In the common childhood game of telephone, a phrase is whispered from one person to the next until the last person repeats what is inevitably a distorted version of the original. A version of this game played out over the weekend, albeit unintentionally, when reports came out of a new policy instituted by the City University of New York (CUNY) to augment their racial categorization by adding a White/Jewish category for faculty applicants. As it turns out, while CUNY had held focus groups of Jewish faculty to discuss diversity, and labeled it White/Jewish, the idea of an official check box seemingly came out of the blue. But it didn't. Just like in telephone, where the final distorted phrase often reflects the thoughts, concerns and humor of those who pass the message along, the flawed report of CUNY's misstep reflects a conversation about Jewish identity that is bubbling up and seeping through the cracks of what it means to be Jewish in America.
The Chronicle of Higher Education's Peter Wood, arguing the predominantly conservative objection to any focus upon racial diversity as a way to improve education, notes that identity group labels "can have the unintended consequence of stigmatizing members of the designated groups." He does not, however explain who might feel stigmatized and why. The problem with a category designated for "White/Jewish," but no other Jewish/racial combination rests on the assumption that Jewish identity is restricted to or only an identity of import for white people. This assumption is widely held both outside and inside the Jewish community and the inaccuracy of it is what sparked the game of "telephone" and is fueling the continuing backlash.
I affectionately call this limited understanding of diversity, race and Judaism the "Woody Allen Syndrome." In other words, a well meaning person might think to him or herself, "Well, I don't know much about Jews, but I know Woody Allen is Jewish, and Woody Allen is white, so all Jews must be white." Absurd, right? As funny and emblematic of a certain kind of neurotic Jewish mindset as Woody Allen is, what could be more ridiculous than assuming that he represents all Jews.
Except this sort of "Woody Allen" thinking happens all the time when it comes to equating Jewish with white, even among Jews. Twenty percent of Jews in the United States are racially, ethnically or culturally diverse. Yet, each year when my organization, Be'chol Lashon, seeks to find children's books with Jewish themes that highlight or at least include Jews of Asian, African or Middle Eastern heritage, we are often left scrambling for appropriate offerings. Most students go through Hebrew school, Jewish camp or Jewish studies classes without learning about the history, food or culture of Greek, Yemenite, Iraqi or Ugandan Jews. Almost daily we hear from individuals who are grateful that there is a Jewish group somewhere that understands the complexity of Jewish identity and does not first ask if they are "really" Jewish. The "Woody Allen" mindset leaves 20 percent of Jews underrepresented and unduly scrutinized.
Diversity among Jews is not a new or a specifically American phenomenon. From ancient times through today, Jews have been a global people, spanning a range of cultural identity and skin colors. The Babylonian Talmud that is the foundation of Jewish law and lore was written not by men with white complexions in long black coats, but by men whose skin color reflected the region in which they lived. One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, Rabbi Solomon ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, knew nothing of central and eastern Europe or the Ashkenazi Jews who lived there but was well familiar with the Moorish culture of the Iberian Peninsula where he lived. The assumption that Jews are white is a relatively new phenomenon and has to do with the success of Jewish assimilation and the history of privileging whiteness. Moreover, in the shadow of the Holocaust, racializing Jewishness has highly problematic overtones.
If the CUNY flap tells us anything, it tells us that it is time we engage in an honest discussion about racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, as well as the broader issue of multi-layered identities among all peoples. A broad look at both Jewish history and the Jewish people today tells you that racial and ethnic diversity is a defining aspect of Jewish identity rather than an anomaly to be overlooked. How we address multiple identities, whether as part of Jewish identity or not, is unclear. Do we add an infinite number of boxes one can check to fully express one's personal identity choices? Do we eliminate them altogether? No one knows, yet. But we do know that we cannot avoid this issue. Humanity is becoming more and more integrated, and the Jewish people in the past and present exemplify the blending of national, ethnic and racial identity that makes singular identification obsolete. The concerns over how one of the largest institutions in one of the most diverse, and Jewish, cities on earth perceives Jewish racial identity reveals an underlying need to address this uncomfortable issue. Despite the reluctance to have this discussion willingly and candidly, it will happen. It is happening. And it makes sense that it is beginning in New York, where Be'chol Lashon works with leaders of Jewish communities originating from Colombia to Syria to India. But it will not stay there. Yes, Woody Allen is Jewish and he is white. But that is only one part of the story.
Follow Diane Tobin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BecholLashon