Race In The Jewish Community: A Mischling’s Perspective
As a person of mixed-race black and maternal Jewish heritage, I am a mischling and feel highly motivated to stand equally against racism and anti-Semitism. When I go out and about in the Jewish community people naturally see my colour first, and depending on whether I’m wearing my hair as an afro or in the way Anne Frank wore her hair, some people in the Jewish community do not automatically assume that I’m Jewish. Although some say I look Israeli, I’ve learned that there’s a belief in small sections of the community that you can’t be Jewish if you’re black, a subject I wrote about in an earlier blog called “How Can I Be Jewish When I Am Black?” There is also a belief that the presence of Ethiopian Jews in Israel is incontrovertible proof that there is no racism in the Jewish community, either towards mischlinges and black Jews or anyone else of colour.
The concern I express in this blog is that when I want to talk to some of my favourite Jewish friends and associates about my life, my experiences of racism and my efforts to tackle it, I find myself isolated, slightly ostracised, and sadly in two extreme cases, cut off completely. By reading between the lines I have learned that racism in the community or at large is neither admitted nor discussed openly as to do so is perceived as negative and liable to attract anti-Semitism.
For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with my blogging, my background is that my mother’s father was Jamaican and her mother is Jewish and was attending a primary school in the North East of England in the years leading up to WW2 when Britain and some of its schools (including my grandmother’s) were supporters of Hitler, because at that time the threat of him had yet to reach British shores. My grandmother once confided in me that her headmaster was “pro-Hitler” despite being aware that her family are Jews. When my maternal Jewish great-grandfather passed prematurely from a heart attack in 1940, my maternal great-grandmother married an Englishman who became my maternal grandmother’s stepfather. It was against this backdrop that my maternal great-grandmother began to conceal the family’s Jewish faith and do as much as possible to avoid being rejected by the indigenous English community. Later, my maternal grandmother would be ostracised by her Jewish mother for leaving her to take up residence with an Aunt in Wood Green, and for then carrying on a relationship with a black man who came from Jamaica to England via the Royal Air Force – my maternal grandfather. Ten years later my maternal grandparents gave birth to my mother, a British born mischling of mixed-race Jewish-Jamaican heritage. Then, nearly twenty years later following an affair with my British born Jamaican father, my twin and I were born but not too long afterwards we were adopted ‘out’ following my mother’s premature death.
Caught in the Crossfire Between Racism and Anti-Semitism
My mother confided in her peers that her mother “doesn’t like coloured people”, and that “being mixed-race is a disability”. This is largely a reflection of her parents attitudes to race which was compounded by the way in which English society in the 1950’s to 1980’s was typically intolerant of inter-racial couples and their off spring, of whom many were taken into care and or placed for adoption when the parents failed to cope with society’s racial prejudice and hostility. Life for West Indians in the UK during this period, some of whom like my grandfather had been offered British citizenship and remained here and started their own families following their service in WW2, was blighted by a hard core of pervasive racism and hostility which they experienced politically as well as socio-economically to the point that a legitimate livelihood, secure and permanent housing, and a spiritually healthy environment in which to raise their children and fully integrate them into the local community, could never be taken for granted. In America my maternal grandfather found the situation even worse, with racial segregation a cornerstone of a nation in which racist lynchings and burnings were commonplace.
One could say that my mother was caught in the crossfire of racism and anti-Semitism. But for her mother’s experience of anti-Semitism in the classroom, and of absorbing into her psyche the self-hating way in which her mother and grandmother responded to it, and but for her grandmother ostracising her mother out of racial prejudice towards the relationship between her parents, and but for her father’s experiences of anti-Semitism and racism as an outsider both in the family home and elsewhere – when he went to visit my grandmother at her Aunt’s he would have to sit in the car outside the house – and while he was stationed in Berlin during his service as a black man he was given the worst jobs to do, for example, he was responsible for physically removing the bags containing the deceased bodies of the war’s victims. Then, while stationed at base in the North of England on a harsh wintry night, his car wheel punctured but no one would stop to help him fearing him to be a frightening animal based on his appearance, and following which he developed pneumonia. But for these experiences, my grandmother might have learned to love her Jewishness and to teach my mother to accept her identity as a mischling, which my mother eventually came to learn from her maternal grandmother instead.
Race in the Community
Growing up as a mischling myself, and having been adopted as a baby by an English couple who were told for convenience’ sake by the adoption agency that my white heritage is English, I came to wonder why my adoptive mother was so hateful towards me. I grew up thinking we shared the same heritage, so could not rationalise her harshness and cruelty towards me. She led a ‘Christian’ life with double standards, but thankfully she did not force me to follow her lead.
Then when in my late 20’s quite by chance I came to learn about my Jewish heritage and biological family, I was able to make sense of my earliest years. When I came into the Jewish community to embrace my Jewish faith, the people, the culture, and Judaism, I had naively expected to encounter something akin to a utopia, a long sought after haven from life’s hostile and oppressive forces. Instead, I got a deep insight from a small minority in the community into what my mother and her mother experienced – an intense prejudice and hostility either towards anyone of colour, or not 100% Jewish, or both. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these two root causes, and the converse of this situation can present as a problem in the black community too. However, with regards to the Jewish community, I have learned that as long as I don’t discuss racism as it occurs in the community, or in Israel, and so long as I adopt the homogeneous views, values and beliefs of the community, then everything else can be overcome.
As a mischling, and as an educated person who believes in speaking the truth if only to inspire and educate, it is very difficult and toxic for me not to talk about it. By definition I am a heterogeneous entity by virtue of being bi-racial. For example, my friends and associates are comfortable when I speak out against anti-Semitism, but some do not tolerate me talking about racism. It’s implied that if I speak about racism as I experience it in the Jewish community, outside of the Jewish community, or as it affects others i.e. In Israel, this is interpreted as a threat for which ostracisation can be the punishment. I have even found that if I voice my views on Israel’s leadership, for example, to say I don’t like to see the African migrants and Ethiopian Jews being persecuted in Israel, that I would vote for Herzog, and not go to Israel as a black and Jewish mischling until the government changes – for safety reasons, that this is interpreted negatively and as likely to attract anti-Semitism, even though I share their Jewish heritage and advocate against all forms of oppression equally including anti-Semitism. It is sad that a small minority of people in the community outwardly and implicitly deny that racism exists, and are intolerant of any such discussion about it.
Jewish Heterogeneity v Jewish Homogeneity
We do not talk about racism in the community because; it is widely believed not to exist; there is a perception that if racism is admitted it could attract anti-Semitism; and the Jewish community is a homogenous group that does not personally suffer from the phenomenon, so therefore why discuss it? As a mischling in the Jewish community, I represent a heterogeneous exception to the norm, which can be everything that conservative Jewish values traditionally reject. Though I am conservative in my values and thinking, I do encounter prejudice, and I find that wanting to talk about my day to day experiences generally isolates me and leaves me wondering why the topic is such a taboo. Prejudice against my colour is an attack against my whole being, which is also Jewish, therefore a racist or other experience becomes one that is anti-Semitic if that were possible between Jews which of course it is not- unless of course the person projecting the prejudice towards me incorrectly perceives me as a non-Jew. That distinction is sometimes difficult to pinpoint, nonetheless the confusion that arises from not knowing for certain, which arises from not being able to talk about it openly, does nothing to improve things.
So I have come to learn that I am not quite equal yet, in the eyes of the community, whether because of colour or mischling status remains to be seen. I have been told that it’s difficult to be a Jew, though I would like it to be known that it is equally if not harder to be a mischling Jew. This is only because white Jews have the luxury of never having to experience racism in addition to anti-Semitism. Whilst anti – Semitism remains a heinous scourge that continues to leave an indelible footprint in our psyches, basic structural conditions for white Jews have improved from where they were. For example, society is no longer able to block Jewish access to the labour market – an essential prerequisite for a stable family life and the advancement of the community. Whereas for a black and Jewish mischling there are still persistent and pervasive structural racial barriers that block people of colour with related physical characteristics from accessing those areas of British life that white Jews can now thankfully take for granted. White Jews can change their names if they wish to, and blend in with the indigenous community without too much difficulty. As a mischling Jew I cannot do this, because I cannot conceal my colour.
Two Histories To Learn, Two Burdens To Bear
Where white Jews have suffered massive human and economic losses due to anti-Semitism, some reparations and diplomatic apologies have been made, with the effect of raising the status of white Jews in Britain. This is not the case for mischling Jews like myself who are still living with the legacy and the adverse human impacts of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade for which the economic losses to the black community stand in the trillions of pounds at today’s date, and for which no reparations nor apologies from the institutions involved have been made. Only legal justifications have been made, causing the status of non-white Jews by association with the black community, to remain very low indeed. The number of lives lost in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade stands at over 10 million, and the exploitation and genocide of black lives continued over 12 consecutive generations, only ending in practice circa 1920. Derogatory symbols marking the city of London’s commercial success in the trans-Atlantic slave trade can still be seen today, proudly displayed outside of Lloyd’s of London, the Inns of Court, and at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. Thus the soul of a black and Jewish mischling harbours the burdens of both the white Jews and the blacks, and has experienced slavery twice – once in Egypt, and again in the Caribbean. This represents a joint responsibility for me as a mischling, to stand against racism and anti-Semitism. Regardless of these burdens, I love and respect my mischling self, and my white jewish contemporaries, though it is hurtful to be out on a limb when trying to discuss race in the Jewish community.
I have read widely on the subjects of race, and anti-Semitism, and have cherished the warm glow in my heart on learning that Jews and Blacks worked closely together in the civil rights era and the Apartheid regime to jointly overcome black and Jewish oppression at a time when both groups were affected equally. I have visited Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau and have felt the oppressive energy there, and I have seen Hitler’s tallies of numbers of Jews deported – set into the concrete platforms of some of Germany’s train stations. I have read widely around Jewish history, black history in Europe and the USA, the Shoah, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and I have learned from my elders about Black, and about Jewish matters. I have learned that it has long since been part of human nature to hate for cowardly reasons, but that we should address that and seek to inspire change wherever possible.
As a mixed-race mischling Jew, I experience both forms of oppression – racism and anti Semitism but I find myself set apart from some of my white Jewish contemporaries when I want to talk about my experiences of racism in the UK, of racism in Israel against Ethiopian Jews and African migrants, about my decision to avoid Israel on account of it’s racial profiling of people similar to me until the government’s leadership changes, and about it’s leadership’s failure to honour Lassana Bathily for saving 7 Jewish lives in the Paris Hypercacher. I therefore empathise with others who experience the same and I try to find little ways to let light root out the darkness of these phenomena in as non-antagonistic a way as possible. For the record, the alienation can work both ways. For example my 100% black contemporaries look at me and say “you’re not that black Ella”, where they perceive me as having advantageous physical attributes and characteristics by virtue of being a mischling.
Many of us have shouldered the adverse human impacts of at least one form of oppression both first hand and inter-generationally, and my own experiences have compelled me to understand the roots of racism and anti-Semitism, the historical contexts in which both ills have been nurtured and from which they continue to thrive. My motivation for acting against racism and anti-Semitism stems from a strong sense of empathy, morality, a sense of duty and responsibility to my ancestors and to those who are less able, and from a highly functional intellectual capacity to inspire change. Although, trying to extend the arbitrary limitations of human nature is a challenge I have yet to overcome, I do hope that by sharing this piece with you I will shine a light onto those areas of my life as a black and Jewish mischling in the Jewish community, which I struggle with, and which would otherwise remain in the dark.