The Challenges of Creating a Jewish Racial Equity Statement

We do not need to complete the work...and can we?

I want The Cholent to be a place where our community can feel safe to discuss challenging issues. This is the critical role community news and opinion plays, and this is the only place it exists right now, so I encourage you to engage either in the comments or via private messages. I stand in the middle, and my goal is to share balanced perspectives from the right and left.

So I was excited to see someone push back on last week’s piece on DEI/CRT/anti-racism. I want to address a few things.

  1. What is racism? Racism no longer just means prejudice against a particular group of people based on their skin color or ethnic background. Rather, it’s been redefined — literally, Merriam-Webster changed the definition overnight last year:

    “In its revision of the definition for racism, Merriam-Webster will attempt to show how racism isn’t just about discrimination or prejudice from one person to another but also about how longstanding institutions and laws and regulations buttress notions of supremacy and inferiority between the races. Moreover, the new definition may help us better see how white people benefit from racism since systemic oppression is ingrained in the fabric of American society.” (Vox)

  2. I don’t think we should reject anti-racism. Anti-racism has a lot of good stuff, like widening the lens through which we see our world and creating more diverse spaces — not to check a box, but to internalize a belief that a diverse society is healthy and productive. But anti-racism also comes with a handbook of ideas that have some troubling aspects, which I outlined in the last newsletter, i.e., white supremacy culture, its attendant baptisms, and false binaries. There is only racism or anti-racism. Everyone is engaging with one or the other at all times. According to Ibram X. Kendi, a racist is a not-racist in denial (binary). “We’re either expressing ideas that suggest certain racial groups are better or worse than others, superior or inferior than others” (binary). “The heartbeat of racism is denial, and really the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession” (Christianity). “To be anti-racist, again, is to recognize that there’s only two causes of racial inequity: either there’s something wrong with people, or there’s something wrong with power and policy” (binary).

  3. Then, there’s the question of to what extent systemic racism exists. Again, I am only sharing two opposite sides of an argument for consideration. A lot of people aren’t on board with anti-racism, including many Black people, who argue that yes, while systemic racism did exist and we are still feeling the effects today, there is nothing structurally holding anyone back from success anymore. Interestingly, their voices are rarely included in the conversation, and when I ask people if they’ve heard of any of these guys, the answer is no. While there certainly are problematic gaps in achievement, wealth, and education, these intellectuals and many others argue that correlation does not equal causation, and new social justice is not the solution to the problem.

  4. That leads me to: I would like our organizations to do more to promote viewpoint diversity. Mijal Bitton, Rosh Kehillah of New York’s Downtown Minyan and a Shalom Hartman Institute scholar in residence, makes the important but often overlooked argument that many immigrant and Mizrahi, Latino, Syrian, and Persian Jews are politically conservative, a fact that mainstream Jewish organizations tend to completely ignore or not even be aware of. Our idea of diversity really only applies to representation in left-wing areas of politics and thought. It just does not have meaningful room for the experience of a Jew who may have fled a socialist country and who would not sign on to an agenda that basically endorses Marxism. They came to this country for the same reasons we all did: because in America, the sky’s the limit, or at least we think it should be. Which leads me to…

  5. There are two myths of America. This is best outlined in an amazing book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. One version is the one we all learned: the pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom; America is founded on that premise, and freedom and equality are our quintessential values. The other version is the one we don’t really learn: Jamestown, which was about land conquest, gold, and tobacco. (You know a lot about the Mayflower, but what do you know about the Susan Constant?) This version is about money and what Americans will do to get as much of it as possible. This version is where The 1619 Project fits in.

  6. Now, I think American Judaism has tacked itself to the religious freedom narrative so tightly that it’s almost become a new religion. American Judaism is deeply humanistic and defined by a universal “we were strangers” narrative. So it makes perfect sense that our organizations are in step with almost every liberal social justice movement. That, and our history of exclusion, have informed our obligation to help the stranger, the poor, the marginalized, the sick. It’s all good. It’s amazing, actually. But it’s shockingly different from the expression of Judaism in other parts of the diaspora and Israel, where repeated injuries have not allowed for the same kind of wing-spreading. Call it American Jewish exceptionalism.

  7. The amazing thing about this country is that it’s founded on a set of ideals — but you don’t have to shed your identity to embrace and inherit those ideals, because your identity is legally protected against discrimination. New social justice inverts this. Now each of us is comprised of intersecting identities, and those identities are bound up in power/powerlessness. This, again, puts Jews in a weird place, because we both benefit from social power and suffer periodic bouts of violence and a constant din of anti-Semitic threats large and small and from every direction. Last but not least, this agenda is almost definitely going to get a Republican elected in 2024. If you think everyone loves the ideology of new social justice, I’d counter that your social circle…needs to diversify.

That was a lot. The point of saying all this is to help think about how to navigate this rapidly changing world. And one organization trying to navigate this world is the JCRC.

Racial equity statements are popping up everywhere, from governments to school districts to arts organizations to hospitals (in some cases making no discernible progress). It’s hard to find a place without a racial equity statement, but it’s kind of a Wild West. Organizations vary in their goals and philosophies, from promoting more sensitivity, tolerating less bad behavior, and diversifying the workforce, to aligning with more radical agendas. Some companies commit to things like better attempts at diverse hiring practices and easier websites for ESL speakers. Others commit to doing their share to overhaul white supremacy culture. Sometimes it’s hard to even understand what equity means, and explanatory illustrations are needed.

Last summer, the JCRC set out to create its own statement. Via creating mini consensuses around smaller issues with the help of organizations and synagogues and their members, they set out ultimately to build one big statement that would reflect the Jewish community’s position on racial equity with an emphasis on learning, inclusivity, allyship, activism, finding a common understanding about modern racism, and fighting white nationalism. This would require a 75 percent rate of consensus. According to JCRC director Max Patashnik, the issue was not whether they could find consensus, but where they could find it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, creating a Jewish communal statement on racial equity was harder than it seemed.

*

The process started out with a lot of energy and has, according to participants, been overwhelmingly positive and eye-opening. The JCRC opened up to the entire community two lectures, one by Renewal rabbi and Jungian psychotherapist Tirzah Firestone on intergenerational trauma, and the other about the complicated history of Jews and race and immigration in America by Professor Devin Naar. The JCRC also has a resource list and videos, including one of a panel discussion on racial equity from the Denver Federation.

“The staff should be commended for putting together those together,” says JCRC member and Kol HaNeshamah executive director Connie Burk. “I’ve had the blessing, the opportunity, to do a lot of anti-oppression training, and I thought those offerings were really great.” Burk feels the equity work is a natural expression of Judaism. It invokes an I-Thou relationship and Hillel’s maxim: “If I am not for myself, what am I?”

“That could be our equity statement,” says Burk. Working for others can be grounded and self-respecting and not based on guilt. She reflects on the idea of Jewish trauma and its physical, bodily manifestation — something Tirzah Firestone talks about. “We’re always trying not to be targeted. We can work to set that aside, breathe through that, and come from a stance that’s our power, our love. So much of this is a physical task, it’s not an intellectual task. We sort of live from the neck up….I think that is also a hidden challenge.”

Both Patashnik and JCRC board chair Bill Mowat reinforced the idea that the efforts put forth to create the consensus were going to stay far from hot-button, divisive issues, and focus on the positive: how to make Jews of color feel more at home in our community, how to listen, how to be allies without compromising Jewish values. “I think that the reason why some people are scared about it is that they feel like somehow putting together a statement like this, it’s going to undermine our community in some way,” says Mowat. “That’s very dangerous, and believe me, that's not what any of us want.”

*

The hard part about equity work is that the good is tied up with the controversial. How possible is it to create consensus around equity when divisive issues like critical race theory and white supremacy are always looming in the wings, ready to take over the conversation? Is it possible to keep safe the cause of equity from “concept creep”? And if so, does that equity statement even have any teeth, or is it just virtue signaling?

“It may be possible that a JCRC can speak about racial equity in such broad terms that it doesn’t implicate them in any of these controversies,” says David Bernstein, founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. “If they’re talking about the rights of everyone, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not a problem.”

Bernstein is the immediate past president and CEO of the JCPA, the national wing of the JCRC. He left JCPA and started the JILV as he grew disillusioned by the social justice narrative that he felt was infiltrating Jewish organizations. He is also a signatory of the “Jewish Harper’s Letter,” which calls for support of traditional liberal values as opposed to progressive (often called “woke”) values, and he advises organizations and individuals to consider six questions before taking a stand on critical social justice.

“We need to think through more what some of these terms mean, like equity, like white supremacy, and deepen the discussion around these issues so we fully deliberate on this,” he says. “It’s when groups start using terms like ‘equity’ in ways that aren’t clear, or use the Ibram X. Kendi definition, they end up stepping on these ideological landmines. Before we use language like ‘America is white supremacist,’ is that what we mean? Those discussions are cut short.”

Bernstein believes the Jewish community should be involved in the racial justice movement, but “in our own voice.” There may be a price of admission, he says, from allies. This is something Jewish activists have long encountered in progressive spaces, where they find they have to check their Zionism at the door. What happens when Jews learn they are allegedly complicit in white supremacy?

Patashnik is fully aware of the challenges, and like Mowat, she’s been clear that the more controversial aspects of racial justice work won’t be part of the statement. “I would say, on the whole, we’re not using critical race theory in our statement,” she says. “We’d like to stay away from terms that fire up people’s egos and their visceral response. Part of the work is to look at: what are the ideas behind what people are saying, and to bring together the broadest group of people.” And one critical component of the work is to ensure that our own community members who identify as Jews of color are being treated fairly and as equal members of the community, not left to fend off assumptions that they are part of the kitchen staff or not fully Jewish or other indignities.

“There are people who are really amping up CRT and intersectionality,” Patashnik says. “There’s a lot of demonizing going on. There are these things that are happening, and our relationship to them is so complex. Then we have these extra burdens put on us by anti-Semitism. It’s super overwhelming. But it’s not an excuse for not doing it.”

“In LGBTQ work, my work meant bringing together all the radicals I was hanging out with every day — and my dad,” says Burk. “Being willing to use as plain language and as few litmus tests as possible is important. The reason we have litmus tests is because we have people who are disingenuous….People didn’t just wake up and say, I’m going to have a rigid stance. It’s because they’ve been flexible and sold out. How are we going to be what we need for our allies? We may not be everything to everybody. We can have integrity in what we’re doing.”

*

Even though the equity statement work has been positive, the logistics of getting some 50 people to move to the same beat proved challenging. “One really sticky area that we are trying to work through is Jews’ relationship to race,” Patashnik says. “Even terms like Ashkenazi and Sephardic, white Jews, white-presenting, white-passing. It’s complicated. We are a nation, a tribe.” Meanwhile, DEI and social justice work became increasingly divisive and partisan, with Republican legislators moving to ban CRT and The 1619 Project, and Democrats accusing them of suppressing education and dressing up old racism in new clothes. Mainstream liberals started risking their bona fides by admitting their skepticism of progressivism; organizations like JILV emerged to help support people to speak up.

“When we embarked on this, frankly, I don’t think we knew how hard it would be, maybe because it’s playing such a giant role in our national discourse and the concepts around it are being polarized,” says Patashnik. “It’s much more challenging than, say, voting rights or any other number of issues. This has been way more time intensive and harder than we thought it would be.”

In the midst of all this, Gaza happened, and Jewish community leaders were called to the scene of a five-alarm fire. Anti-Semitism on social media skyrocketed, Jews were attacked on American streets, and yet more American Jews than ever before came out critical of Israel’s actions, with some observing that Americans were projecting this country’s racial reckoning onto Israel. As I’ve talked about before, terminology shifted to frame Israel as “Jewish supremacist” and “ethnonational,” words that imply a connection to white supremacy and fascism. At the same time, many Americans watched with dismay as the aspirational reforms of last summer seemed to result in more violence, less police presence, and slow recovery.

When your own community is dealing with mayhem, it’s hard to focus on improving the daily conditions of people outside that circle. It’s yet to be seen what version of equity work will achieve success, and who will be leading it. According to a JCRC member who preferred to go nameless, the equity consensus is likely to finally get finished behind closed doors by a handful of people. It probably won’t be a uniquely Seattle-based statement, as hoped, but an adaptation of another city’s work. It’s important work, but the Jews are tired.

Jewish communal DEI work will surely continue, and so will the challenges of finding the right path. It seems probable that the effort will continue to follow a progressive agenda, which will bring some people on board and leave others behind. Some ideas will stick, others will wash away. And hopefully, all this attention on justice and equity will actually result in positive changes for marginalized people, and not end up hurting them or leaving them out in rain as their allies move on to the next thing.

Ideally, though, we will continue to have honest and thoughtful communal discussions around how to actually improve the world and which instruments to bring to the job.

“Jews have a way, we have tools for dealing with longstanding disagreements,” says Burk. “How many traditions have stories of two leaders with two diametrically opposed views, and angels saying, ‘you’re both right?’”

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P.S. I’m taking next week off. Unless something big happens. Please don’t let anything big happen next week.


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