Marcella Campbell White, director of Be'chol Lashon, at a virtual ADL event, Feb. 18, 2021. (Screenshot/Zoom)
Marcella Campbell White, director of Be'chol Lashon, at a virtual ADL event, Feb. 18, 2021. (Screenshot/Zoom)

New head of S.F. diversity agency: All hands on deck in fight for Jews of color

Marcella White Campbell, the new director of S.F.-based Jewish diversity awareness organization Be’chol Lashon, was brought to tears as she described how it felt to watch the Capitol riots with her 15-year-old son.

“He’s Black and he’s Jewish,” she said. “And when the Capitol was swarmed on Jan. 6 … I hadn’t seen him cry since he was a child.

“He said, ‘They’re attacking everything about me, they’re attacking my entire identity,’” Campbell continued. “And I haven’t recovered from that as a parent — hearing him say those things.”

Campbell was speaking to Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, when she told that story during a nearly hourlong webinar on Feb. 18. The two had a virtual conversation, along with Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the ADL’s Southern Division, about the need to center Jews of color, and to continue the fight, as Greenblatt put it, to “shrug off the legacy of racism” in the United States.

“The Jewish people — of all races and ethnicities in this country — I would say the Jewish people should be entirely and fulsomely committed to this endeavor,” Greenblatt said.

Campbell, who took over the reins at Be’chol Lashon in January, following co-founder Diane Tobin’s decision to step aside after many years with the organization, emphasized that racism was something the Jewish community should consider not just a moral wrong, but a Jewish problem; Jews of color are part of the Jewish community, meaning anti-Black racism also affects Jews, she said.

“Jews contain multitudes,” she said during the online conversation. “We contain Jews of color, we contain multiracial and multiethnic Jews. And once we begin to acknowledge that, it makes it easy for us to engage with ideas of racism and inequality in the United States at large.”

That means getting rid of the idea that racism or bias against people of color are “external” issues, she said.

“They are Jewish issues,” she said.  “And when we say it, it means we can look at them through a Jewish lens and lean on Jewish values to help us to approach these issues.”

Campbell also emphasized that antisemitism and racism are structural problems that both need to be addressed — it’s “not a competition,” she said. But she added that it’s important for white Jews to learn about how their privilege affects them, and that takes willingness to understand identity and whiteness in order to really grasp it.

“In some ways, white privilege is about what doesn’t happen to you, and what you don’t have, and what barriers don’t exist for you,” she said.

Understanding that helps white Jews better comprehend what Jews of color experience.

“My identity is complicated. I am both Black and I am Jewish,” she told Greenblatt. “So antisemitism and racism both attack me. I see both of them as threats.”

Campbell emphasized that it was important for larger Jewish organizations to back the work that smaller organizations were doing, and amplify their message rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And she said it was crucial to keep pushing the Jewish community to engage with questions of racism and diversity.

She added that she was looking forward to seeing the conversation evolve as Jews of color step into leadership roles in the Jewish community, heading organizations and joining boards.

“For 20 years, Be’chol Lashon has advocated for Jews of color, amplified the voices of Jews of color. OK. Now what does it look like when Jews of color are in positions of power?” she asked.

But even as the conversation is changing, she said it is the responsibility of the entire Jewish community to address issues such as racism and to keep focused on the fight against bigotry. Since Jan. 6, she said, no one can ignore the reality of antisemitism and racism.

“There was no way to deny what was happening,” she said. “And that conversation is not going away.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.