Jews and Racism: The Inability To Say What Matters

A quick search for Jews of color.

On March 17th, the Jewish Forward published an article about a Nick Cannon interview. The main critique of the interview was that the interview did not involve any Jewish people of color. Ironically, the writer did not ask for the opinions of any Jews of color about the interview. That same day, the editor informed me that they would not be interested in publishing my article about the Jews of Ethiopia. In her opinion, it was not newsworthy that the Jewish people of Ethiopia have achieved major change in human rights with the new Ethiopian government towards Jewish people. A government that previously treated Jews as second-class citizens. But at least she had the decency to respond.

My article detailed how the Ethiopian government would not only give Jewish people in Addis Ababa the ability to have burial rights, but would also provide them with land for their own cemetery, land for a community center, synagogue, and the very first Holocaust Memorial north of South Africa. This was not interesting to the editor of the same publication that covered Holocaust Memorials in London, Macedonia, Milan, and Ohio to name but a few.

I wondered, why would a news organization that seems to care so much about black people and the Holocaust be so disinterested in the events in Africa happening to black Jewish people and the creation of a Holocaust Memorial? Could it be possible that some people at the top of Jewish organizations have a little bit of an implicit bias problem?  To find out, let’s look at the facts.

Today, there is at least 40% percent of all Jews are Jews of color, 10% in America. They are either Mizrahi, Sefardi, or Ethiopian, or of some other non-Ashkenazi background. However, if you look at the Forward, Jewish Journal or Tablet or Algemeiner or any other Jewish publication, the coverage is nearly all about the white Jews. Sure there might be something about the Ethiopian Jews arriving in Israel or the rare time that a Jew of color gets a high position or a traveling piece that discusses someone going to an old synagogue. But rarely do you see an article about their current plight or unique culture and music, or past history and heritage or current events that happen in these places. Unless of course young people in Tel Aviv snap and block Begin’s road for a few days.

People often complain that antisemites conflate Jews as a white group. But why wouldn’t people of color conflate Jews with white people when Jewish Ashkenazi people do not acknowledge the Jews of color and the wealthy ones support the people who actively undermine the rights of minorities.

Jews had as much history outside of Europe as in Europe over millennia. Sephardi Jews created flamenco music, built business empires in India and the far-east, and wielded power over vast lands in Africa. However, few know of any of this because the only part that publications people prefer to focus is on fluff pieces on European-Jewish nostalgia, fear pieces on antisemitism, angry pieces of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and incessant dredging of the trauma of the Holocaust.

When they do look at the Jewish customs of the Mizrahi or Ethiopian Jews, they look at the food, but rarely interview and speak with people like Titi Aynaw or Ashager Araro (with exception of Alma).  Instead, we see a trivial rehash of the same commentary on 2000-year-old Torah tales instead of looking at the unique people and Jewish cultures that make up these tales.

Think of Purim, a perfect holiday that could serve for Jews to learn about the rich culture of Persian Jews.  The holiday about a Jewish Persian woman and how she saves the Jewish people in Persia.  But do we read about Persian-Jewish culture? No! We eat Hamentashen, we read the Megilla, we put on a costume but we do nothing to actually honor Esther and the culture that she represents for hundreds of thousands of Persian Jews.

I left home to photograph Jewish people because I realized just how little I knew about the non-American non-ex Russia Jews and I didn’t want to learn about it from books. In fact, I didn’t see any good books on this. There were travelogues on a few countries and photography books of synagogues. Screw the buildings, what about the people? What about the 2000 post-Israel history and culture?

In my travels, I learned from meeting other Jews of the peculiarities of Persian, Moroccan Jewish food, Bucharian Jewish customs and made a book detailing the tip of the iceberg and the need to dive into our colorful past beyond the tales of Hebrew School And yet, 9 years later,  I realize that as long as Jewish news organizations continue to have an Ashkenazi bias, we won’t know anything about the diverse Jewish community that we have.

This bias harms us in other ways. We the liberal Jews often speak a lot of being allies to black people and of equal representation. But how do we expect to be people who repair the world when we cannot even see the broken house we live in?

As an example, since 2012, I have been working with the Jewish community of Addis Ababa Ethiopia mentioned before. Through their trials and tribulations, which included antisemitism, attacks, and lack of recognition from Israel as well as times of great wins where they fight off COVID and gain recognition from the government that previously undermined them.  During these 9 years, I have reached out to the editors of  Tablet Magazine perhaps a dozen times, as well as to The Jewish Forward, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz. During the same time, I have seen articles published about a shellfish restaurant owned by Jews in Manhattan, articles about the importance of donuts, about the secret history of St. Patricks Day (there isn’t any, it was a click-bait article), and hundreds of other fluff pieces. I have published on the work done by a Hillel president for American colleges (my piece was edited to erase critiques and make the president look good and the modified article was published without my knowledge or permission), but I have been unable to get published for the work done by an Ambassador to help Jews of Ethiopia. I was published on the new building bought by a Buddhist Jew, but I could not get published about the murder of a Jewish man in Addis Ababa.

If we look around, this bias doesn’t stay with our community, it translates to all communities around us.  I noticed that when people of color say something anti-semitic, the Jewish press and Jewish organizations are very quick to spring to action and denounce their words. Nick Cannon was canceled and demands were made on NBC to apologize for the Michael Che joke about Israel and vaccines. When Ilhan Omar tweeted “it’s about the Benjamins” referring to Israel,  a resolution was passed with Ilhan Omar mentioned “Benjamins”. Yet no one was called out by name who had anything to do with the NBC show about the Jewish man who doesn’t want an Arab leg. When a white Republican congressman Paul Gosar and good friend of many white nationalists attended a White Supremacist conference, when a white Republican congresswoman Greene spread defamation that Jews started fires in California, when Lindsey Grahm was photographed smiling with Proud Boys and when Trump says that Jews are good with money and tells American Jews that Israel is “your country”, ADL, AJC,  ZOA, Stand With US and all other fighters for Jewish dignity including Tablet, Forward, Haaretz and other Jewish media that usually make strong demands for apologies, were suddenly silent. As Benjamin Netanyahu said, their “silence was defeating.”

And I wasn’t the only one that heard this silence, Columbia Journalism Review noticed it as well when they were wondering what happened to the Forward that the fearless Abraham Cahan built.

This blind spot for the wealthy and quick anger at the marginalized was not the way that Abraham Cahan acted. The anger and demands that we see directed in America towards the weak and the powerless people of color who say the antisemitic comment is no different from the lack of coverage of the history, suffering, culture, and the many contributions by Mizrahi, Sefardi, and Ethiopian Jews. American and Israeli Jewish organizations love to speak about diversity because there ARE Jews of color, but when it comes to covering and showcasing those Jews of color, they are not actually interested in covering it.

These editors love to look like woke liberals, but in practice, they appear to be no different from the liberals that Malcolm X excoriated. These social justice warriors in word are all too often silent in actions when it comes to covering the very real racism of settlers in West Bank, pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant sentiments in Israel, Orthodox slum lords in Queens, and the child and wife abuse of other religious homes. As a result of this dark silence, these scandals grow and fester until they end up on the front page of the New York Times, and then the same organizations point their finger at New York Times for inflating antisemitism for daring to write on a topic they should have written about.

The reality is, we the middle class are all the same. We love to point the finger at the weak and hide from the powerful. We shake our fists at the liberal Jews who fall from grace but cower from giving the same coverage to the pious ones who should be reprimanded more, not less. We love to speak about the contributions of Israel but we ignore the fact that those contributions are borne of diversity and that majority of those contributions come from a tiny portion of Israeli society. We love to dive deep into the Ashkenazi history and culture but we can’t be bothered to even scratch the surface of the rich history and culture of the other 40% of the Jewish population.

Why is that? My guess is that it is because we have been fighting antisemitism for so long, working so hard to convince everyone that we are good and deserving of respect people, that we have been unable to look at ourselves without fearing that we too will enflame antisemitism should we speak the truth, and that inability prevents us also from seeing the truth that we are becoming more like the rest of the world: blind to the multispectral community of Jews.

So in our fight to prove that we are good, we see only our accomplishments and not our shortcomings and we fear saying anything negative about ourselves in our news lest it be used against us.

But this behavior has not protected us from anti-semitism, but the opposite, we lose credibility and generate only more anger, more suspicions. We cannot be blamed for hate, but we also have to look at more than just material contributions as things to be liked for.

When I traveled and spoke to non-Jews about the Jewish people in their community, I often many stories about the Jewish people they knew. What I loved about these stories is that these stories never mentioned the Nobel prizes or the corporate empires. What they mentioned was the kindness of a Jewish mother or a Jewish friend. They mentioned the little financial help that a poor Jew offered an even more poor child.  People prefer kindness and understanding to braggadocio. We don’t need to convince that we are on the side of Republicans or Democrats. We don’t need to convince anyone that we are good or deserve dignity or respect, we must simply treat each other and others with respect. We don’t need to alienate Jews of color or show police that we are on their side, what we need to do is show that we live the laws of the Torah by being good neighbors, and not because we get recognition, not because there is a tax deduction, not because we can show it on a pamphlet, but because it is the right thing to do and because we feel good about it, no matter the race of the person.

The reality is that to move forward together, to be united together, to help one another in America, in Israel, and around the world, we must recognize our moral shortcomings, and we must address them. And once we have fixed the discrimination, bias, and racism in ourselves, only then can we expect others to fix their antisemitism too.

About the Author
Sam Livin was born in Soviet Union and grew up in San Diego. In 2012, he travelled the world photographing Jewish communities publishing a book called "Your Story Our Sipur." Today he continues to write about Israel and Judaism as he lives and studies business and ecology in Tel Aviv.
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