Rarely Kosher: studying Jews of Color in North America.

Author:Gordon, Lewis R.
Position:Column
 
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I offer in this article a brief exploration of some of the difficulties posed by the study of Jews of color, especially Afro-Jews, in the North American and Caribbean contexts, and I summarize the portrait of Jews today (and a little bit of yesterday) that follows from such study.

There is much to support the reluctance to conjoin discussions of Jews with discussions of race. This reluctance derives not only from the history of inquisitions, pogroms, and the Shoah, but also from the ironically intimate link between the concepts of race and Jewish history. The prototypical term raza from which the word "race" emerged was, after all, a Medieval Spanish word to refer to breeds of dogs, horses, Jews and Moors (Afro-Muslims). (1) We could add to this the upheavals marked by the transition of Christendom into a trans-Atlantic force in the fifteenth century and that of the term from its theological underpinnings to its naturalistic aspersions as a science of human division, an anthropology. It is no accident that the later "classic" modern formulation of racism, Arthur de Gobineau's Essai sur l'Inegalite des Races Humaine (1853-1855), devoted attention to the mixed racial constitution of Jews, and it is also not accidental that a term developed by the French linguist Ernest Renan, "Semitic languages," eventually became a racialized one: "Semite." All this is familiar stuff to scholars, not only in the study of race but also in the study, specifically, of Jews. (2) This narrative is wanting, however, in many regards--first, because of its seamlessness, and, second, because it doesn't address the question of why race arose as a negative concept.

To begin, there is already difficulty in talking about Jews because of the presumed universality of local manifestations of Jewish people. As Jews traveled through all parts of the globe, nearly every country developed some notion of Jews on the basis of its local Jewish population. This did not pose much of a problem in the past, since international, intercultural, and global communication was limited. But today, "local" versus "global" influence each other to the point of creating hegemonic forms of symbolic life. What is often lost, however, is an understanding of the history of how such dominant representations came into being. Jewish people are thus often studied without the important additions or conditions of how particular groups of Jewish people became representatives of all Jewish people.

This problem of the particular as universal comes to the fore in the study of what could be called "Jews of color." Now, the term itself would seem odd to prior generations of Jews and antisemities, for both knew that Jews, or at least Judeans (see below), as a group, even when very light in complexion, were certainly not "white." (3) But race is permeable, and as some Jews became white, a misperception emerged, oddly enough, in which supposedly most Jews became white (or at least they were popularly perceived as such). (4) As there were once no Jews who were white, this strange development means that large groups of nonwhite Jews simply disappeared, or at least disappeared as Jews.

The study of what remains in the fallout or disappearing of many Jews is thus fraught with minefields. Most of these are fallacies of presumed legitimacy of the status quo. Thus, the way things currently appear is retroactively placed on the way things were. What is missing, however, is a critical account of how such came to be. The African-American social theorist W.E.B. Du Bois identified this problem well in the study of people of African descent. In such study, the people were treated as problems instead of as human beings facing problems. (5) This, as we know, is a function of racism. As Jews are treated more as racialized than religious subjects, it follows that antisemitism takes a similar form, where Jews become problems instead of people who face problems. (6) Put together, whether as Afro-Jews or simply as varieties of racially discriminated against groups who are also Jews, the methodological challenge that Du Bois identified comes to the fore.

This methodological problem is exacerbated by what I have elsewhere called disciplinary decadence. (7) That phenomenon emerges when practitioners deify their disciplines and treat their methodologies as all encompassing or godlike in scope. Methodological fetishism results, where the researcher turns away from reality and treats the method as its replacement. Thus, if a group of people don't fit the discipline or make sense in terms of its methodology, such researchers wonder, "What's wrong with these people?" The result is an attempt to squeeze the people into the discipline or, worse, render the people nonexistent, instead of adjusting the discipline and its methods to the reality that exceeds them.

While these considerations pertain to what could be called Jews of color across the world, there is not enough time or space here to undertake discussion of such a scope. I will thus proceed simply by outlining some of the issues faced in North America and the Caribbean, which I hope will offer insight into the situation in other parts of the globe. Additionally, although the spectrum of color is very broad, I will focus on those that occasion the most anxiety and controversy since, as race discourses go, the tendency is to make the exception the rule with some groups and the rule the exception with others. Nowhere is this more so than with the study of blacks.

The Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University was among several institutions I founded or cofounded over the past decade. (8) Whenever I mentioned its name, I was often asked, "Your center studies black and Jewish relations?"

"Relations" is one of those buzz words in American race politics. There are "race relations" and "relations between blacks and Jews." Missing in all this, however, is the possibility of blacks who are Jews or Jews who are blacks. So, when I said, "No, we study and encourage research on Afro-Jews or black Jews," the response was often, "Really?"

In time, however, the existence of a center that studied Afro-Jews became not only a source of pride among students and faculty at Temple University, but also a stimulus to a different kind of conversation about Jews and Jewish diversity. For instance, after speaking of Afro-Jews, I usually add that the center actually studied Jews in all our diversity. So I was then asked, "Why isn't it called the Center for Jewish Diversity?" I often responded that what most American and European Jews mean by "Jewish diversity" is simply "Ashkenazim" and "Sephardim." (Oddly enough, a speaker representing the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco pointed out a few years ago at a meeting of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research that whenever she visited American Jewish institutions applying for funds to promote Jewish...

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