"Jews are not a religion. We are not a race. We are a people with a joint history and, therefore, a common, shared destiny," writes Naya Lekht.
"Jews are not a religion. We are not a race. We are a people with a joint history and, therefore, a common, shared destiny," writes Naya Lekht.

In bid for acceptance, touting Jews of color is a divisive strategy

In recent social justice crusading, a specific class of oppressed peoples has come forward: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color). School curricula, the Hollywood industry and media all call for more attention to be paid to BIPOC, either through anti-racist educational training, more diversity hires, scripts with BIPOC characters, and so on, in the name of opposing white supremacy.

Trailing not too far behind are Jewish activists and institutions in the United States, who state that within the Jewish community, Jews of color must also be highlighted. Progressive Zionists point to the diversity in Israel with the hope that this will convince the Israel-haters to accept the Jewish state.

The “Jews of color” classification came to my attention in the recent California struggle over educational malpractice known as ethnic studies. In the original draft curriculum, known as the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, Zionism is portrayed as a form of white supremacy, Jews in the U.S. usurp power because they are white, and students must learn to oppose apartheid Israel through BDS — the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Rightfully so, Jewish groups — both from the political left and right — rang the alarm bell. The moment for Jewish unity was ripe. And then came the calls for strategy: What were the best ways to oppose the curriculum?

Many argued that the entire ESMC must be abolished, as it was so blatantly antisemitic. But some Jewish groups responded that this was unfeasible. Perennially afflicted with anxiety over optics, these groups maintained that opposing the entire curriculum would further alienate Jews from the mainstream.

And so while Jews battled over strategy, the curriculum inched its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for approval.

Among the solutions, spearheaded by major Jewish organizations, was the proposal to insert a unit into the curriculum on Jews of color.

The idea was simple: We must educate the population that Jews are not just white, but rather that there is an entire story of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. If we could just show the world that we are not (just) white — today’s avatar of the boogeyman — we would change mass misconceptions about Jews. The unit would highlight the story of Jews from the Middle East and, in doing so, Jews would gain sympathy.

While many could benefit from learning the rich story of Jewish life in (and later persecution from) Arab countries, the intent for inserting “Jews of color” into ethnic studies curricula demonstrates buy-in to an ideological framework that suggests whiteness is bad. This strategy doesn’t work. It comes off as Jewish institutions trying to gain credibility (“Hey, we’re a persecuted people of color, too”), but it comes at a great expense: unintentionally endorsing the notion that Jews of color are “acceptable” while “white Jews” are not, at least not worthy of inclusion in an ethnic studies curriculum. And it creates a dangerous division within the Jewish people.

I was born in Ukraine and grew up in Los Angeles. Because my father did not allow me to travel to Israel as a child, the first time I went to our homeland was as an adult. To this day, what I remember is the overwhelming feeling of awe and pride. Every which way I turned, I saw our people. I never thought, these are Jews from the Middle East, and those over there are Russian Jews, and there — French Jews.

I saw Jews, the Jewish people, a beautiful tapestry, once again claiming their majority in our ancestral land.

Masha Merkulova, founder and executive director of Club Z, a Zionist youth movement based in the Bay Area, leads an activity with teens in which she asks, “Where are you from?”

The teens often reply, “My parents are from Russia.” To that, Merkulova responds, “And where are their parents from? And their parents?” Most teens shrug their shoulders.

In doing this activity, Merkulova reclaims the Jewish narrative. Club Z’s tagline — “Jews are from Judea” — though simple, is most astute in its observation that Jews, though scattered all over the globe, all originate from the land of Israel.

To be fair, I understand well the desire to spearhead initiatives for Jews of color: It emanates from the chambers of our history, the historical hope for acceptance. Accept us … We will be Frenchmen on the streets and Jews at home. We will recite the poems of Pushkin and Nekrasov better than our Russian brethren. We will drive to shul rather than walk so that we are not seen as “different” … and so on.

Jews are not a religion. We are not a race. We are a people with a joint history and, therefore, a common, shared destiny.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Naya Lekht
Naya Lekht

Naya Lekht is the national director of education for Club Z, a Zionist youth movement based in the Bay Area. She has a B.A. from UC Santa Cruz and a Ph.D. in Russian literature from UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles.