The discussion about the remit of a well intentioned commission that has been underway for a few months now, all feels like it is going down a route that is diluting and mixing several issues together that all merit separate discussions. Do the non-Ashkenazim in our community face issues of inclusivity? Was it right for this particular commission to explore that?
Yes, non-Ashkenazi Jews face discrimination in our community. Some of that is of a Jewish nature (e.g. insinuations of being somehow less Jewish or having “wrong practices”), and some of it is more classic or recognisable racism, for example, on finding out that my mother’s family are Bene Israel Jews from Mumbai, a Rabbi once asked me if my grandparents worked in a call centre, or the kid in my Jewish school who asked me if my parents worked in a corner shop. Or that stare from someone in shul because you’re a bit darker skinned than most other people there, and should you really be there or are you up to something?
Those dismissing the need for a look at the experiences of non-Ashkenazi Jews in the UK are wrong. There has long been a need to look at this, a need to look at how Jewish history is taught (i.e. it is currenlty only Ashkenazi history that is taught, and whenever Sephardi history is mentioned, it is often only through a prism of learning about the history of explusion of Jews from Arab countries and then politicised for the purpose of talking about the right of return for Palestinians), and a need to look at how our community understands its make-up.
A communal organisation trying to deal with racial inclusivity is admirable and long overdue. But, and I say this as someone who has given evidence to the Board’s commission in to racial inclusivity, this was not a perfect process.
This was set up as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was right to look at the experience of those who define as Black Jews. The decision to then include other, non-Ashkenazi groups was noble but misguided, and there should have been no perception (or reality) that there would be a focus on one group more than another as part of the same commission.
However, the commission and remit had already been announced, and something was long overdue, so I engaged. But I also had an additional problem with the commission in the way non-Ashkenazi groups were divided up for evidence giving sessions. A separate one for Sephardim, Mizrachim and Yemenite Jews, and one for non-Black Jews of Colour. I have never had to question whether I am Sephardi or a non-Black Jew of colour before. I quite abruptly felt cut off from something that I always felt part of because someone had decided that a non-Black Jew of Colour wouldn’t fit into a Sephardi category. None of this has even begun to touch on whether your experience counts if you only have one Sephardi parent. Can you still call yourself Sephardi if you don’t fit the ‘traditional’ definition?
When I voiced this concern, I was told that I could give evidence to both sessions, but the slightly damaging question had already been raised. Unfortunately, these sub-group divisions showed a further lack of understanding about the non-Ashkenazi parts of our community.
What’s the answer?
This was never going to be an easy, straightforward project. It is still a good thing that a mainstream communal organisation was willing to step forward and have the conversation about racial inclusivity in our community in a serious way.
But the tension between whether this should focus on the experience of Black Jews, or have its remit expanded to include others, was one that maybe could have done with some out of the box thinking.
A look at the experience of Black Jews and a look at the experience of non-Ashkenazi Jews shouldn’t have been lumped together.
Furthermore, the experiences of non-Ashkenazi Jews are so widely varied that dividing them up in such an arbitrary way was not right either. Our community is more complicated than that. Our identities are more diverse than this allowed space for.
Similar criticisms are levelled at the term grouping Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) together, which is now often just a clumsy blanket term for a non-white experience. The commission should have learnt from that.
The answer is that we have to get better at understanding identity and racial intersectionality in our community.
This commission may not achieve that, but getting people to share their experiences was a good thing.
What’s done is done, the commission has already established its remit. What’s important now is how we look at the recommendations it will produce and almost more importantly, learn from the process it went through to develop them.
- This piece was written in a personal capacity