This Saturday, July 25th, the movie RACHEL, directed by Simone Bitton will premiere at its first-ever Jewish film festival in San Francisco, California. Simone was born in 1955 in Rabat, Morocco. A Moroccan-Israeli-French Jewish documentary filmmaker, she’s directed a number of films, including Mahmoud Darwich (1998), Citizen Bishara (2001), and Mur (Wall) (2004). Her films have been nominated for and/or won the César Award, the Marseille Festival of Documentary Film Award, and the Sundance Film Festival, Special Jury Prize for Mur.

RACHEL is a film about Rachel Corrie’s work as an American peace activist with the International Solidarity Movement. In 2003, at the age of 23, Rachel was crushed to death by a U.S. made Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza while trying to prevent the demolition of the home of local Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah.

Peter Stein, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival wrote of the film:

Bitton’s quietly persistent questioning manages to accomplish what the inadequate legal proceedings and the overheated press coverage did not: an unflinching examination that refuses to exculpate or equivocate. But Bitton’s nonfiction essay is hardly a bloodless tract—in fact, even as it raises troubling questions about the Israeli military’s candor, it also manages to paint a complex portrait of a young, perhaps naive, idealist and the high price some pay in the name of committed activism.

I caught up with Simone to ask her a few questions before the screening this Saturday. [To be clear: I haven’t seen the film yet, so the questions are geared towards giving readers an opportunity to hear directly from Simone.]

AV: What inspired you to direct RACHEL?

SB: There were contradictory versions about Rachel’s death and no independent investigation was ever made. I felt I might achieve something valuable on the investigative ground, that’s my job as a documentarist, and it’s my first motivation. It was a professional challenge.

On a more personal level, I have been making films about the situation in Palestine/Israel for 25 years. My work is giving tools for a better comprehension of this situation, but it is also an emotional chronicle of the turning points in what this situation does to Palestinians and Israelis.

I am obsessed with it. I keep documenting the conflict, but each time I choose another angle, another cinematic style, and my films are usually very personal. I don’t do films out of a political tactic, for convincing the audience or conveying messages, but as a way to share my feelings, my fears and sometimes my hopes.

So I made a film about Rachel because her killing was an emotional turning point in my emotional perception of solidarity. It was the first time a foreigner was killed while trying to protect Palestinians. A red line had been crossed, and I felt this line was crossed also in my own heart.

I am 53 years old. It’s an age when one starts mourning one’s youth and evaluating one’s own present and past commitments. I have a deep feeling that my generation has failed in protecting the Palestinians, which for me means also protecting the Israelis. I am deeply convinced that by oppressing the Palestinians, we are destroying ourselves as Jews and as human beings. More »

The Audacity of Post-Racism

23 Jul 2009 In: Race, Racism

Below are two excerpts from “The Audacity of Post-Racism,” a piece I published earlier today on

I delve into the race politics that marked my adolescence (and hip-hop’s) because the manner in which their sharpness has blurred is the backdrop for “Toward A More Perfect Union.” Hip-hop is now America’s dominant youth culture. It still dislocates whiteness, but in a way far less conducive to personal growth or rigorous assessment of injustice. White hip-hoppers of my era constructed elaborate rhetorical structures intended to accommodate paradox, to acknowledge the devilishness of white supremacy without condemning ourselves. Today, white youth are confounded by a different paradox: the divergence of cultural capital and hard capital in American life.

Largely because of hip-hop, American coolness is coded and commodified more than ever as American blackness. White kids all over the country believe, based on the signifiers flashing on their TV screens, that blackness equals flashy wealth, supreme masculinity, and ultra-sexualized femininity – interrupted occasionally by bursts of glamorous violence, and situated in a thrilling ghetto that is both dangerous and host to a constant party. They feel locked out of the possibility of attaining that lifestyle, because of the color of their skin. They don’t know where to find a workable identity, unless they embrace the “I’m a fucking redneck” ethos of Levi Johnston, Sarah Palin’s future son-in-law. All this strikes them as oppressive, and their resentment is compounded by the fact that they possess no language with which to discuss it.

Were any of this utterable, one could present them with reams of evidence demonstrating that in all the important ways, white people in America are anything but marginal. Traditional markers of prosperity – the inheritance of wealth, the rates of home-ownership, the comparative levels of education and income and incarceration – reveal just how privileged whites remain relative to blacks. A recent study conducted at Princeton University revealed that a white felon stands an equal chance of being granted a job interview as a black applicant with no criminal record, and there are dozens of other studies that each speak volumes.

Nonetheless, confusion persists even among the kind of coast-dwelling, liberally-raised, relatively well-educated white kid I once was about the basic facts of racism today – to say nothing of everyone to their ideological right. They want to know if the playing field is level; they can’t tell, and they’ve got their fingers crossed that it is because if it’s not they’ve got to confront things no one has prepared them to face. Many of them would rather believe, and in fact suspect, that it is slanted in black people’s favor.

At the very least, they’re eager for a kind of moral compromise, one with an air of the fairness so appealing to young minds: racism cuts in both directions. Anyone can be its victim, just as anyone can refuse to perpetrate it.

This is what Barack Obama provided on March 20th in Philadelphia. After a succinct but powerful summary of institutional racism’s history and its practical and psychic effects on black people, he added that:

“a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race… as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything…. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time… to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

Obama’s insights about white anger are salient, but to characterize ire at affirmative action and at the thought that others might think them prejudiced as ‘similar’ to the frustration felt by the victims of entrenched structural racism is disingenuous, and even irresponsible. I don’t dispute that white resentments should be addressed, if only because white people will refuse to grapple with race unless they are allowed to centralize themselves. But to begin such a discussion – the mythic National Dialogue on Race – without acknowledging that structural racism ­is a cancer metastasizing through every aspect of American life is impossible. Call it, to borrow a catchphrase from the foreign policy side of the election, a precondition.


On the other hand, the pressure on Obama to denounce Minister Farrakhan – which directly preceded the pressure to denounce Reverend Wright – offered the candidate a chance to speak a difficult truth to a valuable constituency and play a role in genuine healing. Certainly, Obama’s rhetoric spoke to such a desire:

“What I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community. I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task… is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.

But rather than turning to that task, Obama proceeded to do precisely what the current, sorry state of black-Jewish relations demands. He iterated his rejection of Farrakhan’s endorsement, citing the Nation of Islam leader’s anti-Semitism, and left it at that.

For twenty-five years now, the specter of black anti-Semitism has been used as the rationale for tremendous Jewish disinvestment – practically, emotionally, financially – from the black community and the legacy of progressive work that blacks and Jews once shared. A handful of comments from civil rights-era black leaders provide most of the evidence. For many in the Jewish community, Jesse Jackson will always be the man who called New York City “Hymietown” in 1984. Al Sharpton will always be the man who inflamed a tense situation in Crown Heights in 1991, and Farrakhan will always be the man who, in 1983, called Judaism a “gutter religion.”

The fact that all three have apologized, moved on, and made amends does not seem to matter ­­– that Jackson was instrumental in restoring peace to Crown Heights, that Sharpton’s 2004 presidential run was an exemplar of inclusiveness, that Farrakhan has been meeting regularly with a group of rabbis for more than ten years now, in an effort to mend fences.

Nor does it seem to matter than none of these men speaks for the black community at large, or that Obama’s candidacy and the emergence of hip-hop generation leaders and grassroots political organizations prove that the civil rights generation is no longer in the driver’s seat. They remain central in the Jewish memory of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Their comments are frozen in amber, never to be forgotten or forgiven. Thus, denunciations of Farrakhan – despite the declining influence of his organization and his own outreach to the Jewish community – remain red meat for many Jewish voters.

How can this be, when the Ferraros, Imuses and Lotts of the world tiptoe back into the mainstream after a few probationary months, their best intentions unimpugned? Even Gibson, whose anti-Semitic rant was truly epic, had his incoherent, responsibility-dodging apology promptly accepted by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish watchdog group that has never stopped vilifying Farrakhan.

The story behind the story is complex, one of changing identity in a changing country. Perhaps no two groups in America share such an intimate history as Jews and blacks; by turns it has been beautiful and tense, unified and vituperative. Both groups have been shattered and scattered, displaced and enslaved, and both have made outsized contributions to the cultural life of America. Both communities, perhaps by the nature of diaspora, have wide margins, in addition to existing on the margins of American life. By this I mean that the ratio of people who feel ambivalent, ambiguous, full of unresolved questions about their blackness or their Jewishness, is high in relation to the number of people nestled snugly in the bosoms of those communities. The pain and perspective engendered by this double marginality are important ingredients for art, and in the desire for social justice.

Jews and blacks have been united by this shared Otherness, and also pitted against one another because of it. At the root of the Jewish retreat from the coalition of which Obama speaks is the way in which Jewish assimilation has relied on the immutability of black Otherness as a foil. It has been an Other more Other than their own, and sometimes one to measure progress by their distance from.

As the Jews have been accorded more and more of the privileges of whiteness, many have decided, consciously or otherwise, that it behooves them to change their bedfellows. Fifty years ago, it was far more difficult for Jews to be complacent or hypocritical about race: they didn’t have the option to pay mere lip service to the cause because they understood that they were implicated in it, both as potential victims and potential oppressors. The benefits of whiteness were fewer for Jews, and more readily contested. Thus, the morality of allowing them to accrue was easier to address honestly, and find lacking.

Read the full piece on

Adam Mansbach is the author of several novels, including ‘The End of the Jews,’ winner of the California Book Award, and the bestselling ‘Angry Black White Boy.’

Each year at Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), we choose a couple of issues to focus on to fulfill our mission: to make a very close community for Jewish high school students in the California Bay Area, while learning about and working on social issues that affect us in our communities. This year, we chose the Hotel Workers Campaign. Going into it, I didn’t really know much about the campaign, or the way workers were being treated in hotels close to me. The first exposure I had was a city council meeting I went to in Emeryville about getting workers at the Emeryville Woodfin a living wage, and getting back pay for all of the time they were not getting paid fairly. Before the city council meeting started, there was a community gathering with workers and community leaders speaking about their experience and involvement in the campaigns. This event gave me the first taste of why this campaign was so important, because I saw workers getting silenced by the hotel because they were in very vulnerable positions, and they needed the community to take a stand next to them.

In the next couple of months, I learned more about the campaign through JYCA and PJA (Progressive Jewish Alliance), and specifically learned about the two main hotels that were being focused on. Economic justice is very important to me, because it signifies something that should be a given for all people, but instead these employers seem to take advantage of people who are already in very vulnerable positions – so I wanted to be involved. I went to a different rally with JYCA, in which we joined hundreds of people in a rally walking to and around the hotel. Soon after that, PJA invited JYCA members to participate in a planning session for next steps, and when I got there, I got a totally new experience. Up until that point all of my experiences with the planning of making change in the progressive world had been very idealistic, but I had never participated in a truly tangible form of action. This meeting taught me a little bit of what it takes to make true change in the world. During this meeting I signed JYCA up to adopt a picket line, which means that we took responsibility for that day of picketing. Despite having a hard time getting a lot of the JYCA youth out to the picket, we got out there 10 strong and were met by many hotel workers and Local 2 union members. It was very exciting to see all of those people, and we joined in the picket line, circling around and chanting.

It’s been very important for me, as a Jew, to be doing this with the Jewish community, because it is a very important struggle, and it’s nice to see us step up for others when we have the privilege to do so. The thing that I’ve taken most from this experience is the immediate connection I have felt to everyone else who is involved in this campaign. Starting with the initial rally, and spanning to the planning meeting and final picket line, everyone has always showed me a very open and welcoming spirit. I always feel like a part of the group, and I truly believe that I make a difference, which is a success in my mind. I am really looking forward to the next event, a Banquet in the Streets in support of a fair process for workers, because it is another opportunity for me to build this community, while having a lot of fun, while also making a huge difference in the lives of these workers.

David Shor is a graduating senior at Berkeley High in Berkeley, CA. He starts at Wesleyan University in the Fall.

Banquet in the Streets:

Below is an excerpt from a piece I published earlier today on Mondoweiss.

I am a Jew. I am a religious Jew. I am an anti-Zionist Jew. I realize that to make this last claim is to risk that you will stop reading, as often any claim of anti-Zionism brings with it a label of traitor, anti-Semite, self-hating Jew. I hope, however, that you will give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for the few minutes that it will take you to read what I have to say.

I’ve been a Jew all my life although I was not raised with a Jewish education. In my late 40s, I began to study. I read, I joined a synagogue, I helped start a Talmud study group. I was and am drawn to the essential command, attributed to the great Rabbi Hillel, that our task as Jews is essentially to “not do to others that which is hateful to you.” I love how, in very Jewish fashion, Hillel tells us what not to do. I love and am daily challenged by how extremely difficult such a simple command can be.

I did not know much about Israel until I became more engaged as a religious Jew. The organized Jewish community teaches us that the Israeli narrative is the Jewish narrative. Support for Israel, the story goes, is synonymous with being a good Jew.

Now, some ten years and four trips to Israel/Palestine later, I invite you, if you think you can bear it, to hear why I care more about Hillel’s commandment than I do about a state.

With my partner who is also Jewish, I have just returned from 15 days of staying with friends, a family who lives in Samiramis, technically a Jerusalem neighborhood, but one that sits on the Palestine side of the Wall, less than a mile from the infamous Qalandia checkpoint.

Unlike previous years where we participated in delegations, house rebuilding, or activism related to our work with ICAHD-USA (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA), this time we frequently walked the streets of Ramallah, stopping for homemade ice cream at Baladna’s, shopping for shoes and handmade embroidery. We traveled north to Nablus and Tulkarem to visit family members and share succulent meals that left us bursting. We took one late night trip to Jericho to sit in the local park, drink cola, and talk; another to Jaffa Beach where we shared a picnic, conversation, laughter; we went to multiple weddings where men and women danced late into the night to the beat of loud, pulsing music.

We were privileged to see again what we have seen before — how rich and full and engaging life in Palestine can be, how the people here are like people everywhere, attempting to live with some degree of happiness in a culture that deeply values familial relationships, good food, education, meaningful work, laughter.

We also bore witness, as we do on each trip, to encroaching apartheid. As we drove deep in the West Bank along the road snaking north to Nablus from Ramallah, we could look up and see virtually every hillside topped by a Jewish settlement. In some cases, the settlement is recent, a few caravans dotting the hilltop, their electric lights strung from pole to pole, glowing bright yellow through the night, a display of dominance. More often, the settlements are permanent, neat rows of identical houses with their prototypical orange roofs, poised on the top of the hill, ready to dip down onto the Palestinian farmland below. These are announced by the row of modern streetlights on the two-lane road we are traveling, beacons proclaiming the presence of Israeli Jews on the landscape. The lights illuminate the stretches of Arab road where Jewish settlers have to drive because the infamous “bypass” roads (the Palestinians call them apartheid roads) have yet to be built, the ones that allow only Jews to travel from mainland Israel into the West Bank without encountering Palestinians.

The omnipresence of these smaller settlements on the road to Nablus is new since our last trip in 2005; a look at the latest UN map shows the Palestinian landscape dotted with them like an x-ray showing a virulent, spreading cancer.

When President Obama talks about stopping the spread of settlements most people probably have little idea of what he means. Somehow the word “settlement” invokes an image of tents, a kind of unstable, fragile community. The first settlement I ever saw had to be pointed out to me because it looked like any modern suburb in the U.S., row upon row of contemporary houses set along well paved roads. I certainly did not expect what I saw – a solidly interwoven infrastructure common to any town or city – housing, water, lights, streets, stores planted immutably on the landscape. I soon came to understand their function. The massively large ones, housing hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, are designed to penetrate deep into the West Bank. Pisgat Ze’ev, Mod’in, Ma’eleh Adumim – each is protected by the Wall whose crooked path illegally pilfers huge swaths of Palestinian land. Each functions to divide Palestine into separate cantons making a contiguous state impossible. The newer smaller ones, the ones I see on the hilltops between Ramallah and Nablus, act like beachheads, strategically positioned to continue the slow but sure process of Israeli land grab.

Read the full article on Mondoweiss.

Sotomayor and Affirmative Action

21 Jul 2009 In: JVoices


It was hard to tune into the Sotomayor confirmation hearings without hearing mention of the now-infamous “wise latina” comment. Even though, as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told her, “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re gonna get confirmed,” not a single day passed without continuous pestering from the Right.

But lets take that comment in context. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” It doesn’t take an exceptionally high IQ to see what she means. Our views and convictions are shaped by the totality of our life experiences, and one who has gone through more struggle and more obstacles is bound to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the varying experiences of others. Or, in the blunt words of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the male Justices “have never been a thirteen-year old girl.” It’s futile to argue that personal convictions, religions, and experiences do not shape judicial philosophy—of course they do! There is no one way of adjudicating, and abortion is a wedge issue not just because of the strict constructionist versus living document schism: it’s a wedge issue because of the religious and moral views of the justices. That is why, despite the phrasing of the of the Casey appeal, the court chose to uphold and strike down individual parts of the Pennsylvania law, rather than overturn Roe altogether.

Of course, the Latina comment is a valid point to question her on. But to basically devote days of hearings to the same question? We get it—you think she’s a racist and an affirmative action baby. We disagree. Let’s move on to her qualifications, okay?

More »

Quick hit:

Fatemeh Fakhraie over at Racialicious does a great job analyzing W magazine‘s big article on Persian Jews in Los Angeles. The first commenter sums it up well:

On one hand, it’s nice to see some acknowledgment that non-Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of color exist. On the other, a representation that just plays on stereotypes can be worse than no representation at all.

We, Queer members of the Bay Area Jewish Community and our allies, are deeply saddened by events surrounding the “Jews March for Pride” contingent in this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade.

We wanted to march with “Jews March for Pride” because we are proud to be Queer Jews and allies. We felt excited and privileged to have a place in the San Francisco Pride Parade to celebrate our whole selves as Jews and Queers.

However, our sense of pride in the contingent was shattered when we learned that not only would the Israeli Consulate be marching with Israeli flags, but also that “inclusion monitors” would censor anything that deviated from the narrow message of “Jews support LGBT equality.” We see this as a contradiction. Support for the Israeli government is a political position that is not synonymous with support for LGBT equality, and is not synonymous with Judaism. Because these strong Israeli symbols would be dominating the contingent, we felt we could not in good conscious march without publically repudiating those messages. And although the planners reached out to include us, we felt excluded when any disagreement we voiced was declared “off message” and inappropriate.

This illusion of unity, at the price of silencing some members, is a deliberate trend that is plaguing the Jewish Community. Many Jewish organizations portray a unified front of support for Israel, and allow this single message to come at the expense of the diverse needs of our Jewish Community. In fact, we have a range of views on Israel/Palestine and our commitment to Jewish and Queer communities lies far beyond this single issue. We reject the dichotomy that ‘Pro-Palestine’ is synonymous with ‘Anti-Israel,’ and encourage space for deeper conversations about the complexities of these issues. Additionally, we refuse to let discussions about Israel detract from the many other struggles for justice our communities are engaged in.

Prior to the Parade day, we were not sure that we would be allowed to march at all. We arrived holding signs such as “No Pride in Occupation,” and “Feygele for Free Palestine,” and to our surprise, we did not get kicked out. We were met with a positive reception from many participants and observers of the parade, and a few hostile reactions. But the real consequences of our action have occurred in the days and weeks following the parade. Many of us have faced social sanctions in our personal and professional lives. Those of us who work in Jewish organizations have been harshly shamed in our workplaces and our political views have become a topic of discussion amongst our peers and supervisors. We feel vulnerable in the very community that had supposedly organized to support us as Queer Jews.

Rather than retreating to safer, less public expressions of our convictions, we are asking you to join us in resisting the silencing in our communities. Let’s seize this opportunity for discussions, programming and policy change, and push to create spaces where our voices are allowed and welcomed.

Join our Facebook Group to show support, stay updated and get involved.

Picnic at an Illegal Outpost

12 Jul 2009 In: Israeli Occupation, Palestine

Yesterday, members of Ta’ayush set out to have a picnic at an illegal outpost built on Palestinian land next to the settlement of Susya in the southern West Bank. Susya is divided into three places; Palestinian Susya, Jewish settlement Susya and archeological site Susya. Often, the first construction of an illegal outpost is a synagogue which the IDF is less willing to destroy. About one year ago settlers from Susya built a synagogue on the privately owned land of a local Palestinian. The area is known as Flag Hill (Givat HaDegal). Within weeks, the settlers had laid a foundation for one house and sure enough today a house now stands on Flag Hill. The IDF actively protects the house despite there being no full time inhabitants.

We encountered problems before we even arrived at the outpost. A minibus of Ta’ayush activists was stopped at the main checkpoint separating Jerusalem and the southern West Bank. Soldiers asked for our ID cards and without a stated reason held us at the checkpoint for over an hour. Presumably, they were requesting an order from a high commander that would bar us entry to the West Bank, efficiently denying us freedom of movement because we were engaged in left wing actions. This order never came. The commander at the checkpoint wrote down our names and ID numbers while informing us that we were not allowed to enter the south West Bank and if we were found to be in a “military area” we would be detained for 48 hours. This, of course, was a lie as he had no authority to issue such a statement and it was not put in writing. He was trying to frighten us which he failed to achieve. We entered through another checkpoint and eventually made our way to the picnic.

Ta’ayush has been monitoring the expansion of Flag Hill and yesterday decided to have a peaceful picnic in protest of the Army’s active participation in maintaining this outpost. We were a group of Jewish Israelis invited by the Palestinian land owner to have a picnic on his land. We thought, by all accounts, we had every right to be there. As we walked up the hill to the outpost, five or six IDF soldiers came to greet us. Without an order from a commander, they could do nothing so we continued and set up our picnic complete with hummus, watermelon and homemade pita from the land owner. A commander arrived within minutes and pronounced the area a closed military zone ordering us to leave within five minutes or face arrest. We continued to enjoy the picnic as the Army began arresting people, going after Ezra Nawi first.

The IDF arrested three people and removed the rest of us, over 20 people, from the hilltop. We returned to the land owner’s home and waited for word from those arrested. They were driven to a checkpoint about 15 minutes away from Susya and simply dropped off. One of those arrested told me that he was saying to the soldiers, “you are showing me that you broke the law and not me. If I did something wrong arrest me! Take me to a judge. But you are unwilling because I did nothing wrong and you did”

Stanton’s Ordination Ignites Media Frenzy

30 Jun 2009 In: Media, Race, Religion

By April N. Baskin and Corinne Lightweaver

The world has descended upon Rabbi Alysa Stanton. From coast to coast and continent to continent, global media trumpet the ordination of “the first African-American female rabbi.” Whether it’s The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jewish Week, CNN, Black Entertainment Television, the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and seemingly every other Jewish and secular media outlet, all of them, by-and-large, cover the same facts:

“Alysa Stanton is the first mainstream African American female rabbi in the world. A convert to Judaism after being raised in a Pentecostal family, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College on June 6, 2009. She is the new congregational rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina.”

That’s the whole story. That’s where most of the media stops. What interests us is what is not covered, the questions that are not asked.

America’s response to Stanton’s ordination calls for introspection and self-examination by the larger Jewish community. It is true that Alysa Stanton’s ordination is a historical moment that should be celebrated. However, disproportionate attention is paid to her gender, racial background, and path to Judaism when her work and character should receive equal coverage, if not be at the forefront. What’s more, the emphasis on her being “the first” downplays a decades-old, increasing shift in the fabric of American Jewish life.

Rabbi Stanton’s ordination did not happen in a vacuum. She is not the first person of color to become a rabbi, nor is she the first woman of color to become a rabbi. Just as Rosa Parks wasn’t the first or even the second to refuse to move to the back of the bus, Stanton is the rabbi of color who received the attention of the mass media. It is true that she IS the first African American female rabbi. Yet it needs to be acknowledged that other Jewish clergy of color who are not of African American descent have preceded her in mainstream synagogues, and more are in rabbinical school or on the way. Furthermore, Jews of color who are currently serving as presidents of congregations and working on synagogue boards are not the first to do so.

So, why aren’t the people of color who preceded her in the rabbinate getting equal press coverage? Over the course of American history, a social construct of race developed and the racial binary of white vs. black arose as those in power separated themselves from African Americans, who were—and still are—systematically oppressed. As immigrants came to the United States, they were either classified as black or assigned a non-white status. To this day, that non-white status is often applied to certain ethnic communities including Asian Americans, Latinos, and even Jews at times. Neither black nor white, depending on the situation, all of these groups are classified as the middle ground of America’s social construct of race. And while certainly all of these populations receive media attention, African Americans receive more attention, while Anglo-whiteness remains the norm and groups in the middle ground are often rendered invisible.

Even though the Jewish community is negatively affected by this power dynamic, it is not immune to this systemic habit of ignoring people who are not black, but also not white. We should be beyond the black/white binary in the United States. It seems that in the case of Stanton’s ordination, the U.S. press is gloriously pursuing shock value over critical journalism, marketing sensationalism, and emphasizing the supposed improbability of a black person, let alone a black female, becoming Jewish and a rabbi.

To move beyond this systemic polarization, it helps to know that the number of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis of color is already significant. Three prominent rabbis—among many–come to mind. Last month was the ten-year anniversary of Korean American Angela Buchdahl’s graduation from cantorial school, followed by her ordination as a rabbi in 2001. Cuban-born Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas is ordained as a rabbi and master Torah scribe. Colombian-born Rabbi Juan Mejía, who intends to work with crypto-Jews in the American Southwest, graduated this year from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

While information about rabbis of color is readily accessible, some misinformation is still being reported. Take for example a May 29 report from the Associated Press claiming that the only known black male rabbi graduated from American Jewish University (undoubtedly referring to Rabbi Gershom Sizomu of Uganda). On the contrary, there are many black male rabbis in Orthodox communities. In many of these communities, a man who studies in yeshiva for a certain period can choose to take the requisite exams to earn smicha, thereby becoming a rabbi.

There is no doubt that Alysa Stanton has broken ground and established herself as a leader. She has gained not only worldwide interest, but respect as well. Among those who know her, she is seen as a gracious and reflective person who can inspire and aspire while keeping her feet solidly on the ground. Through her studies and her compelling personality, she has become an ambassador for a group of Jews who have long been ignored. Yet, she herself says she is committed to serving all Jews.

After this initial introduction of Stanton, we hope that the media will turn its focus to issues of substance and content. Tiffany Rivka Gordon, an African American rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, says, “I’d like to hear about Alysa’s thoughts on halacha and holidays, not so much about what she is.”

Gordon also notes, “After black and female, Alysa is identified as a convert, which just speaks more to the myth that Jews of color in this country are automatically converts.” We ask, why focus on the rabbi’s conversion with no concurrent investigation of her current conceptions of spirituality, her views on Israel, or her rabbinic interpretations of contemporary halachic debates or ethical dilemmas? Not to mention, according to Jewish tradition, a Jew is not supposed to remind another of his/her conversion.

The media frenzy around Alysa Stanton’s ordination has opened the possibility of improved coverage of Jews from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but in order to be relevant, journalists must dig deeper. Fortunately, times are changing. According to Gordon, “My own personal experience is so not colored by my skin.” Instead, she says, “People genuinely want to know what my opinions are as a young Jew, not only as a Jew of color.”

As those who know Stanton well can testify, she is a spiritually inspiring rabbi who has much to give and many lessons to teach. As she states with conviction, “I believe that it is a new era for changing, strengthening and deepening our faith in humanity, regardless of one’s religious creed or spiritual practice. I believe this is a time where hope needs to be embraced with all of our might… I have committed my life to being a rabbi of the people, a rabbi of hope.”

April N. Baskin is a Schusterman Insight Fellow. Corinne Lightweaver is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

this is basically a note to send you to a piece i’ve written for the latest issue of the Monthly Review on the origins of the current rise to visibility of jewish opposition to zionism. i hope you’ll read and enjoy – and if you disagree with me, argue here.

the piece is online, at, but i also want to encourage you to read it in an actual copy of MR that you can hold in your hands, dog-ear, underline, lend to friends, drip coffee on, prop up unsteady chairs with, &c. because one of the problems with reading online is that you don’t encounter interesting things by accident without doing a lot of work. and MR is well worth stumbling across; i’m sharing an issue with a detailed look at the economics of the u.s. penal state in the current crisis and a look at the prospects for land reform in paraguay, among other things.

a few words for those unfamiliar with MR:

i’d be fond of Monthly Review even if i didn’t find its articles as valuable as i often do, because it’s a non-sectarian radical magazine that’s made it through 60 years of struggle. it’s anchored in heterodox marxism, with a lot more openness to other strains of radical thought than that usually implies, and in a strong commitment to thinking transnationally, while being well aware that it’s a u.s.-based publication. it’s strongest on political economy, which means the tone can be a bit academic at times, but given the lack of serious economic analysis on the left these days that’s a small price to pay. the online MRzine brings together an impressive range of voices and subjects, with the weight generally shifted away from the global north. which reminds me to mention MR Press, which you may know if you’re my age as one of the first to publish EZLN communiques in english, or if you’re somewhat older, as a publisher of socialist feminist writing, or if you’re somewhat older as a key source of writings from third world revolutionary movements from china to chile and beyond. anyway: take a look.

Please note: since August 2010, JVoices has ceased publishing new work. We hope you enjoy the articles that remain live as an archive and trusted resource of bold Jewish writing of our time.


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