jewish life, in the face of the very real barriers we encounter, as evidence against our Jewishness.
The complicated aspects of Jews of Color’s identities are actually testament to the strength of our faith and sense of community. The choice of how we engage with Jewish religious life is a personal one, and not the business of anyone but our Rabbis and those we are in close relationship with.
Thankfully, that which Hall assumes we couldn’t possibly have — a Jewish spiritual and secular community that claims, recognizes, and loves us — is the very things that will get us through the trauma of being targeted in such a bigoted and intimate way.
Hall’s piece and others like it exist in a broader context. Prominent Jews of color face constant harassment on social media, often from our white coreligionists. Hall has long been one of the most vocal examples of this, specifically targeting Black Jewish writers for their commentary on race in the Jewish community.
Hall’s and others’ attacks against Jews of Color, whose views cross the political spectrum on Israel, often include accusations of dual loyalty or the accusation that we support for Black anti-Semitism. They present Black Jews as betraying the Jewish community by publicly engaging their Black identity.
It’s impossible not to see these attacks as an attempt to rid the Jewish community of vocal Black voices, especially Black women’s voices, for the simple fact that each of the woman targeted in Hall’s piece is actively engaged in Jewish community, and is engaged in the hard — and very Jewish — work of struggling with the most pressing issues facing our people today.
These abusive and defamatory attacks on our Jewishness sends a message to every Jew of Color that if you participate in Jewish conversations on racial justice or if you criticize Israel, your faith and identity can be publicly torn apart in the pages of a major Jewish publication, with little regard for the truth.
These conspiracy theories reflect similar tactics to those employed by the right wing Birther movement which sought to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency by questioning his birth and origins.
Both are rooted in racially motivated skepticism around a person’s background that is used as excuse for a highly invasive and selective “investigation” into their life and family, irrespective of the facts or the personal impact of such harmful allegations.
Within the Jewish community, questioning a person’s Jewishness is, as Hall admits in her article, not only “considered uncouth and rather ugly” but violates religious law. But from Hall’s perspective, eschewing this basic norm of Jewish decency is acceptable as a rhetorical defense of the Israeli government.
Thus, she focuses on my background as a patrilineal Reform Jew, falsely claiming that I “was never raised as a Jew” and only began to identify as Jewish in college after joining SJP. She also bizarrely claims that my father couldn’t really be Jewish because he had a confirmation instead of a Bar Mitzvah, a common practice in Reform temples of the 1950s and 60s.
None of this is true. I was raised with Judaism in my home and have been publicly participating in Jewish life since childhood. In college I wasn’t just part of SJP, but also led a campus Israel-Palestine dialogue group, took Biblical and Modern Hebrew classes, and regularly participated in Hillel programing.
As an adult, I take my faith seriously, attending services weekly and actively pursuing Jewish education and Torah study.
In claiming that I and her other targets aren’t really Jewish, Hall seeks to isolate us from our communities. Thankfully, they have resoundingly come to our defense in a wave of pushback the put Hall on the defensive with a second piece where she doubles down on her claims and attacks those who opposed her, promising more smear pieces.
Hall has every right to disagree and even take offense at our positions, but she does not have the right to deny us our identity. These attacks on Jews of Color and Jews by Choice are not only defamatory and cruel; they are fundamentally harmful to the diversity of the Jewish people.
Embracing Jewish life in its fullness means understanding that there are parts of the community that we can’t control and may not like, but choosing to engage the whole of it anyway. Jews of Color can’t write the people and things that scare us or make us uncomfortable out of the Jewish community; we have to face them head on. The least our white coreligionists can do is share this same respect for the breadth of the Jewish people, and what our community can encompass.
Instead, we face attempts to write us out of a Jewish community that insists over and over that it’s not white, all the while trying to cleanse itself of its black members.
Having your Jewishness questioned on the basis of your race is nothing new for Jewish People of Color. It can happen anywhere and be something as seemingly innocuous as a question, or as dangerous as calling the police and instigating mob violence. Wherever it happens, it comes from a racially biased impulse that views us as inherently suspicious for not conforming to a Eurocentric image of who can be Jewish and participate in our communities.
In her Times of Israel piece, Hall targets Forward contributor Nylah Burton, making it clear that her decision to question Burton’s background came in retaliation to her public commentary on race and whiteness in the Jewish community. Claiming that Burton’s “act of depicting Jews as ‘white’ is woefully anti-Semitic,” Hall goes on to assert that she must have “had minimal exposure to Jews and was likely not Jewish.” In making this claim Hall reveals her own ignorance of long held US Jewish conversations on race. American Jews have been analyzing their relationship whiteness for decades, with books like Karen Brodkin’s 1998 critical race classic “How Jews Became White Folks” and What That Says About Race in America,” which turned twenty last year.
The only thing new, and apparently objectionable to Hall, is that Black Jews are now being given a more visible platform to discuss the ways these issues impact us.
Many have rightly condemned and sought to distance themselves from these anti-JOC birther conspiracy theories, including the nearly 300 Jewish leaders, Rabbis, and community members who signed a letter to the Times of Israel editorial board demanding that they remove Hall’s blog and post.
But until the complicit publications take action, these attacks and others like them have been a given the cover of legitimacy, and will only continue to get worse.
Rebecca Pierce is an African-American and Jewish filmmaker, photographer and journalist. Her work highlights racial justice issues from the United States to Israeli and Palestine, with a focus on issues affecting African Asylum seekers.