Yavilah McCoy speaks at University of San Francisco, March 31, 2019 (Photo/Courtesy USF)
Yavilah McCoy speaks at University of San Francisco, March 31, 2019 (Photo/Courtesy USF)

Speaking in S.F., advocate for Jews of color reorients social justice narrative

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Yavilah McCoy is as mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore.

At the University of San Francisco, McCoy told 200 students and community members why both anger and love are healthy emotions to express when it comes to social justice.

Speaking at the Swig Program’s Jewish Studies & Social Justice annual lecture, McCoy, the founder of Ayecha, an advocacy group for Jews of color, started her March 31 lecture by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,” she said. “This is no time for apathy or complacency. The time is now to bring people into proximity.”

McCoy has been bringing together people of various faith and ethnic backgrounds for the past 20 years. Through her activism, the self-described “unapologetic, black, Jewish womanist leader” centers Jewish people of color in social justice spaces and demonstrates how they can commune with one another through difficult times. “I am living into the values I believe in,” she told the audience.

In her prepared remarks, McCoy explored the intersection of racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and what she called “Ashkenormativity,” or the notion that Ashkenazi heritage dominates the Jewish cultural landscape at the expense of Mizrachi, Sephardi and other Jews of color.

That tendency, she said, began in the Middle Ages when “the violence of Christian hegemony and white supremacy” erased much of the Jewish history that came before. All Jews trace their ancestry to the Middle East and Africa, she said, and yet that early history is rarely taught or celebrated, displaced by the Eurocentric Ashkenazi narrative.

She commented briefly on her choice to serve on the steering committee for the 2019 Women’s March after co-chair Tamika Mallory was condemned for her association with Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam leader has compared Jews to termites and described the State of Israel as “wicked” (McCoy called the comments “inexcusable”). Although many Jewish groups disassociated themselves from the Women’s March, McCoy told Essence magazine in January that Jewish women of color “have made the decision to stand in the light, affirming what we stand for, not against.”

At the Jan. 19 march in Washington, 75 Jewish women of color were invited to the front of the line. “It’s never happened before, for Jewish women to be at the front of a broad U.S. social justice movement,” McCoy said. “It is something I will never forget.”

Wendy Brummer, an audience member from San Francisco, said she was inspired by McCoy’s speech. “It made me think about where I have intersectionality in my life,” she said. Brummer added that she planned to challenge herself in her work as a board member of a nonprofit doing environmental justice work in Bayview and Hunters Point.

During a Q&A, Noa Kushner, founding rabbi of The Kitchen, a San Francisco congregation, asked McCoy what she stood for. McCoy replied, “I stand for a deep love and belief for the Jewish community. It’s a testimony that I’m still here.” She said that she has heard from people who have experienced oppression inside and outside the Jewish community and that she has personally dealt with it all her life. “I’m longing to look at what we will be outside of that oppression. I am not going to give up.”

Carly Nairn
Carly Nairn

Carly Nairn is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mongabay, Guernica, SF Weekly and KQED, among others. She lives in San Francisco.