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By Arielle Isack

IN 2020, after millions took to the streets to protest George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, institutions across the US faced calls to address their role in upholding white supremacy. These included organizations in the Jewish community. In June 2020, a group of nonwhite Jews penned an open letter that they titled “Not Free to Desist,” which called upon Jewish institutions to adopt specific diversity guidelines and funding procedures in order to counter anti-Black racism. The letter asked these groups to commit, among other things, to ensuring that at least 20% of their workforces and senior leadership teams consisted of Jews of color (JOC) and other people of color, and devoting 20% of their total funding to initiatives led by JOC and POC. The demands came with a timeline: The group recommended that Jewish organizations commit to fulfilling at least four of the seven listed obligations within a year, and all seven within three years. Hundreds of Jewish organizations—mostly progressive groups like Avodah, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Brooklyn synagogue Kolot Chayeinu, along with some establishment stalwarts like the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Union for Reform Judaism—signed on.

As that final three-year deadline approaches, however, the letter writers are unable to confirm whether any of the signatories are on track to fulfill the funding or hiring recommendations. Lindsey Newman, director of community engagement at the progressive Jewish organization Bechol Lashon and one of the three organizers who wrote the letter, said in an interview that the demands had helped give rise to “new and innovative initiatives” at a number of organizations, but acknowledged that the letter organizers “don’t have specific data on the progress of individual organizations in achieving the change outlined in the seven pillars.” Graie Hagans, an anti-racism facilitator and organizer at Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish advocacy group, observed that “there’s a big list of all of these organizations that have said they want to do these things” but “by and large, they haven’t.”

Jews of color who have organized to make Jewish spaces more attentive to the needs of their nonwhite members say that those efforts have lost some momentum since reaching a peak in 2020. “When things blow up, there is pressure to do a lot of reconciliation around racism,” said Hagans. They added that such moments often give way to periods of confusion and produce little follow-through. While the letter was “a good organizing tool to get people on the record saying they are committed to all these things,” Hagans said, its authors “don’t actually have anything to leverage that change.” Others were more critical of organizing that focuses on increasing JOC representation within existing, flawed institutions. “Groups wholly dedicated to representational diversity are not effective or useful in any way, nor do I see any real demand for that from Jews of color,” said Shoshanna Brown, who co-founded the Black Jewish Liberation Collective (BJLC), a national organization of Black Jews, in 2015. Organizers noted their frustration with institutional inactivity and their skepticism with some existing JOC programming. “A majority of the offerings [housed in mainstream institutions] have not been made or designed by Jews of Color, or they’re designed by JOC who have no substantial training in anti-racist movement building,” said Brown. “The only benefit is that all these white people who run the organization get to pat themselves on the back.”

As anti-racism organizers in the Jewish community navigate the post-2020 political terrain, some are shifting toward new approaches. BJLC, for example, focuses not on amplifying Black presence in Jewish spaces, but on organizing against structural forms of anti-Blackness—specifically, policing and incarceration. In the past two years, the group has experienced some growth, securing funding for new programming. Meanwhile, Brown has watched other JOC-founded organizations spring up in response to the specific needs of racialized communities: JewTina, which organizes Latinx Jews, hosts social justice fellowships and provides community programming events, including a fellowship that brings participants to the US–Mexico border to connect Jewish experiences of migration to the present immigration crisis. LUNAR, a national organization of Asian Jews, hosts Shabbat events and “processing spaces” in the wake of anti-Asian hate crimes. Organizers say that many of the new initiatives advanced by JOC are still finding their footing and have yet to figure out whether they serve primarily as affinity spaces or political organizations. “I’m watching an ecosystem that has a bunch of things blooming right now, but there’s not much holding it together,” Hagans said.

THE TERM “Jews of color” first appeared in a 2001 issue of the Jewish feminist magazine Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Friends, in an introduction to works of art by Jewish women of color written by activist Shahanna McKinney-Baldon. “Mindful use of the term Jews of Color can be a political act,” she wrote. Like “people of color”—which dates back to the 1960s, when it was used by Black organizers to highlight commonalities between experiences of racialized groups—she argued that “Jews of color” can serve as “a basis to do coalition building among all people targeted by racism as nonwhites.” It is a “place to begin,” she writes, “or a basis [from which] to think about racism within the Jewish community.”

The term attained mainstream status only recently. Over the past decade, many progressive Jewish organizations have established programs specifically for nonwhite Jews: In 2015, Leo Ferguson launched a JOC caucus at the New York-based Jewish progressive organization JFREJ. Bend the Arc, which hosts leadership programs for progressive Jews, dedicated four cohorts of its Selah Leadership Fellowship to nonwhite Jews beginning in 2014, and Ammud, a Jewish educational organization, founded a JOC Torah Academy in 2019, where JOC instructors and students gather to learn Hebrew and study religious texts. The first national Jews of Color Convening was hosted by JFREJ, Bend the Arc, and the Jewish Multiracial Network in 2016 at a synagogue in Manhattan, where around 150 people attended workshops, lectures, and strategy sessions about anti-racism efforts in Jewish organizations. In his report after the event, Ferguson wrote that the conference sent a “clear message” to the Jewish community that “Jews everywhere must commit to working for racial justice in coalition with People of Color-led movements.”

This message was heard not only by progressive organizations, but also by establishment Jewish institutions—places where the JOC movement has encountered significant roadblocks. In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) launched its Collaborative for Change fellowship for Jews of color, which awarded five fellows $25,000 each to create projects that, according to a press release, “expand awareness and understanding of how antisemitism and racism overlap and intersect in ways that are uniquely harmful to Jews of Color.” The ADL also announced that the inaugural class of fellows would be led by Tema Smith, a Black Jewish woman who had previously worked as director of community engagement at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. In her old role, Smith had written about the need for the Jewish community to confront its racism—calling out Jewish leaders, for example, for revealing their own anti-Blackness by stoking decontextualized fears of Black antisemitism. On Twitter, angry critics used Smith’s anti-racism work as evidence that the ADL had abandoned Jewish interests for the progressive dogma of identity politics. The ultra-conservative Jewish News Syndicate ran a piece titled, “The ADL’s new Jewish outreach director hates Jews,” which argued, “Rather than educating anyone about the threat of anti-Semitism, [Smith] tells Jews they’re racists.”

The tirade against Smith also prompted scrutiny of the ADL’s definition of racism—published well before her hiring, in July of 2020—which referred to ​​“the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.” Critics argued that this definition failed to account for antisemitism by lumping in Jewish people with the racist oppressors, when they should be understood as the oppressed. Seth Mandel, the executive editor at Washington Examiner magazine, tweeted that the definition essentially “koshered” antisemitism. Author Gary Weiss decried it as evidence of the ADL’s “capture by the woke mob.”

Rather than defend either Smith or the definition of racism that aligned with the work she’d done throughout her career, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt published a Medium post on February 22nd acknowledging that the definition had “alienated many people . . . in the Jewish community” and announcing a new one focused on interpersonal bias rather than structural factors: “Racism occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment of an individual or group based on race or ethnicity.” By omitting mention of whiteness, this definition tacitly positioned antisemitism as a form of racism equivalent to anti-Blackness and other forms of prejudice—and removed any suggestion that white Jews might benefit from racial hierarchies. Smith, meanwhile, made her own Medium post in which she apologized for sometimes having been “insensitive to some members of our Jewish community.”

The episode occurred during a moment of broader discontent with the Jewish establishment’s response to JOC organizing. In an op-ed published in the Forward on April 7th, 2022—three months after the ADL launched the Collaboration for Change fellowship—Ilana Kaufman, founder of the Jews of Color Initiative, a nonprofit that makes grants to JOC leaders and organizations, expressed her disappointment with the lack of progress that Jewish institutions had made despite their ostensible commitments. “After all the diversity committees . . . I look out at my community and there is little, dare I say nothing, to show for these efforts,” Kaufman wrote. (I have worked as a freelance copywriter for a communications firm at which the Jews of Color Initiative is a client.)

In interviews with Jewish Currents, grassroots JOC organizers said they had grown disillusioned with the idea, exemplified by the NFTD letter, that their activism could meaningfully change mainstream Jewish institutions. “Groups know about JOC power, and they know that not partnering with JOC amounts to leaving power on the table,” said Rafael Shimunov, an activist involved in JFREJ’s JOC caucus. “They want that power, but in order to use it, they have to change what their organizations are. And those that are not willing to do that will always end up harming our communities.” Ferguson, too, said his interests had shifted toward building power outside such institutions. “There’s nothing specifically Jewish about mainstream and conservative groups co-opting the symbology and language of radical change and using it to advance their own interests,” he said. “We’ve seen the ADL hiring POCs and JOCs to make it seem like they have more credibility on the issue [of racism] . . . At least one way we can take back power from groups like the ADL is to say, your identity as a Black person does not matter on an individual level. It only matters insofar as we are organizing collectively with other Black people to advance our interests as a group. Diversity matters. But ultimately, the politics matter more.”

The BJLC, which is focused on organizing Black Jews around the issues that affect them, is an example of such an effort. Two years ago, the group—which was founded with support from JFREJ, which acts as a fiscal sponsor—secured new funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Jews of Color Initiative. (Jewish Currents has also received grant funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.) The grants enabled BJLC to expand its programming, which included hosting events for Kwanzakkah (a Kwanzaa Hanukkah crossover) and Juneteenth, and supporting Jewish progressives in local elections around New York in collaboration with JFREJ. BJLC also works frequently with the Movement for Black Lives, recently collaborating with them on their Black Futures Month programming. Brown indicated that the new funding would pave the way for new political programming, which is still in the works.

Seeking to grow and acquire resources often brings new challenges for grassroots groups. The question of whether to accept institutional support can be particularly vexing for JOC activists given that many mainstream Jewish funders prioritize Israel advocacy—an issue that has strained the Jewish community’s commitment to anti-racism work, especially as Black organizers have formed relationships of transnational solidarity with Palestinians. In 2016, for example, many Jewish organizations denounced the Movement for Black Lives platform because of its condemnations of Israel. “There have been institutions that have told us very blatantly that if we do work that points in the direction of Palestine, they will not be able to fund us,” said Brown. BJLC has assembled a working group to determine its approach to Israel/Palestine, and has yet to adopt a public position. Some organizers are hesitant to say that JOC groups should categorically refuse funds that come with strings attached. “I think it’s unfair to put the complete burden of transformation on BIPOC folks” when it comes to changing the community’s Israel politics, said Hagans. “If the solution is that we completely disassociate from white Jewish institutions and go our own way, we end up leaving a lot of things—networking, funding, power—that we need for our communities on the table.” Other activists disagreed. “I don’t think we Jews of color, or even white Jews, can organize to our fullest extent in organizations that uphold or help whitewash Israeli apartheid,” said Shimunov.

Despite these tensions, the proliferation of new organizations indicates that activists continue to believe in the importance of organizing Jews of color. Judi Williams, a BJLC member, said the group’s focus on both identity and politics has helped address tensions she’s experienced in other JOC organizing spaces: “Are we an affinity space, or are we an activism space? What exactly are we organizing around?” At BJLC, Williams said, “We understand that we can’t do our activist work—prison abolition, reparations, whatever it may be—without having the support of one another as a community. Both elements are baked into our organization.” For this reason, Ferguson said that he finds organizing around specific identities especially useful. “It has become very clear that—while there is always some utility around having a term like Jews of color—we should ideally be building depth around individual intersectional identities,” he said. Today, almost a decade after the founding of the JOC caucus at JFREJ, Ferguson said, “I’d much rather have a Puerto Rican Jews caucus, or a Chinese American Jews caucus,” than an umbrella-style JOC caucus.

Whether Jews of color come together in individual identity groups or as a broader coalition, Ferguson said, organizers must keep in mind that “the best reason to do organizing is out of mutual self-interest.” “That’s why Jewish anti-racism work can be so effective,” he said. “It’s when Jews can identify their self-interest as being deeply aligned with the interests of other people who are oppressed or marginalized that we will do our most powerful organizing.”

Read the full article from Jewish Currents