Chanda Prescod-Weinstein does not get to define Jewish identities

“I want white Jews to acknowledge that they are white. I want white Jews to acknowledge that Ashkenazi is not a synonym for white. I want white Jews to acknowledge that some Sephardim are white too.”

A MEMBER of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel wears a medallion with the Star of David as he takes part in a ceremony marking the holiday of Sigd. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A MEMBER of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel wears a medallion with the Star of David as he takes part in a ceremony marking the holiday of Sigd.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A few days ago, I wrote a piece in response to a quote by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein within the framework that this woman was trying to re-write my family history and how offensive that was, given my family’s long history at the school she was affiliated with. Once the piece went live, I was suddenly informed that she wasn’t a professor at the University of Washington but at the University of New Hampshire. Upon looking into this, I discovered that this professor had switched schools in September. At the time of writing, I had consulted her personal webpage numerous times, which cached versions show still said she was at the University of Washington and that she only updated her page once my piece had gone posted. Given that she is no longer at my beloved institution and other inconsistencies, The Jerusalem Post removed that article and I have chosen to respond to her in a different manner.
For any who read it, it was quite obvious how angry I was when responding to Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s claims that white-appearing Jews need to acknowledge their whiteness or be considered participating in white supremacy. Many have claimed I misunderstood her words but I did not, I simply should have been clearer in my arguments rather than letting my emotional response get the best of me. To be sure there is no misunderstanding, the quote I was responding to was:
“I want white Jews to acknowledge that they are white. I want white Jews to acknowledge that Ashkenazi is not a synonym for white. I want white Jews to acknowledge that some Sephardim are white too. White Jews may not live at the center of the tent of whiteness, but they are still white. When white Jews refuse to acknowledge that they benefit from and participate in white supremacy, they are wasting time that could otherwise be spent upending that white supremacy.”
My emotional response to this was driven by her dismissal of the issues and hardships white-appearing Sephardic Jews such as myself, some of my family and other light-skinned Jews from families of color have been dealing with for generations. Yes, I should have been clearer in my wording to show that I didn’t take her words to mean all Ashkenazim are white but honestly, most of the people angry with my words are simply arguing semantics as her implications are very clear.
While we are in the early days of a very necessary discussion about issues regarding the existence of colorism within Judaism, her words don’t seem aimed at this internal conversation. Her words are almost exactly the same words spoken by people like Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory of the Women’s March, who told Vanessa Wruble that white Jews, along with white people, uphold white supremacy.
White-appearing Jews (including people such as Bernie Sanders) have a documented history in fighting white supremacy and being involved with the civil rights movement. I myself, and many other light-skinned Jews have written about our own identity issues, racism we’ve witnessed within Judaism, as well as the antisemitism our skin color gives us privy to overhearing quite often. I have been involved in many conversations with other white-passing Jews about how we have benefited from our fair skin. While more should be having that conversation, Prescod-Weinstein’s words imply she thinks we’re all blind and oblivious and don’t have these conversations frequently. For Prescod-Weinstein to tell us we need to change our identities, alter our views of our family histories or essentially be complicit in white supremacy, is not only absurd but unhelpful.
BY TELLING Jews who appear white to acknowledge their whiteness or be complicit, she backs those same Jews into a very hostile place. When a Jew hears “white supremacy,” we think of Nazi Germany, the KKK and civil rights laws that also labeled Jews as colored. None of us are going to suddenly acknowledge ourselves as a part of this because Prescod-Weinstein told us to. That leaves those of us with lighter skin feeling cornered by people in our own community who are demanding something of us that we don’t identify with, while giving people like Mallory and Perez more room to push their false understanding of Jewish history down people’s throats. It takes away an already dwindling space for Jews on the Left and leaves us facing actual white supremacists, who still hate us even if we have light skin as we are, first and foremost, Jews.
In a separate writing of hers, Prescod-Weinstein said, “It can be deeply harmful and triggering for a POC to be told they are white and treated like they are not a member of the community(ies) that they identify with,” and yet this is exactly what she is guilty of with her recent comments.
In another piece, she wrote how most people respect that she is Jewish, uses the slur “yid” to refer to her husband, whom she requested to convert upon their marriage, and goes on to say, “…for me it is both an ethnic identity and a religion. No one has ever tried to take that away from me.” But is that not exactly what she is trying to take away from me and so many others? Her words are a direct attempt at taking away our ethnic identities to suit her agenda.
I’VE DONE a lot of reading of things Prescod-Weinstein has written since I first saw that quote, and there are many things I do agree with. I agree that life is hard for Black Jews who are often assumed to not be Jewish and are seen with suspicion, and that is outright unacceptable. I have written about my family’s experience with Ashkenormativity that prevails in America and their tendency to assume all Jews are light-skinned, Yiddish speaking, and superior and more advanced compared to other ethnicities that exist within Judaism. This is partially due to the high number of Ashkenazim in America compared to other Jewish ethnicities and the fact that intermarriage, even between Jewish ethnicities, is a relatively modern occurrence. I find it ironic that while black, Chanda still manages to use that Ashkenazi superiority complex in that she gets to determine who’s Jewish, what their skin color means, and then assign them jobs and ideologies based on that skin color.
While many of her lackeys believe I owe her an apology, I do not feel at all inclined. Yes, her comments are indeed an internal dialogue we need to have about how Jews of color are treated and how white-appearing Jews could and should be doing more to increase awareness and improve things. However, her words were not those of ones intended for internal dialogue, but ones that can be harmful to Jews if read by outsiders. Given she is involved with the misleadingly-named group Jewish Voices for Peace, who has been caught peddling lies about Israel and causing hostile spaces for pro-Israel Jews on college campuses all over America, I’m assuming she has no issue throwing Jews she disagrees with to the dogs. This woman has called David Ben-Gurion a Nazi, accused Israel of taking inspiration from the Nazis, and doesn’t seem to recognize Jewish indigenous status in the land Jews were born from. Why would I apologize to someone who has so much disrespect for so many of her own people?
If Chanda Prescod-Weinstein really wants to have a conversation about colorism within Judaism and the way light-skinned Jews can help, then let’s have an open and honest conversation with each other about it. Instead, she chose to use the same words that are causing the Women’s March to crumble due to antisemitism being embedded in its leadership from the beginning. Her words do not help make the world a better place for Jews, nor do they encourage white-passing Jews to hear the valid arguments she does make. Instead, she chooses rhetoric that causes further in-fighting, while outsiders who are watching foam at the mouth with the opportunity to use racism that exists within Judaism to further justify their Jew hatred. I will not apologize to someone who happily does such things, slanders an entire nation and advises a student group bent on Israel’s destruction.
The writer is a Seattle native who made aliyah in 2013 and resides in Tel Aviv. She holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies while writing on a variety of topics in relation to her experiences in Israel.