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Jews come in all colors, but they shouldn’t be defined by race alone

The claim that Jews of color are being undercounted is more than an arcane demographic dispute. It’s part of an effort to hijack the national Jewish agenda.

Kippahs in all sizes, material and colors. Credit: Wikipedia.
Kippahs in all sizes, material and colors. Credit: Wikipedia.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For those who follow it, Jewish demography has always been a contact sport. But when it comes to the question of how many “Jews of color” are there really in the United States, the gloves have come off.

That’s what Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut and Ira B. Sheskin of the University of Miami found out in the wake of the article on the subject they authored in the new American Jewish Yearbook, a version of which recently appeared in The Forward.

Dashefsky and Sheskin are among the most important scholars in the field of Jewish demography and have played a role in many of the studies of various communities around the country in the last generation. But the result of their deep dive into the matter of how many American Jews can actually be classified as being “of color” wasn’t what a lot of those who are invested in the question wanted to hear.

Their finding was that the estimates put forward by other sources that 12 percent to 15 percent of Jews were “of color” couldn’t be backed up. While they acknowledged that some studies might have undercounted the number of Jews who could be so defined, the real number was likely close to the figure of 6 percent that was produced by the Pew Research Institute in their landmark 2013 survey of Jewish Americans.

As Dashefsky and Sheskin wrote, while the numbers of Jews who fell into this category were certainly higher in the more polyglot populations of greater New York and the San Francisco Bay area, there was, they pointed out, no reason to believe that the same was true in other places where Jewish communities were less diverse.

The two scholars’ reasoning and methods seem sound, but that didn’t prevent those who disagreed from excoriating them for coming up with a result that contradicted those who are arguing that American Jewry is far more racially diverse than it actually is.

The talk about “white racial privilege” in a strictly Jewish context has more to do with the tone of contemporary leftist politics than anything else.

Part of the problem with trying to count Jews who are racial minorities is that the definitions of “color” can vary. Many with Hispanic backgrounds are descendants of European Jews who immigrated to Spanish-speaking countries. Some see themselves as Hispanic, and some do not.

There’s also the question of how you classify Mizrahi Jews who come from the Muslim and Arab world. Technically, they, too, are people “of color.” Indeed, such Jews of color make up a majority of the Jewish population in Israel. But in the United States, not all identify as part of a racial as opposed to a religious minority.

Moreover, the emphasis on race rather than faith goes against the grain for a Jewish community largely divided on lines of affiliation with the largest and fastest-growing demographic group “Jews of no religion.”

Yet in keeping with the way public discourse about everything has become exaggerated and vicious, the attacks on the pair are over the top. A letter signed by 2,500 persons and 200 organizations slammed their dispassionate reporting of the facts as they found them as “undermining” an inclusive vision of Jewish life.

Why the overwrought hyperbole about a statistical study? The answer is that the critics are the ones with the agenda.

While they claim that the methodology is all wrong because the researchers failed to ask questions that might somehow produce larger numbers of people who might fit some definition of “color,” their real beef with Dashefsky and Sheskin is for sticking to their job.

The letter accused compilers of placing a “stronger emphasis on numerical calculations than on communal values.” Similarly, one academic denounced them for emphasizing “data,” rather than “empathy and understanding.”

Of course, numerical calculations and data are exactly what we want from demographers. But to the woke mind, the talk about empathy is a red flag that they aren’t really interested in an accurate count. What they want is data they can use as ammunition to pursue their policy goals. And those who frustrate that effort by sticking to the facts must be criticized and forced to apologize for their unwillingness to bend the results to buttress racial politics.

The irony is that the two scholars had no desire to minimize or marginalize Jews who identify as black or Hispanic. Their good intentions and long records of integrity, however, weren’t enough to spare them the indignity of being censured as servants of a racist establishment.

Predictably, leaders of the Reform movement made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate any data that might not serve their attempt to steer the Jewish communal world in a different direction.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union of Reform Judaism and Chris Harrison, a URJ staffer, wrote in eJewish Philanthropy that the work of the two scholars “are indicative of the fear that resides in many white-dominated spaces and are reactionary to the work that organizations like ours seek to do: the work of disrupting oppression within our communities, addressing unearned power and privilege, and acknowledging our actual Jewish diversity.”

The argument about numbers obscures something far more important than the sparring over demographics or the politics of the left.

As that overheated passage shows, the effort to inflate the number of Jews of color is about reorienting the focus of Jewish philanthropy. These critics don’t so much “stand with Jews of colors” as they are desperate to exploit them as a wedge to justify an even greater emphasis on “social-justice” projects that are in tune with the priorities of the far-left, and away from traditional priorities like Jewish education and Zionism—let alone serving the needs of the growing number of Orthodox Jews, especially those living in poverty.

Why can’t the Reform movement and any other Jewish philanthropic group just go ahead and use their resources in whatever way they think best? Of course, they can.

But they feel findings that show the minority Jewish population as remaining relatively small makes it harder for them to persuade groups like Jewish federations to change their funding priorities, and direct them towards projects that are more about signaling their sensitivity to race and the plight of minorities. The talk about “white racial privilege” in a strictly Jewish context has more to do with the tone of contemporary leftist politics than anything else.

Indeed, the number of Jews of color is being put forward by some on the left to get the Jewish community behind the current push to defund or abolish the police in the wake of the George Floyd killing. The fact that this would undermine Jewish security is dismissed as merely more evidence of “privilege,” notwithstanding the real threats that Jews of all colors face from anti-Semitic violence.

Unfortunately, the argument about numbers obscures something far more important than the sparring over demographics or the politics of the left.

However many Jews “of color” there may be, many of them do feel marginalized and are often not treated as equal members of Jewish communities. Even worse, in some sectors, prejudice and racial hate, especially against African-Americans, are indeed tolerated.

Whenever such behavior occurs, it should be strongly condemned by Jews of every background. There must be zero tolerance of any hint of racial prejudice. But let’s not mix that imperative up with a bogus dispute about demography.

Jews, after all, are a people, not a race. They come in every color and can trace their immediate past origins to all points on the map, including Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. But they have a common destiny as a people linked to both faith and the land of Israel. While the many varieties of Jewish heritage, including those that identify as black or Hispanic, should be honored, what Jews have in common is still far more important than our differences.

Most of us are hard-pressed to care about what seems like an obscure squabble between academics. Yet the dispute about counting Jews is worth worrying about because it distracts us from the need to pull together, rather than to be recruited in a politicized effort to define Jews by race rather than faith.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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