Stepping into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black Jews and the Remaking of Jewish Identity.

Author:Jackson, John L., Jr.
Position:Book review

Stepping into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black Jews and the Remaking of Jewish Identity. By Janice W. Fernheimer. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2014. xi + 204 pp.

In this exciting and important work, rhetoric scholar Janice Fernheimer asks a deceptively simple question: Is it possible to talk constructively and effectively in spite of profound differences of opinion and investment linked to assumptions about identity and/or ideology? Even more pointedly, what does it mean to measure or define real progress in the context of such potentially antagonistic discussions, especially if any potential changes to participants' hearts and minds (and any transformations to normative and institutionalized presuppositions about such identities and ideologies) would likely move at an admittedly slow pace?

In Stepping into Zion, a well-written and provocative book, Fernheimer uses the case of Black Jews negotiating questions about the authenticity of their claims to Judaic identity vis-a-vis "'recognized' Jewish culture in the United States and Israel" to speak to the aforementioned questions (22). The book puts two differently constituted Black Jewish formations--Hatzaad Harishon (a short-lived multiracial Jewish organization that operated in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s) and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (a transnational group of African-American expats who have been based in southern Israel's Negev since 1969)--into the center of its subtle and hopeful narrative. Using "New Rhetoric" arguments from the likes of Kenneth Burke as they intersect with claims of scholars such as Remy De Gourmont, Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, she lays out an interpretation of the impact that marginalized identificatory categories and their proponents can have on dominant/mainstream adherents to related identifications by way of what she labels "interruptive invention," "inventionary identification," and "disruptive dissociation" (56-57). These are all terms that Fernheimer parses to argue for the productive force of putting fundamentally differing "first premises" in direct conversation--and for the change-making sparks (however ostensibly faint) that fly as they come into contentious contact.

When the question is about authentic Jewishness, she maintains, there are some vernacular starting points linking the discussion to race and racialization, which the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem used to accuse the Israeli state of racism...

To continue reading