Jewishness and Ethnic Studies

This is the third and final installment of this series. It focuses on identity and positionality. Jeff and I invited Gabriella Sanchez-Stern to this conversation to bring in the voice and experience of a Jewish person of color, since that has been a topic we’ve discussed in the past two installments.

Gabriella: Hello, I’m Gabriella Sanchez-Stern. My pronouns are she/her/ella, and I identify as a mixed-race Latina. My ancestors are Ashkenazi Jewish and Mestizo from Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve worked as a community organizer, for city government, and now work as an educator in Seattle Public Schools. I’m proud to say that my Jewish roots in the Seattle community span four generations, and my participation and leadership in various Jewish spaces have solidified my commitment to working collectively towards a more just world. 

Tracy: Hi, Gabriella, and thank you for joining us! At the end of our last installment, Jeff said, “Studying how Jews became white folks should be a prerequisite for white Jews to see how Jewish complicity with whiteness has been harmful.” Jewish complicity with Whiteness. Let’s unpack that. A great example of this is Seattle’s own, Ari Hoffman, pictured below. Ari is an ultra conservative radio shock jock, akin to the likes of Tucker Carlson, who claims he’s a person of color. Again, the only way I might know he’s Jewish is his last name, but then again, several friends of mine have traditionally Jewish last names and don’t identify as Jewish, so it’s always hard to know. If we just met, he’d have to tell me he’s Jewish for me to know that about him. In conversations of intersectionality, we always talk about “hidden intersections.”For example, I am non-binary, but I present as cisgender; therefor, my gender identity is a hidden intersection. Presenting as cisgender provides me privileges that other non-binary or trans folks might not receive. Jewishness, for the most part, is a hidden intersection. Ari clearly benefits from white privilege in most circumstances. When Ari claims to be a person of color, he is complicit with Whiteness, because he is refusing to acknowledge his white privilege.

But Ari goes further than that in his complicity. Ari launched a smear campaign against Latina congressional candidate, Stephanie Gallardo, during which he contacted her endorsers and reported Gallardo as an antisemite, because she supports Palestinian sovereignty. Author and former presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson, took the bait and pulled her endorsement of Gallardo’s campaign. Williamson, who claims to be a progressive, would most likely disagree with Hoffman’s politics, and if she were paying attention, she’d see this for what it is: a conservative, white man viciously attacking a woman of color running on a Democratic Socialist platform.

Recently, racist Seattle education blogger, Melissa Westbrook, joined forces with Ari to attack WAESN’s Youth Activist Academy by attempting to interfere with a partnership WAESN has with a local non-profit. Fortunately, our community partner saw through the racist attacks, but this is another example of Ari’s complicity in Whiteness and trying to undermine learning opportunities for students of color. Westbrook used a hit piece written about me to goad Hoffman into engaging in personal attacks on me, another person of color. There is a clear trend of Hoffman using his whiteness to attack femmes of color and hiding behind his Jewishness to do so. 

I’ve asked this before, but I think we need more direct answers if Jewish identity is to be discussed in Ethnic Studies. How do we hold white Jews who are complicit in Whiteness (racism) accountable when they use their Jewishness to try to cover their deeds?

Jeff: I completely agree with your analysis of Hoffman’s complicity with Whiteness. I have watched several Jewish friends come into the realization that they use Whiteness as a shield in a way that a person of color is denied, so I know that consciousness can and does change. His assertion that he is a person of color is just plain stupid, but it is part of his shtick. Remember, he is in the entertainment business, and he knows who his audience is. His target audience is white, conservative Christians where his brand of Zionism sells well. I have to admit that I have never listened to him and never will. I have absolutely no interest in what he has to say, because he has nothing to offer me. But I know the type very well.

Ben Shapiro was not the first right-wing Jew. These people use ideology instead of reason to reach their conclusions. Jewish text has been exposed to thousands of interpretations, and Jewish thought ranges across the political spectrum, so it is not difficult for conservatives to justify knee-jerk reactions. According to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, “Ideology is a systematically distorted communication.” In the case of Hoffman and Shapiro, that distortion is profitable. It saddens me that Jews like these are willing to push a right-wing agenda that is so harmful.

As to your question about holding Jews like Hoffman accountable for their complicity in Whiteness, what we are doing in this series is a positive step. You and the entire Ethnic Studies community have the right to push back when attacked. It is also on me and Jews like me to respond and point out that pandering to white, conservative Christians is self-defeating, because that is where racism and antisemitism find fertile ground. 

“Replacement Theory” is a belief among many white supremacists. It asserts that non-white people and Jewish people will ultimately “replace the white race.” In the infamous and deadly Charlottesville white supremacist rally, a group of largely white, Christian men chanted, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”

Tracy: I very much appreciate you providing so much historical context. We can talk about intersectionality all we want, but without a deep historical understanding, we just start talking past each other. Folks of color need to understand this history, and white Jews need to understand the history of Whiteness and how they continue to benefit from it.  One thing you shared with me in a previous conversation that stuck with me is the knee-jerk reactions we’re seeing from some white Jews to Ethnic Studies programs supporting Palestinian Studies and criticizing the State of Israel.

I understand the point you made about the rise of antisemitism since Trump. Again, I suggest it’s not a new normal for Jews only; communities of color, im/migrants, queer folks, trans folks, and Muslims are also feeling that. In fact, of all hate crimes reported to authorities in 2020 62% were race motivated and only 13% were motivated by religious bias (antisemitism is categorized as religious bias by the US Department of Justice). Racially motivated hate crimes increased in 2020 while religious hate crimes decreased. A difference that I see, however, is that the latter groups advocate open conflict, because we understand that conflict results in change. We also know that conflict gets our leaders killed and our people arrested, ostricized, beaten, murdered, etc.

DOJ data

Emily Alhadeff, in her piece about Ethnic Studies, specifically conjured up images of Jews being bloody in the streets as if, again, this is an experience only Jews have. These types of narratives feel, from my perspective at least, like Zionists want to silence folks of color to satisfy their own sense of safety at the expense of the safety of folks of color, including Palestinians.

In her blog post, Emily mentioned an organization called FAIR (Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism). It’s led by an (arguably) diverse group of people, but there is a strong Zionist influence. They promote colorblindness as a solution to racism and appropriate Dr. King’s words, like many do. How is this both related to the Jewish ideal of universalism and a perpetuation of white supremacy? What do Jews need to understand better about the historical contexts of racism and anti-Blackness in the US?

Gabriella: Thank you for inviting me into this conversation. I have learned so much from both of you and am grateful to be included. 

When I think about Jewish complicity with Whiteness I think it is important that white, American Jews (of which I am partially included as I have benefited from the privilege of my white family) reflect on the ways that we have benefited from structural racism and perhaps were complicit in upholding racist institutions and laws in search of attaining the “American Dream.”For example, my own Jewish roots in Seattle trace back to the early 20th century community in the Central District. At the time, Jews (both Ashkanazi and Sephardic) lived alongside Black, Italian, and Irish Catholics. These communities were excluded from more affluent neighborhoods through the practices of redlining and racial restrictive covenants, which lasted until the late 1950s. But how many of us also participated in white flight and were able to buy homes in View Ridge, Wedgewood, and Laurelhurst a generation later? How many Jewish families living in the Southend have chosen to send their children across the city or to private school rather than to their neighborhood public school? While these may have seemed like individual choices at the time, we need to be able to reckon with how these choices on the individual level have come at a price on the community level. While these types of decisions are not exclusive to Jewish families, if Jews are to understand our complicity with Whiteness we must understand how we have participated in some of these broader trends throughout history. 

Jeff: The FAIR board of advisors is an impressive roster of public intellectuals and writers who’ve written some very in-depth and provocative works. I can see why Emily would refer to them as some sort of model of rationality; I’ve enjoyed reading many of them for deep insights into many issues, however I don’t always agree with their conclusions. It is true that there are a number of Zionists on the board. There is also an absence of Marxists. These are independent thinkers, but they seem united in opposition to CRT. None of them speak for the entirety of their representative communities, and other voices should be noted. Jews have nothing to fear from Critical Race Theory. 

I want to refer back to Hillel and Shammai. The advocates for color-blindness are like Shammai, what should be the norm is right for paradise, but now, Hillel would say, we have some work (study) to do. Which reminds me of one of my favorite passages of the Talmud:

Love work. Hate domination, and don’t get involved with the authorities.

Avot 1:10

Just because these authorities have a Ph.D. from Harvard doesn’t make their judgment any better than any person on the street.

Gabriella: I also wanted to share some thoughts regarding how Jews of color are received in Jewish spaces. First of all, who am I talking about when I say Jews of color? In general, the term “Jews of color”includes all Jews with ancestry in African, Asian, and Latin American countries. Jews of color may identify as Black, Asian, Latinx, American Indian, or multi-racial. In certain circumstances, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Jews of North African heritage may also identify as Jews of color. According to recent studies, approximately 11% of Jews in the United States identify as Jews of color. I identify as multi-racial as I have both European Ashkenazi heritage and Mexican mestizo heritage. 

Now, Jews of color are not a monolith, and our experiences are as nuanced as any other individual walking through this world, but some general rules apply. In particular, our sense of belonging is often influenced by colorism. By colorism I mean discrimination that is based on how dark a person’s skin color is, or how far outside of whiteness they are perceived to be. Some Jews of color have shared experiences of being questioned in Jewish spaces from ways that are other-izing (“Are you visiting?””Did you convert?””Do you need help finding…?”) to being mistaken for security guards or nannies. 

Depending on the time of year, my skin can either look like a light caramel or a dark olive, and in my experiences growing up in Jewish spaces, I was often perceived as Israeli, Middle Eastern, or Sephardic. Because of this, my sense of belonging was not directly challenged in ways that other Jews of color with African, Asian, or Indigenous heritage are. While this light-skinned privilege means that I am not prevented from participating in Jewish spaces, it often means that I have to check a large part of my identity (my rich Mexican heritage) at the door. For many Jews of color, the price of our acceptance in Jewish spaces comes with erasing a part of ourselves to fit into the European Ashkenazi norm.  

What I have shared is just based on my experiences and the experiences I have heard from some others and is just scratching the surface. Last year, one of the first comprehensive studies of the experiences of Jews of color was published by the Jews of Color Initiative with some interesting findings, as well as difficult truths that I encourage all to read (even just the summary!) when you can.

Jews of Color Initiative data

Tracy: Thank you, both, for teaching me. I have learned so much from both of you and commit to learning more about Jewish intersectional identities and how Ethnic Studies can help educate others. I was recently asked what I would want people to know about Ethnic Studies. My response was that the goal of Ethnic Studies is to eliminate all types of oppression, including racial and economic oppression, settler colonialism, and antisemitism. The human mind, heart, and spirit are capable of holding multiple truths, but only if we are able to have conversations like these, so thank you.

Jeff: One last thing. Thanks for inviting me into this conversation, I found it very useful for my own growing understanding. It is very consistent with Jewish tradition to dialogue and argue. It is one of our cultural particulars, embedded as it is in our “sacred texts”. It is my opinion that the Jewish Zionists who have attacked WAESN are supporting a right-wing agenda, are authoritarian, and are dead wrong. OSPI needs a much more well-rounded voice from the Jewish community in regards to their planning for state-wide Ethnic Studies.


What does it mean to be complicit in Whiteness?

What is the difference between hidden and visible intersections, and how do hidden intersections provide varying degrees of privilege that visible intersections don’t?

How does an individual’s various identities affect their experiences in different situations?

What is the political gain for conservatives and white supremacists when marginalized groups fight among each other?

Leave a Reply