Dmitri Shufutinsky

Colorism and the American Ashkenazi community

I’m tired of my mom and brother–and to a lesser degree, myself–getting surprised reactions and glances from people upon their realization that we’re Jewish. I wear my Star of David necklace on many days, so why is it that people even bother asking?

Too often, American Jews (or Jews in the West, more generally) like to condemn Israel for the difficulties that Soviet, Ethiopian, and Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews have faced and continue to face. Their statements about said discrimination and hardship not conforming with Jewish values–particularly for a country that was established partially as a safe haven for a people that was persecuted historically–is spot on. And yet while Israel is making strides towards more equality, and sees more Israeli children born to parents of different communal backgrounds,  America’s own Ashkenazi community seems oblivious to its own hypocrisy regarding diversity within Judaism.

The majority of the Jewish population in the United States ( as well as in places like South Africa, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) are Ashkenazi. (Of course, it wasn’t always this way–prior to the late 19th Century, Sephardic communities made up the majority of American Jewry.) So perhaps it is not surprising to some that when someone who is Jewish and doesn’t “look Ashkenazi” is met with stares or sees hushed whispering or pointing directed at them in Jewish schools or even synagogues. Then there are the inevitable and ignorant questions of seemingly nice or well-meaning people who strike up a conversation.

“Were you born and raised Jewish?”

“When did you convert?”

“Are you Messianic?”

“How did you raise the children? Do they celebrate both [Christmas and Hanukkah]?

“Are you really Jewish? How?”

Too often, that’s been the experience of my mom, a Black woman with Native American and Sephardic ancestry who has practiced Judaism all of her adult life and raised me and my younger siblings as part of the tribe (my dad is Ashkenazi, from Russia). Our reactions vary depending on how we perceive the intent of the person asking. Some people are just genuinely curious, and so my mom is simply honest with them. Others are more shocked, in a rude way, and her replies are more curt. But at this point, much of the time we laugh, shrug it off, or just roll our eyes, having become familiar with this. My brother, too, has faced similar incidents since a young age attending Jewish day school or being in class with other Jewish students.

My experience has been different. Aside from one or two occasions (and one of them was because of my Russian name), nobody has ever questioned my Judaism. In my Jewish day school, nobody of Sephardic or Mizrahi background ever questioned my mom’s or brother’s Judaism either; nor did Orthodox Ashkenazim. Nobody in Israel ever did, either–something I partially chalk up to the diversity of the Jewish community there (and, despite it having room for improvement, the government’s addressing of issues of discrimination and integration of non-Ashkenazim), and partially attribute to my Jafro (Jewfro-Afro) and skin the color of the Negev’s sand.

In the 20th Century, Jews (including Ashkenazim) were in the trenches of the fight for racial justice. Many of the Freedom Fighters in the era of Jim Crow were Jewish. Jewish Americans lobbied for support from Congress to assist Israel in bringing hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews out of impoverished environs ripe with persecution and danger and into the Promised Land. And today, many Jews are involved with social justice movements aimed at challenging the reign of Donald Trump and his close cohorts, who threaten many of the freedoms of oppressed and marginalized peoples (indeed, most Jewish Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and left-leaning candidates more generally in past elections). Yet for all the talk of social justice and outreach to minorities, the Ashkenazi Jewish community in the USA still has a lot of work to do regarding other Jews. I won’t say “Jews of color”, for we are all one people with origins in the Levant. I won’t say the issue is one of racism, for the same reason (although, as in all communities, racism does exist). It’s one of colorism–which exists in Arab countries, in Israel, in India, in Latin America. Sadly and disappointingly, it exists in America as well, especially in Asian, Hispanic, Black, and Jewish communities. 

Minorities, Jews included, cannot claim to be “woke” or fighting White supremacism while still holding internalized hatred of ourselves and our appearances, or being suspicious of someone’s beliefs or religious practices just because of their appearance. For the Black Community, fighting White supremacy and showing that Black Lives Matter starts with a boycott of Black musicians, such as Kodak Black, who make derogatory comments about dark-skinned Black women and only liking “light-skin women”. For the Jewish Community, standing in solidarity with other minorities and reaching out to them to form a political bloc to challenge and defeat our shared enemies requires reaching an understanding of how offensive it is to suggest someone is less Jewish because of a darker appearance. For that matter, there needs to be a massive reform of Jewish education, in particular with regards to Sephardim, that focuses on what happened to the Jews from Spain and Portugal (as my ancestors were), and explains how many of their descendants are now Mizrahi, or Black, Asian, Latino, or other races as well (Sean Paul, I’m looking at you). In any case, the paternalistic and moralistic superiority of many Jewish Americans towards Israel, minority groups, and non-Ashkenazim needs to be abandoned if they want to continue to be seen as progressives.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.
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