Against the Phrase “Jews of Color”

June 18, 2020 | Kylie Unell
About the author:

“As a Jew of Color, I Need More People in My Community to Speak Up,” blared a recent headline from the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, followed by a declaration that “all members of the Jewish community need to do more to confront racial injustice” in response to the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Kylie Unell, however, rejects the notion that she has something worthy to say about America’s current political woes merely because of her skin color:

When I tell people that I do not have much to say about my experience as a “Jew of Color,” I see faces drop just a smidge. I sense that people want to hear about the time I was rejected because of the color of my skin, or when I was sitting in services at a synagogue and somebody came up and asked what inspired a nice non-Jewish girl like me to visit a synagogue, unaware of the fact that I am an observant Jew.

The truth is that nothing like that has ever happened to me, thankfully. . . . Aside from [a] few standout moments, I have always felt at home in the Jewish world. It is the only world I know and, more than that, it is an expression of all that I am.

The 20th-century German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig defines Judaism as a person’s “most impenetrable secret, yet evident in every gesture and every word.” To call myself a Jew of Color would be to ignore that indefinable trait inside of me that is expressed in all that I do and unites me with my fellow Jews throughout the world.

The very phrase “Jews of Color” designates a portion of the Jewish population as different from the rest. It is a catchall for those in the Jewish world who look different, whose stories are worn on their bodies. [It] is a term that does not signal progress. Instead, it holds us back. It keeps us from seeing what makes every individual Jew unique. We all have a story to share whether our skin hints to it or not.

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