Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Sigal Samuel on the Jews of Color Conference

Sigal Samuel (@SigalSamuel -- follow her) provides powerful reflections on the recent conference for Jews of Color (including Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews). I highly encourage you to read it. There's a lot to be said about it. Some of it is heartening -- it was obvious that for many participants this conference filled a significant void in their Jewish experience which is overwhelmingly dominated by European Ashkenazim. Some of it is disheartening -- Samuel relates how Jews who identified as pro-Israel or Zionist did not feel comfortable voicing those opinions (progressive inclusiveness only gets you so far), and notes the marked absence of Israeli Jewish participants which (in the words of one of the few Israelis in attendance) created an "America-centric" program. Some of it is uncertain, like the promise from an executive at a prominent Arab-American organization that Mizrahi Jews are welcome in her group (are they welcome if they're Israeli-American Mizrahi Zionists who challenge the prefigured understanding of what "Arab" self-determination means? If so, that would be a huge step towards genuine allyship).

Samuel's account makes it clear that this was a conference of a particular political vibe -- lots of talk of "privilege" and "triggering" -- and so one can shake one's head about whether it is truly representative of Mizrahi, Sephardic, or Jews of Color as broader communities. But if one is to register that complaint, one has to interrogate why it was the leftist branch of the community which organized the conference, and why the "representative" Jewish establishment has failed to do so. One can't complain about a slanted conference if one isn't having any conference at all.

It seems that, by and large, this conference was a success, and I'm happy to report that fact. It should be followed up with more. More meetings, more organizing, more latitude, more perspectives. If one is worried that voices outside the ultra-left are uncomfortable in this space, organize spaces where they too feel free to speak. If you're unhappy about the paucity of Israeli voices in this conversation, then put in the work to get more Israelis to the table. Put in the work, or don't complain when others don't do the work to your liking.

I've been hoping for some time to organize a conference on non-European and non-Ashkenazi Jews here at Berkeley (albeit probably more academic than activist-y). It's a daunting task, but it would help shed light on a daunting struggle. I wouldn't see it as a response to this event but the next step following from it. As far as I'm concerned, a thousand flowers should bloom, and Jews of all backgrounds and all political persuasions should have a home in the Jewish community to voice their perspective.


JHW said...

I agree with your main point here. That said: I think you're maybe understating the significance of the Israel issue here. Sigal Samuel writes that someone told a participant "that Israel should cease to exist and that Israeli Jews should have to live elsewhere." This sort of message is both anti-Semitic and (almost always) also racist, imagining Israeli Jews as universally and inherently European (the people making this statement do not imagine Israeli Jews moving in large numbers to, say, Baghdad). The fact that it was thought socially acceptable to say at any Jewish conference is disturbing; the fact that it was thought socially acceptable to say specifically at *this* Jewish conference is even more disturbing. To be sure, that's just one story about one participant, and maybe Samuel is wrong to suggest that it was illustrative of a broader problem at the conference, but still.

Binyamin Arazi said...

If I may play devil's advocate here. I am supportive of this conference insofar as it brings due attention to the plight of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, but I nevertheless take serious issue is with terms like "white Jews", "Jews of color", and the way this topic is framed overall (e.g. "white supremacist Jews indigenous to Europe dominating and silencing Jews of color"). In my opinion, both of these elements are harmful to the cause of Jewish rights and ought to be excised immediately.

The West's unfamiliarity with non-Ashkenazi narratives is, for the most part, an issue of metrics, not privilege or subordination. Ashkenazim outnumber other Jewish groups in the West by a very significant margin, so it is difficult to say that there is any sort of parity between the relative neglect of our stories and the very real white supremacist domination experienced by minority groups (including Jews qua Jews). Additionally, it reifies anti-Zionist propaganda and further enforces the marginalization of an already heavily persecuted group (i.e. Ashkenazim; I know a few people who would balk at this statement, but when you really think about it, we're not the ones who have to deal with constant attacks on our attachment to Israel, being told we're "impostors from Europe/Khazaria", etc).

Terms like "Jews of color" and "Middle Eastern Jews" often have the (perhaps unintended) effect of consigning Jewish groups who fall outside of these categories to the white majority, along with all of its trappings (e.g. power, privilege, settler colonialism should they decide to live anywhere outside of Europe, etc; concepts which do not mesh well with the Jewish experience, Ashkenazi or not), and that is an epistemical injustice we cannot afford to trifle with.

David Schraub said...

BA: Would your analysis change in any way if I told you that the conference was not initially centered around the Ashkenazi/Mizrahi/Sephardic divide, but rather for "Jews of color" defined as, say, African-American, Latino, and Asian Jews? (Initially, there was some question regarding whether Jews who were "only" Mizrahi should even attend)

Binyamin Arazi said...

The Forward article in your post seemed to suggest that Mizrahim were included, so my analysis was primarily based on that (someone linked me to the same piece last night, but I haven't had the chance until now to sketch out my thoughts on it). To wit, I am all in favor of an increased emphasis on non-Ashkenazi narratives, but I am wary of it being done in a way that appears to interlock so strongly with contemporary anti-Zionist memes and propaganda (i.e. casting Ashkenazim as "white","European", therefore powerful, privileged, not "really" oppressed, and ultimately not indigenous to Israel; the idea that Israel was built by invading European impostor Jews on the bleached white bones of its "true indigenous people" is the locus of anti-Israelism/modern day antisemitism).

Lellen said...

Agree wholeheartedly with BA here. While perhaps seemingly subtle, references tying Ashkenazim to aspects of "white power/privilege" are powerfully supportive of the very propaganda which you seem to wrestle with in an attempt to clean up/silence. imo you are undoing your own points, not to mention unwittingly perpetrating age old harm on a sub-group of Jews which were so far flung that they've had to endure immense hardship and the pain of assimilation for their very survival... only to be cast out yet again.

Binyamin Arazi said...

Apparently, this conference also carries the endorsement (and perhaps funding) of Jewish Voice for Peace. That alone is reason enough to be wary of it. JVP isn't exactly an organization that has the best interest of Jews at heart.