For Black British Jews, the Racism We Face Is Personal and Structural

Microaggressions and structural issues can make merely being in Jewish spaces incredibly tough for people like me.

This is a difficult piece to write. How is it possible to convey the conflicting and painful emotions you feel in a community you love? I am a proud Black Jew, and I adore Judaism, its traditions, its holidays, and the development of Jewish scholarship.

It is precisely the pride I feel in my Jewishness that makes the marginalization and alienation I feel on a daily basis all the more painful. It is not easy to be a Black Jew in an overwhelmingly white community like British Jewry.

I want to caveat this by mentioning that I don’t always feel unwelcome; my denomination of Judaism, Masorti, has made conscious efforts to make Jews of Color feel welcome — and I feel lucky and proud to call it my community. And when it comes to the specific community I usually pray with, which is unusual in that it’s particularly ethnically diverse, I feel very welcome. But more broadly, things are rarely easy; microaggressions and structural issues can make merely being in Jewish spaces incredibly tough for people like me.

When it comes to microaggressions, they are many and varied. It would be hard to list all of them within the confines of one article, but there are few vitally important ones to discuss. Some of the most difficult questions I face are “How are you Jewish?” or “How do you know Hebrew?” These are questions I now know to expect in Jewish spaces, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult. Being singled out at an event and questioned vociferously — almost with suspicion — as to how I came to be in this Jewish space is exhausting, and it constantly makes me feel that I will never truly be accepted if I have to constantly justify my existence. This spills over into experiences like being stared at in kosher shops or restaurants, often with confusion, curiosity, or even concern. It’s hard knowing that my very presence could make some in my community feel uncomfortable, yet that is what many white Jews are constantly doing to me.

And then there’s the assumption that I am not Jewish, which almost hurts more. I was recently at a wedding in Israel, and it was consistently assumed that I was someone’s non-Jewish partner. I was met regularly with condescending “Oh, is this your first time in Israel then?” by some guests. While I doubt any of them said it with malice, it was the unconscious bias and the lack of awareness that made me feel erased.

Even going to synagogue, one of the most basic Jewish practices, can be an emotionally fraught experience. I recall one particular traumatic and humiliating experience. I was stopped, as I expected to be, as I tried to enter the synagogue on Shabbat. After 10 minutes of being questioned about my rabbi, where I lived, and whether I was carrying ID (which I wasn’t, as I was shomer Shabbat and there was no eruv), I finally blurted out, “Look! I know I’m Black, but I’m also Jewish. so are you going to let me in or not?” It was only after that, when the shul security began to blush with embarrassment, they let me in. When I left, I was given an apology by a less vociferous security guard who genuinely looked sorry; unsurprisingly, I never went back.

But the issues facing Black British Jews goes beyond the personal microaggressions. There are structural issues at play here — and it is hard to talk about those without mentioning the recent British general election. The two major parties, the Conservative party and the Labour Party, were both embroiled in racism scandals. The Conservative party has a severe, systemic, and institutional anti-Black racism problem, culminating with the arrest, denial of healthcare, and even deportation of Black citizens of Caribbean descent several years ago, some of whom died. In addition, the party is led by Boris Johnson, a man who has referred to Black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles” and believes colonialism was a positive thing that should never have ended.

Meanwhile, the Labour party, a left-wing party that traditionally has protected minorities, was embroiled in an anti-Semitism crisis that was being poorly managed by the party. Factionalism and denial of anti-Semitism in the party led to the issue rumbling on and on.

As is to be expected, this was an incredibly distressing time, as a Black Jew, to decide who to vote for — but the way in which Jewish leadership responded was even more distressing. Pleas from the Black Jewish community to communal organizations were widespread, as we asked leadership to condemn the racism to Black people in the Conservative party in the same way they condemned the anti-Semitism in Labour. Instead, the Jewish Board of Deputies of British Jews said nothing, and the biggest Jewish newspaper — the Jewish Chronicle — literally ran a Conservative party advert as their front page. Indeed, when Boris Johnson was selected as party leader, Chief Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis described Johnson as a “champion of the Jewish community.” While now, community leadership and organizations are widely taking the concerns of Black Jews seriously in the aftermath of George Floyd, it still won’t undo the hurt Black Jews have felt for so long.

So, how do British Jewry address these systemic and social issues? The most obvious solution is education; Jews of Color feature throughout the Torah and Jewish theological texts, and there is no excuse not to be teaching about them and celebrating them in Jewish schools or in cheder (religious elementary schools).

But the most important thing is to redefine how the Jewish community sees itself. From school to shul, from textbooks to Torah, we must explore the beautiful ethnic diversity within our community. As is clear, the Jewish community is not a white monolith; there are Black Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so many more. If the whole of British Jewry can see ourselves as the multi-ethnic, multicultural group we truly are, it will automatically see the plight of Black Jews as a Jewish plight. If we achieve that, no longer will Black Jews and other Jews of Color feel unwelcome in Jewish spaces. No longer will we feel erased — both from Jewish communal life and in our religious texts.

It is then, and only then, that the Jewish community will be a truly welcoming and inclusive space.

Header image by Artis777/Getty Images.

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