Rarely Kosher: studying Jews of Color in North America

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Author: Lewis R. Gordon
Date: Jan. 2016
From: American Jewish History(Vol. 100, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Column
Length: 5,280 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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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,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A441702990