Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Argument Over Tallying U.S. Jews of Color Erupts

Drake performs at the FADER FORT Presented by Converse during the South by Southwest Music Festival Credit: Jack Plunkett / AP

“Who is a Jew?” was once the question that instantly triggered a heated debate among the American Jewish community, including discussions over the ethics of labeling and counting Jews in the first place.

Controversy swirled this week around the question of “Who is a Jew of color?” Or, to be more exact: “How many Jews of color are there and is it appropriate to discuss how to tally them, especially when the coronavirus pandemic rages across the United States?”

Outcry was sparked after the Reform Movement’s online magazine published an article discussing the ways in which Jews of color have been affected by the coronavirus crisis, which has disproportionately impacted racial minorities in the United States, and how the larger Jewish community can support them.

The article cited data from a 2019 research project “Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color,” which examined 25 studies and determined that approximately 12-15 percent of American Jews could be defined as “Jews of color.” According to the analysis, “American Jewish population studies have neglected to systematically and consistently ask about the racial and ethnic identities of American Jews” and as a result, “we know little about the composition and size of the population of Jews of color.”

A piece responding to the article chose not to address the pandemic but instead honed in on the headcount with the headline “How Many Jews of Color Are There?” The article, written by scholars Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, the editors of the American Jewish Year Book, was also published in the Forward.

Sheskin and Dashefsky argued that there were far fewer Jews of color than the number cited in the Reform Movement’s article, adding that the data provided there was based on a disproportionate representation in major metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco. The article said that more accurate assessments were presented by Pew surveys, which assessed nonwhite Jews at half the number cited on the ReformJudiasm.org website.

Sheskin and Dashefsky noted that defining Jews of color is very problematic, given the fact that Cuban or Argentinian “Jews who might identify as Hispanic are, in fact, Ashkenazi.” They also raised a common point of debate – whether non-Ashkenazi Jews with roots in the Middle East and Africa should be defined Jews of color.

Responses to Sheskin and Deshefsky’s article was swift and furious. Activists circulated an online protest letter saying they were “deeply troubled” by the article’s emphatic insistence on the 6 percent statistics and the fact that it “places a stronger emphasis on numerical calculations than on communal values.”

The letter added that the Sheskin and Deshefsky’s article underplayed the fact that “surveys failed to ask Jewish respondents about their race or ethnicity, and asked questions in ways that led to likely under-counting.” The activists declared that they “do not believe in using outdated or cherry-picked data to build a case for why supporting Jews of color depends upon a numeric threshold.”

The timing of the article, the letter argued, was egregious. “This moment of crisis is not the time to default to the way things used to be. It is the moment to come together in community and look for opportunities to remake the world in more just ways.”

The article also sparked the ire of the leader of the Reform Movement, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who co-authored a follow-up article published on the Jewish Philanthropy website, “The Reform Movement Stands With Jews of Color – Period.”

Charging Sheskin and Deshefsky with racism and “white intellectualism,” Jacobs, along with Chris Harrison, declared that it was “appalling that the authors chose to publish their article at all, but especially during such an uncertain, devastating period such as the one we’re enduring now.”

The two Reform leaders asked, outraged, whether “without the numbers, even without the studies, are the voices and shared experiences of Jews of color not enough? Is our anti-oppression work only worth it if the number of Jews of color in our ranks reaches a certain percentage? The answer, we hope, is a resounding of course not.”

Articles like Sheskin and Dashefsky’s, they said, “are indicative of the fear that resides in many white-dominated spaces and are reactionary to the work that organizations like ours seek to do: the work of disrupting oppression within our communities, addressing unearned power and privilege, and acknowledging our actual Jewish diversity.”

The reform leaders vowed that “we will not tolerate white intellectualism intended to diminish research conducted by and about Jews of color.”

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