Op-Ed: “Jews of Color” Category Divides Jewish People By Dr. Naya Lekht

American Jews created a “Jews of color” argument to counter anti-Semitic teachings in California ethnic studies.

Naya Lekht was born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1989. Naya is the education director of Club Z, a growing Zionist youth movement where she created a program unique on the Arab-Israeli conflict. , Zionism and anti-Semitism that is taught to Jewish teenagers across the country. She received her doctorate from UCLA where she wrote about Holocaust literature in the Soviet Union. Naya researches the history of anti-Semitism and speaks widely on the topic of contemporary anti-Semitism. https://mobile.twitter.com/lekhtnaya

In the recent crusades for social justice, a category of persecuted peoples has advanced: the BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color). Rooted in the study of post-colonialism, intersectionality, and more recently Critical Race Theory (CRT), those who call for the emancipation of BIPOC do so in order to shine a light on a new class of persecuted individuals, whose rights must be protected and promoted. School curricula, the Hollywood industry, and the media are all calling for more attention to BIPOC, either through anti-racism educational training, more diverse hires, scripts with BIPOC characters, and more.

Behind not too far behind are Jewish activists and institutions in the United States, who proudly demonstrate that within the Jewish community, “Jews of Color” (JOC) must also be given prominence. Progressive Zionists emphasize Israel’s diversity in the hope that this will convince those who hate Israel to accept the Jewish state.

Jews from different backgrounds walk through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI).

The classification of “Jews of color” caught my eye during the recent California fight against educational malpractice in ethnic studies. In the original curriculum, known as the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), Zionism is portrayed as a form of white supremacy, Jews in the United States usurp power because they are white, and students must learn to oppose Israeli apartheid by supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. Rightly, Jewish groups on the political left and political right have sounded the alarm. The time for Jewish unity had come. And then came the calls for strategy: what were the best ways to oppose the curriculum.

Many argued that the entire program should be scrapped because it was so blatantly anti-Semitic. To this, many Jewish groups responded that it was unworkable. Perpetually afflicted with anxiety over the optics, many Jewish groups argued that opposing the entire program would make Jews look radical and further alienate them from mainstream Jews. As they say, “two Jews, three opinions”. And so, as the Jews fought over a strategy, the curriculum made its way to the office of California Governor Gavin Newsom for approval.

Among the successful solutions, led by some major Jewish organizations, was the proposal to insert a unit into the program on Jews of color. The idea was simple: we need to educate the population that Jews are not only white, but that there is a whole history of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, all of whom are dark skinned. . If we could simply show the world that we are not white – the bogeyman’s current avatar – we would clear up the mass misconceptions about Jews. Unity would highlight the history of Jews in the Middle East, and in doing so, Jews would gain sympathy.

Jews of Color were among those who represented Indianapolis’ Jewish community at the annual Festival of Religions to celebrate the diversity of central Indiana’s religious landscape. (credit: Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

What the authors of this unit might not have thought is that by doing this they would further reinforce the idea that the Jews of Europe, known as Ashkenazim, are white and that if there are colored Jews, then there must be white Jews. Indeed, if you look at the founders of the modern state of Israel, few come from the Middle East. Most were from Eastern Europe, reaffirming the stereotype that Israel is a European colonial state. However, what the authors may also have overlooked is that this type of framework divides Jews.

My father did not allow me to travel to Israel when I was a child and the first time I went to our homeland was as an adult. To this day, what I remember is the overwhelming feeling of respect and pride. Everywhere I turned I saw our people. I never thought that here they are Middle Eastern Jews, over there Russian Jews, and over there French Jews. I saw Jews, the Jewish people, a beautiful tapestry, once again in the majority in our ancestral land.

Masha Merkulova, founder and executive director of Club Z, a burgeoning Zionist youth movement, conducts an activity with teenagers in which she asks, “Where are you from? Teenagers often reply: “My parents are from Russia. To this, Merkulova answers: “And where did their parents and relatives come from?” Most teenagers shrug their shoulders. By doing this activity, Merkulova recovers the Jewish narrative. Club Z’s slogan “Jews are from Judea,” while simple, is very astute in its observation that Jews, though scattered throughout the world, all originated in the land of Israel.

To be fair, I do understand the drive to spearhead YCW initiatives: it emanates from the chambers of our history – the historic hope for acceptance. Accept us, we will be French in the street and Jews at home, we will recite Pushkin and Nekrasov better than our Russian compatriots, we will go by car rather than on foot and will be considered misfits, etc.

Calls for initiative within the American Jewish establishment to fund YCW projects and sing the praises of Jews of color pain me because it further divides our family. Jews are not a religion, they are not a race – we are a people with a common history and; therefore, a shared common destiny.

Original publication: January 10, 2022 in The post of Jerusalem