A newspaper page with the headline "Jews of color relish Chanukah party's welcome mat" and a photo of a Black man, a white man and a Black boy singing together
An article from our Dec. 14, 2001 issue

How Jews of color have shown up (or not) in this newspaper over the decades

“Jews of color are a growing segment of the population of the United States and many experience isolation — they are a minority within a minority.”

That statement appeared in an advertisement in the March 5, 1999, issue of this newspaper for an event with Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr., a Black spiritual leader from Chicago. His talk was part of a series featuring diverse Jewish speakers that was organized by the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. The series was groundbreaking, as was the ad — it marked one of the first of more than 200 times that the term “Jews of color” (JOC) has appeared in this publication since the 1990s.

The Bay Area is home to one of the most ethnically and racially diverse Jewish communities in the United States. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, one-fourth of Bay Area Jewish households include at least one person who is African American, Asian American, Hispanic or of mixed race or ethnicity. And that’s true of around 40% of households where the respondents are under 35.

The Bay Area is also where three of the most important national organizations that advocate for JOCs were founded: Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “in every tongue”), which spun off in 2000 from Gary and Diane Tobin’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research; Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), which launched the following year; and the Jews of Color Initiative, which was founded in 2017 as the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Smaller JOC-led organizations have popped up here too, including Jewtina y Co., which celebrates Jews from Latinx backgrounds. 

As someone who has reported extensively on the struggles and triumphs of JOCs in the United States and Israel, I was curious about how our publication has covered this population over the decades. I searched our online archive for the term “Jews of color” and was surprised by what I found.

First, some background on the term’s origins: “Jews of color” is a variation of “people of color,” which derived from the French colonial term “gens de couleur libres” (“free people of color”). Black and other non-white people have referred to themselves as “people of color” since at least the 1960s. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to “citizens of color” in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. Another variation, “women of color,” emerged from the 1977 National Women’s Conference.

An ad for a 1999 lecture series about Jews of color
An ad for a 1999 lecture series about Jews of color

One might expect that “Jews of color” would have followed soon after, given that Jewish people of color have lived in the U.S. for generations. Yet “Jews of color” didn’t show up in our pages until March 11, 1994, in a story about a conference at UC Berkeley Hillel titled “Claiming Our Place: Jews in a Multicultural Community.”

At least one workshop was devoted to the topic of JOCs, according to the story. It’s not clear who led the workshop, but it may have been Aurora Levins Morales, a Berkeley writer and activist with Ashkenazi and Puerto Rican heritage who attended the conference.

“I experienced myself as belonging to two peoples with a history of oppression,” Morales told reporter Janet Silver Ghent at the time. “I didn’t experience [the two cultures] as in conflict. I don’t feel part of me is Jewish and part of me Puerto Rican. I’m Jewish Puerto Rican.”

Our archive also shows how fluid the term was in the 1990s, as local Jews from different backgrounds began to use and, arguably, misuse it.

For example, we reported on a 1995 “Jews Around the World” event hosted by San Francisco State University’s Hillel. The expo included displays on communities in China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran and Spanish-speaking countries. Margi Frankel, the then-director of student activities at Hillel and the event’s organizer, was quoted in the story as saying, “We are Jews of color.” Frankel, who is white, told me last year that she meant to convey that Jews come in all colors — a different meaning of “Jews of color” than the one that’s widely accepted today.

I also discovered that our earliest stories mentioning JOCs centered on white Jews, which in hindsight was obviously the wrong approach. (The irony of me, a white Jew, critiquing coverage of JOCs isn’t lost on me.)

In the Dec. 15, 1995, issue, for example, we profiled Paul Kivel, an anti-racism activist and author who published a book titled “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.” Kivel, who is white, used the term “Jews of color” twice in the book, which was published in 1996 and is now in its fourth edition. 

“Jews of color are always targets of racism from white people and even from Jews of European descent,” he wrote in the book. “They are also vulnerable to anti-Semitism from other people of color.” Sadly, more than 25 years later, not much has changed. A 2021 study from the Jews of Color Initiative found that 80% of JOCs have experienced racism in Jewish spaces.

Kivel, who is now 75 and lives in Oakland, told me in a recent interview that he learned the term from JOCs in the Bay Area. 

“As a way of respecting the ability of folks to name themselves, I started using it and highlighting the racism within the Jewish community, as well as the more systemic racism within our society,” he said.

Our 2005 cover story about Asian American Jews
Our 2005 cover story about Asian American Jews

In a 2020 essay in Hey Alma, Shahanna McKinney-Baldon staked her claim to formally coining “Jews of color” in print, in her introduction to a 2001 issue of the Jewish feminist journal “Bridges.” I reached out to her regarding Kivel’s use of the term in the mid-1990s.

“I have been aware of Paul Kivel’s work for many years,” McKinney-Baldon, an educator and African American Jew who lives in Wisconsin, told me in an email. “I do not know whether I had read the book prior to our ‘Bridges’ issue coming out. As you know, the term ‘People of Color’ became a much more common and very important term in the U.S. in the ’90s, especially among those doing racial diversity and equity work. In this context, it is easy to imagine that many also began using the term ‘Jews of Color’ in that period. I have referred to those of us who were using this term at that time as ‘early adopters’ who helped to coin the term.”

(It’s worth noting that Kivel used the term in his book as someone outside the community, while McKinney-Baldon took ownership of it as a Jew of color herself.)

Beginning in the early 2000s, there was a shift in our newspaper’s coverage of JOCs. Our stories began to center on JOCs themselves, not white Jews talking about them. And the stories became more celebratory — thanks, in large part, to the pioneering work of Be’chol Lashon. 

“Jews of color relish Chanukah party’s welcome mat,” read the headline of a Dec. 14, 2001, story about a gathering that Be’chol Lashon hosted in San Francisco for racially diverse Jews and their families. Other notable stories in the early 2000s included a 2004 profile of Rain Pryor, the daughter of Black comedy legend Richard Pryor, and a 2005 cover story about Asian American Jews.

The vast majority of our stories about local JOCs — that is, stories about people who live in or visit Northern California, excluding stories about Ethiopian Jews and members of other non-white communities in Israel and the diaspora — have appeared in the last two decades. This suggests, on one hand, that we neglected to cover a significant segment of the Jewish community for far too long. On the other hand, we are continuously striving to be more conscientious in our editorial choices and, importantly, are inviting Jews of color to tell their own stories in our pages.

We know we have a lot more work to do to ensure our coverage is as expansive and sensitive as possible.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.