New Paradigms in Black-Jewish Relations

A transcript of the live event on August 11, 2021

Transcript

NEW PARADIGMS IN BLACK-JEWISH RELATIONS

An edited transcript of the live event on August 11, 2021, featuring David Bernstein, David Ben Moshe, Brandy Shufutinsky, and Erec Smith, jointly sponsored by Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and Free Black Thought. Watch the video of the event here.

David Bernstein (moderator)

Hello, this is David Bernstein, founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. JILV supports the free expression of ideas and opposes the imposition of critical social justice ideology inside and out of the Jewish community. We are pleased to co-sponsor this event, New Paradigms in Black-Jewish relations, with Free Black Thought, a small but growing group of scholars, technologists, parents, and American citizens determined to amplify vital black voices that are rarely heard on mainstream platforms. Check out the new Journal of Free Black Thought, which you can find on their website, freeblackthought.com. Today, we turn our attention to fresh approaches in black-Jewish relations, and for that, we have a distinguished panel that I'm going to introduce. 

First, we have Erec Smith, who's a founder of Free Black Thought, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania, and a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition, was recently published by Lexington Press. 

Next, we have Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky. Brandy is an educator, social worker, writer, and advocate. She has worked towards advancing the rights of victims and survivors of domestic violence and assault. She is also, I am proud to say, a JILV board member. She's Jewish herself with kids living in Israel. 

Last but not least, we have David Ben Moshe. David grew up in Maryland, where he had a troubled youth. He was in a drug gang, which led to an eventual jail sentence. While there, he met somebody studying a book with a script he did not recognize. That encounter sent David on a journey that eventually led him to Orthodox conversion, Yeshiva study, marriage, and the battle to be permitted to live in Israel. Today, he is a writer and a personal trainer, and I expect great things from him. 

As for me, I've been engaged in black-Jewish understanding and collaboration my entire professional life and could not be more excited about this conversation. We will begin the conversation with me offering some context, as I see it, and a set of propositions for what a new paradigm in black-Jewish relations might look like. Our panelists then will respond. 

First, some context. For nearly a century, blacks and Jews were allies in the struggle for civil rights and equality in America. Sometimes risking their lives, they waged battle in the courts, at lunch counters, and in the academy. Their historical partnership culminated in the landmark court decisions and legislation of the 1960s, achievements for which both communities can be proud. As the black power movement grew in prominence, it made civil rights a racial movement, shutting many Jews out. As many Jews moved out of the cities, away from their black neighbors, and into the suburbs, the relationship between the two communities deteriorated. In recent years. it's become even more complicated. The National Representative of the Nation of Islam, Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has made his anti-Semitic views clear, has been lauded by some in the black community and condemned by many in the Jewish community. Farrakhan’s standing has been a source of ongoing tension. More recently, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which many Jews wholeheartedly embraced, has provided a new platform for anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. Some in the Black Lives Matter movement accuse white American Jews of being complicit in white supremacy and some progressive Jews eager to be in their good graces parrot these charges. 

In October 2016, I wrote an article arguing that Jews should engage in criminal justice reform, which I regarded as the civil rights movement of our time. And I argued that it was crucial that Jews remain proximal to black activists in engaging social issues. I ended the piece with the following observation: It will not be easy integrating the Jewish community into civil rights coalitions, some of which hold very different political sensibilities. Young activists routinely invoke phrases like “white supremacy” to describe America’s prevailing power structure, and this may sound extreme to many mainstream Jews. Rather than feeling obliged to use these terms, however, the Jewish community could develop its own social justice vocabulary and come to the table in its own voice. Well, I was wrong, it turns out.

It became apparent to me in the ensuing years that the civil rights movement of our time, such as it is, demanded not devotion to a common social agenda, but complete ideological uniformity and consensus. One cannot easily join criminal justice reform coalitions, I discovered, without professing total deference to a doctrine of racial essentialism. The drive for ideological conformity, in my view, is not good for blacks, Jews, or the country at large. We need a new paradigm in black-Jewish relations. 

To that end, I'm going to offer a few propositions for discussion:

One, neither the black community nor the Jewish community are monolithic. We are highly diversified politically, ideologically, and economically. There is no reason why we should allow radical voices in either community to define all black-Jewish relations, or that we should deem divisive figures the authentic representatives of our communities. Jews and blacks who share a set of values and ideological commitments can and should work together.

Two, the greatest issue of the day is the health of our liberal democracy. If forces on the far left and on the far right continue to chip away at the foundations of our democratic republic and undermine healthy discourse, both communities will suffer for it, along with countrymen of all races and religions. Blacks and Jews have played a crucial role in helping America live up to its own highest ideals. We have an indispensable role ensuring America does so in the future. 

Three, as heirs of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, now is the time for us to recommit to Dr. Martin Luther King's original vision of a colorblind society so that our children will, in the words of the great civil rights leader, “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But, until that time, we have work to do. 

Four, there are real social issues that need resolving, our criminal justice system among them. Blacks and Jews who share an agenda on important social issues can and should come together to address them. There should not be ideological litmus tests attached to engaging in such work for change, as there are now. For the person in prison on low-level drug charges and his family, it matters much less whether the drug laws were intentionally put in place to oppress black people than it does that they are reformed by people of goodwill, no matter what they believe about systemic racism. 

And finally, five, in many ways, this new paradigm in black-Jewish relations is not new at all, but deeply embedded in our historical consciousness. It is up to us to revive this historical bond and to apply a new-old paradigm to the challenges of today. So those are my propositions, and I'd like to start with my friend Erec Smith, a founder of Free Black Thought, to respond and to expand and to agree or disagree with me.

Erec Smith (panelist)

Thank you for letting me go first. As the apparent one non-Jew on the panel, I need to explain why I'm here, and I can do that while also addressing the propositions. Proposition One is all about viewpoint diversity in the black community, which is what I and my co-founders at Free Black Thought are all about. Regarding Propositions Two and Three, the greatest issue of the day is the health of our liberal democracy and the points about Martin Luther King's colorblind ideology. They speak to the concept of merit. If you enter into any critical race theory circle—proponents of critical race theory or something comparable to critical race theory—you will see that merit is demonized as a kind of insidious ploy to maintain white supremacy. So if Jews are as successful, if not more so, than white people, then in various ways, they're implicated in what's called systemic racism. I think that's a problem for various obvious reasons. Your fourth proposition about real social issues speaks to the need for pragmatism in dealing with civil rights issues: agreeing upon a goal and figuring out the steps to get there collaboratively. I think that's missing from a lot of our contemporary activism, especially anti-racism. And lastly, Proposition Five reminds me of the concept of memes. Not Internet memes. I'm going way back. Richard Dawkins defined a “meme” as an idea or a behavior that replicates virally in a culture, if not an entire society. And I fear that within a lot of African-American circles in the United States, anti-Semitism is becoming a meme. It's a kind of virtue signaling to a large degree. We see a lot of celebrities who say things that are either outright anti-Semitic or “adjacent” to anti-Semitism. My favorite team is the Philadelphia Eagles and DeSean Jackson, a wide receiver, a good one when he's healthy, said some questionable things about the Jewish community. And some people rightfully disowned him for that. But many people did not. And other people started echoing those sentiments. And I fear that anti-Semitism is going to become one of the values, attitudes, and beliefs of African-American Discourse. And that's why I'm here. I'm interested in all those things, and I want to make sure that last thing definitely does not happen.

Bernstein 

Great, thank you so much, Erec. Let's turn to Brandy for her thoughts.

Brandy Shufutinsky (panelist) 

Well, first, I want to say thank you for having me here. I'm very excited to be part of this conversation. I want to focus on the third point you made about Dr. King's idea of colorblindness. And I think what we're seeing is actually a result of colorblindness. The idea that we have to be the same to get along instead of actually acknowledging differences as being something to celebrate in diversity. And I think that's possibly one of the reasons why Jews are painted as White. There hasn't been real conversation about the diversity of different communities. Everything has been viewed through this monolithic prism that I think allows false narratives to perpetuate through different communities. And I think that right now, looking at leaders of so-called social justice movements, they’re of a certain generation that grew up and were schooled in ideas of colorblindness, so much so that it erases the idea of differences as a positive versus a negative. And we're seeing instead of social justice, social vengeance.

Bernstein

We will have to get back to that idea of whether colorblindness is the right new paradigm or the wrong paradigm and whether we need a different form of diversity. But before we do that, let's go to David Ben Moshe.

David Ben Moshe (panelist)

Thank you for having me. As you can hear I’m a little bit hoarse today, I lost my voice a few days ago. I am a father with two young kids, a two-year-old daughter and a six-month-old son. So once one of them gets sick it has to work its way through the entire household. The first point I want to bring up relates to something you mentioned in the context section that I want to push back on a little bit, which is that criminal justice reform is the civil rights movement of our generation. I think that's a true statement in the United States but not on a world scale. Globally the main civil rights fights that we need to win are the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, and the right to a useful education. These things aren’t perfect in the United States but they are very good and continue to improve; however, they are non-existent in much of the world. We can't just think about America in any global context and this is especially true regarding Black and Jewish relationships, because in addition to the relationship of Israel, and all Jews worldwide, with Blacks in America, there are other relationships that involve Blacks and Jews, for example, Israel-Africa relations, which we need to cultivate now as Africa continues to develop. 

Going into the propositions. I overall agree with them. Regarding the first proposition, I like to always bring up one of the big differences I see between the Black community and the Jewish community. As someone who's Black and Jewish, I believe that we need to get to this point of colorblindness, which is the great goal that Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, and is referred to in some of the later points, where the color of my skin does not affect the opportunities afforded to me. But as a religious Jew there are certain opportunities that I believe should be limited to other religious Jews. All of these relate to specific religious customs that are regulated by Jewish law. While this might seem like a contradiction it is not, and the reason for that is that they are fundamentally different types of identity. I define the difference thus: being Jewish is inclusive, meaning that anyone who wants to go through the process can become an observant Jew, but being Black is exclusive, meaning you are either born with characteristics that allow you to fit the social construct of being Black or you aren't. So really the opportunities are still available to people not born Jews, but they have to enter into the covenant first. For example, Erec brought up at the beginning, “oh, I'm the only one on this who's not Jewish.” But no, in five years’ time, he could be. On the other hand, for you, David, there’s no process you could do to become a Black person or an African American. And that is a big difference between the two identities, which is one of the reasons why limiting opportunity based on unchangeable, exclusive identities is not the direction that the human race needs to be going.

Bernstein

Erec, do you know there's been a lot of talk in art circles about whether colorblindness is the right paradigm for now or whether it's a distant, future aspiration, but we need, in the meantime, racial consciousness in order to get to that point so that we can ameliorate some of our past and current disparities. What do you think about that? Both David and Brandy went different directions on the issue of colorblindness. Where do you fall?

Smith

I want to acknowledge that colorblindness is a metaphor and not a literal thing. Nobody's walking around thinking that people are translucent. The whole point of colorblindness is to minimize partiality: whether I like you or hate you has nothing to do with your skin color. That's the point of colorblindness. Whether you get this job or not doesn’t depend on your skin color; it depends on your ability to do the job. And for that reason, I embrace colorblindness. You can be colorblind without ignoring people's identities and differences and things like that. You can acknowledge those identities and differences. But you're colorblind in that that person's merit, that person's skill, that person's usefulness for the job does not depend on immutable characteristics like skin color.

Bernstein

Brandy, you raised this issue. What did you think about what Erec just stated?

Shufutinsky 

I think that that's brilliant. And that's the point. When people use, “oh, I'm colorblind,” as “I don't see color—I'm not acknowledging your difference, because if I did, that would mean I would have to treat you differently.” And I think that that's an important part to bring up. It's not that I don't want somebody to see that I am a Black woman. I am. I'm proud of it. It's something to me that I embrace. And like Erec mentioned, that doesn't mean that I should be judged or excluded from professional positions, from spaces in academia, et cetera, et cetera, because I'm a Black woman. But any time the conversation comes up, I hear “oh, I don't see color.” And I'm like, “well, that's part of who I am. You're telling me to my face that you don't see a piece of me, because if you did, it would be a problem.” I take issue with that.

Bernstein

I'm glad we fleshed that out a little bit. Again, in the spirit of Free Black Thought, we're trying to platform voices and ideas that you don't often hear in the public sphere. And I think this is a very interesting and rich example of that. I want to turn to the issue of racism and anti-Semitism for a moment, and I think I'll start with anti-Semitism. I've been a long time, as I said before, an interlocutor with the Black community and involved in Black-Jewish relations. And over the years, especially before the Black Lives Matter movement came into the public sphere, we talked a lot about Louis Farrakhan. And I remember the Million Man March, which became a major issue between Jews and Blacks. There were a few Black leaders who refused to participate in it because they didn't want to hurt their friends in the Jewish world. But many thought that it was unfair on the part of the Jewish community to highlight Farrakhan's anti-Semitism when much more compelling issues were on the table at the Million Man March. I want to start with David. You were probably a young guy during those times, but how did you, over time, come to see the Million Man March and the issue of Black anti-Semitism?

Ben Moshe

Fighting for the rights of Blacks while holding anti-Semitic views is a completely unacceptable double standard. This makes Farrakhan at the very least a hypocrite. It is written in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Blacks, Jews, Asians, everybody deserves these rights and anyone trying to take them away from anybody needs to be opposed. 

Bernstein 

Brandy, how about you?

Shufutinsky

I've questioned for years how anyone would lift up Farrakhan as any type of leader. It's not just his anti-Semitism, it's his misogyny, it's his homophobia, et cetera, et cetera. When he makes statements that the likes of David Duke agree with, he can't be representative of the Black community, regardless of how diverse we are. 

The question I have when people use Farrakhan as an example of a Black leader is “what has he done for the Black community?” There aren’t specific examples of how his rhetoric or his actions have led to positive developments within the Black community. Many follow him because they agree with his ideology, no matter how ugly or because he is what’s called a charismatic leader. That doesn’t address the fact that in all of his years as a “leader,” he hasn’t done anything positive for the community. His bigotry, which he uses rather successfully, is his weapon of choice to incite divisiveness. 

Bernstein

Erec?

Smith 

I think when looking for leaders in a community, you embrace the person who's out there, who's extroverted, who, you know, tells it like it is, and things like that. We know how attractive a trait that is in this country—telling it like it is. Unfortunately, Farrakhan is one of those people to a lot of African Americans. I remember around the time of the Million Man March, how systemic Farrakhan was in the hip hop world. I remember Professor Griff from Public Enemy agreeing with Farrakhan and saying some anti-Semitic things. He got kicked out of Public Enemy for it. But he was also kind of a voice of many African-American hip hop fans at the time. So, yes, that is definitely a problem. I am not a fan of Farrakhan in many ways, and the fact that he is considered a leader, the fact that, you know, rappers are considered leaders in such an important way, I think is an issue. We have to start listening to academics—that’s not a plug for myself; I’m just saying—and other thought leaders who have done this research, leaders who have actually looked into it, and not just celebrities or polarizing figures like Farrakhan.

Bernstein 

So one of the things that I pushed a little bit in my propositions was this idea that blacks and Jews have an opportunity to fight for a liberal society, that we bring with us a history of fighting for justice, and the way that's being expressed in the public sphere now is generally a fight against systemic racism. Is there also an argument to be made that Jews and blacks should be joining forces—as we are, at least in this conversation today—around fighting for liberalism and fighting against the imposition of critical social justice ideology in our institutions? What do you think? What do you think the opportunity for that is? I'll start with you, Erec.

Smith 

Well, unfortunately, critical race theory doesn't trust liberal values. They see it like they see merit: a ploy to maintain white supremacy. So right there, we already start off with a problem. However, I think a powerful thing in bringing people together, groups together, is what Muzafer Sherif called “superordinate goals.” Two groups want the same thing: to better themselves. And the way to get that thing is to work together; it's by necessity. Studies show that this actually enhances camaraderie, when you are both going towards the same goal for selfish reasons, but you need each other to acquire that goal. What that goal can be is the question. Since a lot of anti-racists don't trust classical liberal values, liberal democracy is probably not the most attractive common goal in their minds. But what is? I have no idea. I wish I had an answer for you. I do think that has to be the topic of conversation, not just among blacks and Jews, but within society.

Bernstein

David, what do you think about liberal democracy—and expand it, if you will, to criminal justice reform as well—to what degree do you think there's a common agenda for Jews and blacks on the issue of criminal justice reform, or liberal democracy, or both?

Ben Moshe

First, to discuss liberal democracy. I think the fight for the liberal values of democracy is the most important fight in the democratic world right now. Everyone who believes in democracy needs to fight for it. Democracy can only flourish if we're not afraid to express our opinions and disagree with each other. I learned that the key to democracy is majority rule and minority rights. If the minority is silenced and we're unable to listen to them, we can't stand up for their rights. And one of the problems with the way many people are presenting the idea of critical race theory is that they are using it to silence the opposition in a way that is very similar to the Cultural Revolution of China, where there's the party line, you have to stick with the party line, and no other thoughts or ideas are acceptable. If we go down that path it is the end of democracy and the beginning of a totalitarian regime, where your thoughts are monitored and disagreement is enough to get you punished in the form of incarceration or death. As far as both Blacks and Jews working together on criminal justice reform, I think that they are a perfect match for the task. African Americans, Black people and brown people of all kinds, have suffered the most from our current system of mass incarceration. It is unequivocally an egregious human rights violation that we need to fix and have an honest reckoning with. And I think a lot of the experiences that come from Jewish culture and Jewish history can help us come to a positive reckoning when it comes to acknowledging what went wrong, but more importantly, how we can build a better future. We can disagree about whether or not mass incarceration is systemically racist, the degree of systemic racism, how it became the way that it is, and who is responsible. But the most important thing is to use our knowledge of the past to look at our present situation to create a better future. I believe that is part of the Jewish idea of how we approach the world and also how the Black community needs to look at the situation in the world so we can all step into a better future together.

Bernstein 

Brandy, what do you think?

Shufutinsky 

When I think about liberal democratic values, I think about two things. One, freedom of expression, to have the space to disagree, to not toe the party line, without fear of punishment. And the other is the building of civil society. One of the things that democracies have is civil society. And that is, in my opinion, built in K-12 public schools. That's where civics is built. That's where we learn about the communities we live in—learning all of that happens in schools. Ideas coming out of the extreme left right now are erasing and disavowing all of the things that actually build liberal democracy. So what happens is you have one ideology pushed at the expense of free thought. And so figuring out how do communities, how do the Black American and Jewish American communities work together to achieve anything, whether it's criminal justice reform or any other human rights issue, in an environment that doesn't allow freedom of expression without fear of punishment? Punishment ranges from the most extreme, like what happens in an authoritarian regime, being jailed, or less extreme, like not getting tenure at a university because you're not spewing the same rhetoric that the university or department wants to push. Anything like that equals punishment. And if there isn't the space to actually express ideas and have discourse and discussion without fear of punishment, I worry that the foundations of liberal democracy won't hold or can't hold.

Bernstein

We are getting some questions from the audience.  There seems to be a lot of interest in going back to this issue of colorblindness. It's not every day that we're able to discuss this openly, and I think people naturally have some pent-up views that they want to get out there. So I want to read a couple of these comments and see if we can talk about identity and colorblindness. It's interesting, we're talking about colorblindness, and yet we are having a discussion on black-Jewish relations, which inherently invokes the idea of color. Helen Pluckrose, who's one of the great thinkers in the sphere of liberalism, writes, “Interesting thoughts on color-blindness. I think the term should only apply to a principle of not valuing people by their race. It shouldn't be a pressure not to have a cultural identity.” And she goes on to say, “Equality doesn't have to be sameness. If someone's Caribbean culture is important to them, this just means it is part of them like my British tea drinking is part of me. Not a superior/inferior thing.” Andrew Preston, who's an academic and thinker adds, “The classic question: how to simultaneously promote real equality with affirmations of ethnic/cultural/racial identities.” Any thoughts on this? A challenge of both maintaining one's own identity and—I think, Brandy, you spoke to this—at the same time, trying to build a sense of equality. Erec, let's start with you.

Smith 

Are people really having a hard time doing that? I mean, I remember as a child understanding what colorblindness meant. It didn't mean I didn't see somebody’s color literally. You know, I was 10 and I got that point. How are people still confused about this? I'm sorry I’m being snarky here right now, but I'm really frustrated by people who, you know, bristle at this concept of colorblindness. You can acknowledge somebody’s cultural identities, and be colorblind in that their skin color is not the most important thing about them and not the thing you look at when judging their skills, their merit, or what have you. That's what colorblindness is. It's really simple. And I don't think it's that hard to acknowledge somebody's identity and not put so much weight on race, as if it’s their most important factor.

Bernstein 

Brandy?

Shufutinsky 

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said acknowledge their individuality. Well, right now what's happening is individuality is being ignored. Because that includes things like merit. Instead, groupthink is being pushed. So if there is an ignoring of individuality, then what you're saying should happen, isn't.

Smith 

Within the black community, or—?

Shufutinsky

Within social justice movements. So, as an example, we can address systemic racism. I think that civil rights throughout the centuries in the United States have addressed systemic racism. But they're doing it at the expense of addressing individual racism.

Smith 

Right. Yes. Well, those social justice activists are the ones pushing back against colorblindness. They're the ones who are saying, “white America is trying to push this idea that my skin color identity doesn't mean anything,” when that's not the entire point of colorblindness at all. So within those social justice circles, there is this push against colorblindness, and I just don't get it.

Shufutinsky 

I think they're also exhibiting hypocrisy, because while they're saying, “okay, we should be colorblind, but White people are doing ABCD.” So you can't have it both ways. It doesn't make sense. 

Bernstein

David, do you want to add anything to that?

Ben Moshe 

I think it's very important we talk about people connecting to their cultural identities and talking about the differences between cultures. And I want to highlight an important but very unpopular idea in the progressive world, which is that not all parts of people's culture are positive and need to be brought into our collective future. Things like forcing women to cover their faces in public, female genital mutilation, and honor killings are unacceptable. There are many things in the world that are not better or worse, they're just different—like whether you want to drink tea with milk or drink coffee does not matter. But there are other cultural ideas people bring that we should all be able to agree are wrong and not productive to the society we want to build. One of the things that we all need to do with our own personal histories and culture is look back and think, “what from my culture and history do I want to bring forth, what edifies me, what helps me create a better world, not just for me, but for everyone around me? And what parts of my cultural identity can I say, ‘back then, they got it wrong’. I can't agree with this. We need to move on and do something different.”

Bernstein 

I'm going to pivot here for a second. One of the criticisms of a forum like this is going to come from the social justice left, that might say neither of you Jews, and blacks, and Jews-and-blacks, as the case may be, are really speaking for your communities, that your communities overwhelmingly are ideologically monolithic on these issues, that the true and authentic representation of the black community should be woke voices, if you will, and they could even say the same about the Jewish community. The vast majority of the Jewish community is not having this conversation. As somebody who's been in the Jewish world for a long time and been in these spaces, I can tell you that I'm not sure I would have been able to host any one of you three voices in any forum that I was associated with in the past, because it would have been viewed as me cherry-picking somebody from the black community who represents a view that I might be sympathetic with, but doesn't really represent their community. How do you think about that challenge first, and what do we do about it second?

Smith

I guess I can go. I am not here—let me just be clear about that—representing the black community. That would be hypocritical on my part, since I'm a co-founder of Free Black Thought, which is all about viewpoint diversity in the black community. I also have an issue with these two ideas: Am I a black person named Erec Smith, or am I Erec Smith, who happens to be black? Those are two different takes on what we're talking about right now regarding representation. I typically go with “I'm Erec Smith, who happens to be black.” Other people choose the other option. That's fine. But the fact that those two ideas coexist within black communities is something that isn't acknowledged enough. And I plan, and my co-founders of Free Black Thought plan, on expressing loudly and often that those viewpoints are there. 

Bernstein

Brandy?  What do you think about this authentic representation idea?

Shufutinsky

I find it interesting that anyone who self-proclaims to be progressive would want to think that they have any idea of what represents anything. I find that a very entitled position to take, to say what one person represents or who they represent or not—I believe, it's a very egotistical position to take. And I agree with what Erec said. I'm here representing Brandy; that’s who I am. There has been a lot of conversation and discussion where people are pushing, “no, most people agree with us.” And when it comes to polling in the political world, a lot of that has just been proven to not be true. I think that there's this idea that there are more—what is the term?—the silent majority, and every time that idea has been pushed, it's been proven false and there's been this erasure of moderation and moderates and pragmatism and rationality that I think isn't really reflective of many different communities, at least in the United States.

Bernstein

David, thoughts?

Ben Moshe 

Speaking to that person, I would tell them this: When I speak my thoughts and my views, they are the accumulation of my life experiences and what I have learned from those experiences. If you are super liberal or  “woke,” and the extent of your interactions with Black people involves seeing them at school or on TV, don’t tell me what Black people think. “Have you ever been to the projects? Have you ever been inside prison?” I have been to college, part of the workforce as well as those aforementioned other places and those are the places where the real injustices are happening. If you take the time to go to those places and talk to the people who are there and really see what their life is like, what they feel and what things they want to change in society, you’ll very quickly find out that the person who's incarcerated for selling drugs doesn't care about the micro-aggression that offended you on Twitter. He cares about being able to get out and make an honest living and support his family and maintain his freedom. And our society does an abysmal job of empowering that man to be able to do those things.

Smith 

Hear, hear.

Bernstein

So we've got work to do together on that issue. Now the issue I want to talk about for a second is the discourse around Jews of color. And we have two Jews of color here, as we've said. “Jews of color”: it's a category that probably 10 years ago you didn't hear much of. There's certainly been black Jews and other Jews of color for the entire American-Jewish experience. But the way that the discourse has emerged is that Jews of color are sort of a category of oppression within the Jewish community, that they have been largely excluded in Jewish life, that they haven't been widely recognized, that Jews of color have faced indignities. And I've seen this, so I'm not discounting it, that they face indignities in synagogue where somebody might think that they're the help and then find out that they're actually just a congregant or a visiting person, and so forth. I know, David, you faced your own challenges in Israel with aliyah, that is, with immigration to and becoming a citizen of Israel. And there's another more recent charge I've heard, which is that white Jews have been complicit in white supremacy, and that that's part of the black Jewish experience in America, with their fellow Jews, that is, this complicity in white supremacy. Can you tell me what you think about the category of Jews of color and what you think the Jewish community needs to do to live up to its own highest ideals? Why don't we start with Brandy.

Shufutinsky

I reject those terms, I don't use “White Jews,” and “Jews of color”. “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” I think that it's very American-centric. And I also acknowledge that as a Black Jewish woman going into a non-Black Jewish Jewish space, I've faced some of the things that you've mentioned before. I think that really is just reflective of American society, that isn't necessarily rooted in racism, but more so colorism. So the idea that a Jewish person looks only like this—we tend in the United States to shrink people down to really small boxes, communities, you know, to make them very, very, very small. And that there is only one way that you could possibly be Jewish or only one way you could be Black. Or the only way you could be a woman is to fit in this very small, tiny mold. Jewish people pre-date race. And we don't grasp that idea in the United States because we're very American-centric here. We don't get a more international and global point of view. And that doesn't mean just non-Jews have that. I think that Jewish Americans also adopt a lot of that American-centric ideology. And I think that that's part of the reason that people like me have faced the issues we’ve faced going into non-Black Jewish spaces.

Bernstein 

David, what do you think?

Ben Moshe 

I think the key to dealing with this is education and exposure. When I say education, I mean bringing more stories of Jews of different cultures, different heritages, and different races into the discourse about the Jewish people so that everyone can see and hear for themselves about the amazing diversity within the Jewish people. And when I say exposure I mean repetition. You can hear one story about a Black Jew, and it's not enough to break the paradigm you have in your head of, that's not what a Jew looks like. The thing that will break that is you repeatedly being exposed to that meme so that you become used to the idea. Over and over until it's no longer abnormal, it is normal. And we have the same problem in Israel as well. I'm often in the supermarket or walking down the street, and someone will stop me and ask, “Oh, are you Jewish?” Now, I walk around wearing a kippah with my tzitzits hanging out, and I’m generally speaking Hebrew. Those are three pretty good signs that I'm probably Jewish, regardless of what my skin color looks like. But people still double-take when they see me, and they feel a need to start the conversation by asking if I am Jewish instead of assuming I am. They could ask a question like, “Oh, I see you're Jewish and you have an American accent, can you tell me more about where you come from?” but that has never happened. It always starts off, “Are you Jewish?” And that comes from a place of ignorance and lack of exposure. One easy way to improve this in Israel is by increasing interaction between communities. There's plenty of Black Jews in Israel. There's a huge Ethiopian community and there are Black Jews from many other places who live in Israel. As they grow to prominence and people see more of them, it won't be something that's odd or strange. It will become normalized. And that's a process that takes time and repetition.

Bernstein 

Erec, do you have any thoughts on this idea of being Jewish and black or Jews of color?

Smith 

I have nothing to contribute to this part of the conversation. I am not Jewish. I don't have that experience. So I'm going to shut up and listen.

Bernstein

Helen Pluckrose mentioned that David Ben Moshe was speaking of class issues, and it's something that I'd like us to explore for a minute. You know, we talk a lot about race and racism, but it sometimes seems to me that underneath some of the disparities that we talk about, which are often attributed to racism, what we really find is class and economic issues. I've seen that with the health disparities that, once you control for class, you find that some of the racial disparities are really class disparities and that poor white people or Latino people face some of the same health disparities that black people do. And I'm wondering if you can hit on that: To what degree are some of these disparities that we're seeing and debating in the public sphere really functions of class and not race? Let’s start with Erec.

Smith

I think it's mostly class, really, and has been for quite some time. I think middle and upper-middle-class sensibilities align more with classical liberal values and are more normalized in middle and upper-middle-class circles. So to abide by those within the middle class isn't to sell out or to imitate or something like that. So this idea, that if you're successful and if you are fulfilled, then you must have done something wrong--. You must be, you know, helping the oppressor or wanting to be the oppressor or something like that--. That ignores social construction within socioeconomic social circles. Middle and upper-middle-class people tend to have different avenues or different resources available to them that others don't. And abiding by those resources, again, tends to align with looking at classical liberal values as a good thing. 

Bernstein

David, what do you think?

Ben Moshe 

I'm going to disagree with that slightly. I don't think that class is the main underlying issue. I think when we look at the problem of disparity in our modern world, we need to always consider it as a multifactorial problem, and that means that there are many different factors that are contributing to the problem. And they're all interacting in ways that aren't really predictable because of the overlaps, which means we can't do that fun thing they love to do in science—“Well, let's get all the variables exactly the same and change just one variable and then measure the results”—because it's so complex and intertwined and race has an effect on class, and class has an effect on race. And there are many other factors such as when a group of people arrived in the country. It can have a huge effect. For example, a lot of new immigrants tend to be highly successful very quickly in the United States, such as the Caribbean American community and a lot of the Asian community. I think that factor greatly affects mental attitude. People willing to push through the current complex immigration process are probably the same type of people who will fight to make the most of the opportunity of being in the United States, which is still difficult despite the opportunities available. Those people are more likely to be successful than the people who choose to stay in the country they were born in despite having fewer economic opportunities, the people who are like, “You know what? Things are okay right here. I'm just going to hang out.” I don't want to say there is alike to say what issue is the “main issue”. I don't think it's race. I don't think it's class. I think it is a plethora of issues interacting in complex ways and we need to step back, look at the whole picture and focus on how we can improve each individual aspect. And as we improve aspects over time, we'll get a more equitable society that will treat everyone better.

Smith 

David, can I ask you a question? Do you think we talk about class enough? I mean, yes, there are various factors. Do you think we talk about class enough?

Ben Moshe

Well, I was initially going to say that we talk about race too much, but after a moment of thought, I think that it is more accurate to say that we don’t talk about class enough. We tend to focus on race like it's the only problem, or argue that there are no problems at all. We currently have a large group in our society that wants to argue that race is no longer an issue. We've had a Black president and therefore if you are Black and can't get it together it is 100 percent your fault. You need to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and make yourself successful. Then there is another large group that does want to talk about the disparities but will only discuss race. I think we need to talk about all the different factors. Race probably gets enough, if not too much play time, but everything else, we need to talk about more. 

Bernstein

Brandy?

Shufutinsky

That's an interesting one. I actually have to think on it. I do agree that we don't talk about class enough or, maybe not enough—we don't talk about it on its own. Any time class disparities are brought up, it's always linked to race or linked to gender. It's not talked about in an experiential or historical context. And I like the point that David brought up. The immigrant story matters. “How did you get here?” matters, because that impacts the experiences after you're here and the generations that follow. And I don't think that those conversations are had where there's an understanding between communities as to why certain communities look different. So newer immigrants will look at Black Americans that have been here and descended from enslaved people and wonder, well, what's taking you guys so long to catch up? And Black Americans will look at new immigrants and think, okay, they had to have done something to achieve whatever socioeconomic higher status that they've achieved and whether that's being “White adjacent” and all the rest of the terms that are being thrown out there—I mean, there isn't a real understanding of the history of what David mentioned about who comes here, and when the first wave comes, and then the second wave of immigration and the generations that follow. And what that means for their socioeconomic status.

Bernstein

We've received one question from Benjamin Pollack about the net worth of black people, which is far lower than other groups. What do our panelists think of some form of reparations to help ameliorate that disparity? Erec, I want to start with your view on reparations. 

Smith

Do I want to start? No, but I will. This is a difficult issue, because in what form are these reparations coming? Is it institutional? Are we going to fund institutions in certain communities, like education, for example, and make schools comparable to the best schools in the country? Are we going to just hand over money? These things have to be discussed. And what's more, there has to be an agreement on what to do with these reparations. You know, how are we going to use this money? Are we going to use it and put it into the community? Are we going to use it individually and create upward mobility that way? All this is to say, I have no idea.

Shufutinsky

When the question of reparations comes up, the first thing that I ask—I'll answer a question with a question—is “what are you paying back for?” If you're paying reparations, so that this community can have equal financial status to that community, then I say, no, that's not an excuse for reparations. If you're talking about paying back a people that gave free labor, unpaid labor, okay, what form will they come in? I mean, this isn't about every white American having to write a check every month, and that type of thing. You're talking about the United States as a country that benefited from the free labor of generations of enslaved people. And these are their descendants, so okay, of course forced, unpaid labor should be repaid. Reparations should be rooted in the fact that the United States benefited economically from generations of forced, unpaid labor. There is a way to repay that. However, reparations also means first acknowledging not only what the institution of slavery did, but how the country benefitted from it. And those who act as though reparations are a novel idea should know that this was first proposed in 1865 by General Sherman. Forty acres (and a mule, which came at a later date) was to be given to freed slaves as a form of reparations. That never happened. A promise made and broken. 

Bernstein

David?

Ben Moshe

I get to go last and I also don’t have a good answer. It is so complex on so many levels. I don't believe that simply handing people money ever solves problems, because if you don't have the education to back up how you use that money responsibly, it just gets wasted. There is also the issue of who will receive the money.  Do you have to be the direct descendant of an African American slave? Say your ancestors came over after slavery and weren’t actually enslaved, but you still look Black. So you had to deal with discrimination. Like—do you get the check too? Does a new immigrant from an African country get it because they lived a few years having to live with the stigma in our society of being Black? I really have no idea what reparations could, or should look like, and whether or not I would believe that they're a good idea completely depends on what it looks like and how it helps people, and how it makes our society better. I believe there is a better question we should be asking which is how we can show, not just America, but the world, that we have honestly come to a reckoning, and an admittance of the things that went wrong in the development of this country, and demonstrate that we are committed to making our country the best version of itself. This struck me when I was watching an excellent Ted talk by a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson. And in his TED talk, he brought up something that I have thought about a lot since. Quoting:

I was giving some lectures in Germany about the death penalty. It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, "Well, you know, it's deeply troubling to hear what you're talking about." He said, "We don't have the death penalty in Germany, and of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany." And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, "There's no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people." And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation-state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn't bear it. It would be unconscionable.”

The fact that with our history in America we can incarcerate so many people, who are disproportionately black and find ways to justify it is unconscionable. It is evidence that we haven’t come to a true reckoning with the history of racial discrimination in this country. We moved from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, each significantly better than the last but we are certainly not past racial discrimination on enormous scales in this country. We need not only to fix the problems we have now but also to make sure we don’t just build a new system that is so clearly discriminatory and then spend generations arguing that now we are doing the morally right thing when the outcomes are so clearly unfair. 

Bernstein

One last question. There is a very robust conversation going on in the comments section here about terminology and whether we should use terms like “woke,” and whether we should talk about critical race theory, which some argue is an academic idea. Whether we should use the term “critical social justice,” which I tend to use a lot. Whether we should use “racial essentialism” or “anti-racism.” Can you all give your sense of what the terminology ought to be? Hopefully one day we're going to settle this. Erec?

Smith 

Regarding “critical race theory,” when people say, “well, you know, that's a right-wing talking point meant to demonize the left,” I think it's more accurate to say something like “critical social justice” or “critical white studies.” Robin D'Angelo refers to herself as a “critical social justice scholar,” and not necessarily a scholar of critical race theory. Now critical race theorists and white studies scholars do overlap to some degree, but what we're seeing in K-12 and in college , those are the manifestations of the tenets of anti-racist education that come from the likes of Robin D'Angelo and her ilk. So I'm starting to say “critical social justice” instead of “critical race theory,” to make that distinction. And we'll see what they say about that.

Bernstein 

Brandy?

Shufutinsky

I think that language shifts and changes, and the point of language is so that the message is understood. So I think that it's going to continue to be fluid so that the message is understood. So whether it's CRT or CSJ or anything else, I think it's going to continue to evolve.

Bernstein

What do you think, David?

Ben Moshe 

I pretty much have exactly the same answer that Brandy just gave you. When I think about language, I think the language you should use depends 100% on the context that you find yourself in. Language to me is about two things: expression and understanding. If I can express myself in a way that feels accurate to me and you can understand me in a way that accurately represents what I was trying to express then language did the job it was supposed to do. We also need to remember that as you chase language, it keeps changing. The biggest thing we should be concerned about when it comes to the language that we are using is the context, and the biggest factor of the context is the audience that we're speaking to. We want our message to be well received. Sometimes certain words will just turn people off and they won't listen to anything you say because you used a specific word or phrase. In that case, you should avoid that word, because when we talk about the free expression of ideas, part of it is people listening to you, no matter what you have to say. But you also are responsible for expressing yourself in a way that will speak to them. That's part of how we change minds, not just yelling about what this word means, what that word means, or using words that confuse, aggravate or frustrate people.

Bernstein

One proposition that I did not include in my list of propositions at the beginning, and that this conversation makes me want to add, is this: perhaps we blacks and Jews and black Jews have something to show society. We can model a new discourse, a sensitive discourse, but an honest discourse around race and racism and around the social problems that we collectively face. I hope we've done that today, and I hope we can continue doing that in the future. This has certainly given us a lot to think about and a lot to plan for in the future. I want to thank our panelists, David, Erec, and Brandy. Thank you so much for this very rich conversation. And thanks to all our viewers and supporters for being there for us and for supporting our organizations. 


Moderator:

David Bernstein is founder and CEO of Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, past President and CEO of Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and former Executive Director of the David Project. Twitter: @DavidLBernstein and @jilvorg

Panelists:

David Ben Moshe is a formerly incarcerated writer and speaker. As a youth, he joined a drug gang in his hometown of Baltimore. This led eventually to his incarceration, where he met someone studying a book in a script he did not recognize. That encounter set David Bonett on a journey that led him to Orthodox conversion, Yeshiva study, marriage, and a fight to be permitted to make aliyah. Twitter: @realdbenmoshe

Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky is an educator, social worker, writer, and advocate. She has worked towards advancing the rights of victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She is a JILV board member. Twitter: @76brandy76

Erec Smith is co-founder of Free Black Thought, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania, and a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. His most recent book is A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment. Twitter: @Rhetors_of_York and @FreeBlckThought