As the premier public affairs representative of the Bay Area’s organized Jewish community, JCRC fosters the community’s commitment to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) by providing opportunities for engagement and activism. We advocate for a strong, civil and democratic society, because strains in the democratic fabric lead to discrimination against our and other racial, religious and ethnic minorities. JCRC is proud to build coalitions with interfaith and interethnic partners on issues of shared concern, united by our common pursuit of a just and secure society.
Jewish History and Identity Overview
The Jewish people arguably may be the most diverse people in human history. For millennium, the Jewish diaspora has spread to every corner of the globe.
However, over the last 75 years, in the United States, Jews have been largely characterized — and self-identified — as white. But in reality, as many as 20% of American Jews—representing more than 1 million people proudly choosing to identify as Jews—are multicultural.
Most American Jews are of Eastern European descent, their forebears coming to the United States to escape persecution in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first 25 years of the 20th century. Many more European Jews, from both central and Eastern Europe, immigrated to the United States after the Holocaust.
In the years following World War II, Jews made tremendous economic and social gains in American society and chose to identify as white. This identification was a form of protection from anti-Semitism, as well as a means to greater acceptance and advancement in the larger society. There were also advantages such as access to government housing programs, loans and higher education ("How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America," Brodkin). White identification also comes at a cost. Some would point to loss of Jewish religious and cultural identity of a people whose history has historically been based on a closely-knit community and shared rituals, and traditional expressions of lineage. As Jews have assimilated into American society, dominant-American cultural acceptance also means, for some, loss of families' practice or identity as Jewish.
Another significant price to American Jews opting into white culture is that it has marginalized the up to 20% of the U.S.’s six million Jews who come from families with a racial and ethnic identity other than White European, including African-American, Latino/Hispanic, Sephardi (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent), Mizrahi (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent), and Asian. These multicultural Jews express feelings of isolation and alienation from the mainstream American Jewish community.
It would serve the Jewish community to increase its efforts to embrace its rich diversity and identify ways in which to bring multicultural and ethnic Jews into its fold, not only for the goal of greater inclusivity, but also to better reflect their diverse voices and viewpoints into the American Jewish experience. And as the number—and increasingly broad cultures and traditions—of nonwhite Jews continues to increase, it is imperative for the strength and continuity of the Jewish community to make this genuine effort a priority.