Why Diversity Is Important
Be’chol Lashon educates the public and policymakers through ongoing publication of books, monographs, journal articles and reports.
Jewish Diversity in the United States
Diversity characterizes the American Jewish community, partially through historical antecedents and partially through contemporary social forces at work. The Jewish community is growing and changing through intermarriage, conversion, and adoption. Some of the individuals entering the community via these avenues are people of color.
As Jews become more integrated into the overall American society, it should hardly come as a surprise that growing numbers of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and mixed-race individuals are becoming part of the Jewish community. However, this growth augments a diverse Jewish population that has existed in America for hundreds of years. The first American Jews were Sephardic and African, before Ashkenazi Jews came to the New World.
Ironically, Jews, as a group, were defined as non-white by the American majority well into the 1950s and early 1960s. Jews were considered by others to be “black” or “Oriental.” It is no coincidence that racially-restrictive covenants and housing laws in America, prior to the late 1940s, targeted African Americans, Asians, and Jews, all considered to be foreign, non-white racial groups.
On the timeline of Jewish existence, the white status of Jews is something of a novelty. For some Jews, it is difficult to absorb that all Jews were recently considered to be non-white. Still others, oddly enough, will never think of themselves as white at all. Some Jews still consider themselves to be part of a minority that exists outside the white mainstream of America. They feel that they are strangers in the land, still. Yet, as they relate to people of color, most Jews in the United States are clearly white, even if they can sometimes empathize or identify with people of color.
There are many racially and ethnically diverse Jews who are born Jewish. These individuals are not necessarily of mixed-race. Around the world, including within the United States, there are long-established families and communities of color who have been Jewish for generations. Additionally, significant numbers of Jews marry someone who is not born Jewish. Even when the non-Jewish partner does not convert, their children may grow up with a Jewish identity, with multiple religious identities, or with no religious identity at all. Some people of color become Jews through formal conversion, and still others live as Jews transforming their identity psychologically and functionally without undertaking rites of conversion. An increasing number of children of color become Jewish when they are adopted by Jewish parents. Many, but not all, of these adopted children undergo a formal conversion while they are still minors and grow up just like other Jewish kids in America.
Race in America
The definitions of racial categories are changing for sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers, as well as the public. Conventional categories are muddled and have been a long time as a result of hundreds of years of racial mixing. We have outgrown the definitions we created. They were artificial and problematic from their inception. Moreover, language does not exist to talk about the complex combinations of race, religion, ethnicity and nationality.
Diversity in Jewish families has been part of changing racial boundaries in the American landscape. As they have always been, Jewish Americans are African-American, Caribbean, African, Asian, Latino, and a myriad of different combinations of racial and ethnic groups-as other Americans have been as well.
Like many Americans with mixed heritage, Jews of diverse backgrounds have multiple identities that are sometimes conflicting, complicated and difficult to resolve. Others embrace and are comfortable with their multiple identities. Diverse Jews who do not feel welcomed by the Jewish community may find it less complicated to identify with his or her racial community than to identify as a Jew. At the same time, they may face discrimination from their racial group for their identification with Judaism. Jews of color may have bifurcated identities; culturally relating to their respective racial communities and religiously to Judaism. Others navigate multiple identities with ease, and feel privileged to be part of so many different cultures.
Why Diversity is Important
Racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community is important for five reasons:
Whatever percentage of the American Jewish population diverse Jews may represent, their numbers are increasing.
Diverse Jews help grow the Jewish population. The potential for increasing that number, thereby increasing our communal numbers overall, is significant and intriguing. Numbers are important for their own sake. Despite the outcries so common in Jewish institutional circles that quality not quantity matters, both are important. A larger, more expansive Jewish community is healthier than a shrinking one. Considering the number of “connected” non-Jews already in existence, as well as those Americans, including people of color, who feel free to choose or reject the religion of their birth, the Jewish community could greatly expand, perhaps by millions, if it were more open and could attract new individuals, including individuals of color. Jews should consider those individuals, who may not be officially? Jewish, as friends, and should treat them as such, as they would graciously treat guests in their homes. In addition to the fact that being unwelcoming violates Jewish values, Jews should cherish those people in the world that they can count on for support in the face of rising anti-Semitism.
Diverse Jews are deeply identified as Jews
Although population growth is critical, numbers alone will not sustain the Jewish community. The depth of involvement and participation of individual Jews is also essential. The wider Jewish community should care about diversity because most diverse Jews, regardless of their path to Judaism and regardless of their degree of institutional or religious affiliation, are deeply identified as Jews and want to build a stronger Jewish community.
Diversity within the Jewish community helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups.
For the last several years, anti-Semitism (sometimes hidden in the form of anti-Israelism) has been rising in the United States, in Europe, and especially in the Muslim world. Encouraging diversity within the Jewish community is one way to address that threat. Increasing the numbers and visibility of racially and ethnically diverse Jews helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups. Anti-Semites portray Israel and Jews as “white colonialists,” sometimes unfairly likening Israeli actions to the former South African policy of apartheid or even to Nazi practices. Those who want to destroy Israel attempt to appeal to individuals of color to oppose the “white colonialists.” The misrepresentation of Israel, Jews, and Judaism is harder to promote when it is made clear that Jews are also people of color.
Diversity helps make Judaism more meaningful
For the Jewish community to continue to thrive into coming generations, the American Jewish mainstream must find a way to make Judaism more meaningful to the growing numbers of disenfranchised Jews, which includes younger people. Diversity is one of the keys to that future. People around the world, including younger Jews, long for a world where racial or ethnic insularity are less polarizing. Communities that separate themselves from other minority cultures are considered archaic. Popular music, film, and other art forms that appeal to younger people borrow freely from many cultures and no longer disguise their origins. Diversity is such an important part of American identity that the Jewish community would be well served by devoting resources and energy to racial and ethnic diversity within its own ranks.
Racial and ethnic diversity are the hallmark and soul of the Jewish experience
The Jewish community must support, encourage, and seek diversity, because diversity has always been a vital part of Jewish history and heritage. Throughout Jewish history, the Jewish people have borrowed from and added to other cultures wherever they lived, in Egypt or Ethiopia, in Cartagena or Calcutta, Russia or Romania. Jews have always grown by the addition of people from the surrounding cultures, changing and adapting and becoming richer with each addition, whether by choice or by force. No single ethnic or racial group holds the “true Jew” card. Jews have survived by being an adaptable people.
Internal & External Conflicts
The Jewish community is troubled by denominational differences, questions about defining who is a Jew, what are legitimate forms of expressions of Judaism, and how one defines participation and belonging. Under which auspices someone converts, how they study, and how they live their Jewish lives are all controversial. Jews of color are often caught in the maelstrom of the Jewish community’s inability to resolve issues of standards, dissension, and mutual suspicions. A healthy Jewish community requires aggressive and effective measures to deal with this internal strife.
Of course, these tensions are not new. Jews have always been contentious, plagued by familial and tribal conflict from the beginning. Over time, differences became entrenched through ritual practice, loyalty to various religious leaders, nationality, origin, and a host of other issues. Internal strife, however, was almost always attenuated by external threats, oppression, and persecution. Jews were forced into geographic and communal proximity by the majority populations around them or forced to hide their identity, as the Anusim have been for centuries.
Jews have primarily used three techniques to cope with internal strife and external oppression. The first is to become inward looking and self-protective. Strangers are kept at bay and newcomers are rejected. Jews carry the ghetto with them either physically, psychologically, or both. The ghetto strategy, whether imposed externally or internally, creates an illusion of unity: But is a closed system that becomes rife with internal divisions. The second is to abandon Jewish identity completely, to assimilate and ultimately disappear into the majority population. Jews assimilate to the point of abandoning their distinctive Jewish identity and behavior. The disappearing strategy provides more options and choices-but without Judaism. The third was perfected by the Anusim-living inwardly as Jews and outwardly as gentiles. For generations, the descendants of those who were forced to convert to Christianity, known as conversos (converts), marranos (swine), crypto-Jews, and now b’nei anusim (children of those who were forced), passed their secret to their children and grandchildren. This legacy of fear and hiding remains so strong that even today many b’nei anusim do not risk revealing themselves. The goal in modern societies is to have both identity and integration, among the greatest challenges of the 21st century.