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Introductory Materials: Jews, Race, and Religion

We are in the midst of what might be a major new chapter in the history of race relations in the United States, with untold numbers of protestors demanding that the country confront abiding race-based injustice. Among the consequences of this movement is a wider recognition of how race and racism are interwoven into all aspects of society, including government, education, health, and religion.

In an effort to deepen public understanding of race, “Jews, Race and Religion” uses the prism of Jewish experience to examine intersections of race and religion, drawing lessons from the history of antisemitism, examining the role of Jews in the racialized culture of the United States, and exploring the role of race in Jewish identity.

Jewish identity is a case study in the complexity that surrounds the category of race and its intersection with religion, and there is something at stake in trying to address this complexity not just for Jews but for American society in general. Why does racism persist? How is it manifest in culture and society? What can we do about it? These are some of the questions the lecture series will address. To get us started, we gathered some introductory materials.

Suggested Readings

Defining race is no simple matter, and scholars debate what precisely it means and when this way of thinking about human groups emerged. Here is one attempt to explain the concept of race and how its meaning has changed:

Audrey Smedley, Yasuko I. Takezawa and Peter Wade, “Race,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

This piece offers a framework for engaging with questions of race and racism in the context of Jewish life. Rabbis Jessica Rosenberg and Mackenzie (Max) Reynolds draw on Jewish history as they explicate the complexities of talking about Jewishness and race in an American context:

Rabbis Jessica Rosenberg and Mackenzie (Max) Reynolds, “Jews and White Privilege,” Evolve.

 

In this podcast, Lila Corwin Berman, Eric L. Goldstein, Ilana Kaufman and Judith Rosenbaum tackle the challenging and complex issues of Jewish identity, whiteness, and antisemitism in America:

Are Jews White?,” Adventures in Jewish Studies, 2018.

 

Just how racially diverse is the American Jewish community? This examination of recent population studies demonstrates that while there is growing racial diversity in American Jewry, most studies were not equipped to find it:

Ari Y. Kelman, Aaron Hahn Tapper, Izabel Fonseca and Aliya Saperstein, “Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color,” Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, 2019.

 

Scholar Mijal Bitton cautions against treating Jews of color as an undifferentiated group, pointing out that political and ideological diversity does not map on to racial diversity in ways that progressive politics predicts:

Mijal Bitton, “Many Jews of Color and Diverse Jews are Politically Conservative — and Many Voted for Trump,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2020.

 

Scholar Amanda Mbuvi draws on her own experience as a person who is both Black and Ashkenazi and points out that real solidarity is impossible until Whiteness and Jewishness are decoupled. Only then can Black Jewish experience and the full panoply of identity and difference be recognized. 

Amanda Mbuvi, “Black Jews Matter: Solidarity Begins Beyond the Limits of Whiteness,” Contending Modernities, 2020.

 

Scholar David Schraub demonstrates how applying an intersectional approach to American Jewish identities can help disentangle the category of Whiteness from Jewishness.

David Schraub, “White Jews: An Intersectional Approach”, AJS Review, 2019.

 

Recent court cases offer a window into the deep connections between race and religion as Religious Studies scholar Atiya Husain examines the problematic ways that American law and society treat Jewishness as a racial identity.

Atiya Husain, “Are Jews White? A Judge Tries to Answer the Question in a Messy Lawsuit,” Slate, 2018.