Oakland author looks at racism from Jewish perspective

Oakland educator and author Paul Kivel leads workshops about racism. To facilitate more in-depth discussions, he divides the group into "whites" and "people of color."

Jews, he says, often wonder which group to join.

Kivel, who is Jewish, even finds himself wanting to say, "wait a minute, I'm not white." It's a natural response, he says.

No one wants to be considered white when racism is addressed, because it brings up feelings of fear, guilt, anger, defensiveness and confusion, says Kivel. But for Jews, it's particularly vexing; according to Kivel's definition of "white," Jews often straddle the divide between those who benefit from white privileges, and those who face discrimination as "people of color."

In his new book, "Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work For Racial Justice," Kivel defines "whiteness" as "a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability is justified by their not being white."

The book includes a chapter on Jewish people, exploring the connection between anti-Semitism and racism, the issue of racism within the Jewish community and the sticky question: Are Jews white?

"The answer is an ambiguity," said Kivel, 47, during an interview earlier this month. "For white Christians, we are considered outsiders, a group with strange customs, dangerous." On the other hand, he points out, it is possible for Jews to "pass," to assimilate into "white" culture and reap the benefits of doing so, including faster promotions, better educational opportunities and safer neighborhoods with superior police protection, medical facilities and community centers.

To "pass," however, means minimizing or eliminating any aspects of one's life and appearance that are visibly Jewish, he warns. In effect, Kivel asserts that when people give up Jewish ways of "being, talking and doing things," they give up the core of their identity.

What's more, Jews that assimilate into "white" culture, often project "those stereotypes and ideas onto other people of color."

Of particular concern to Kivel is how the Jewish community treats Jews of color, who make up the majority of the world's Jews, he adds.

"Sephardic Jews are still largely invisible. We need to learn more about other [non-European] Jewish cultures, include them in educational programs, in religious school. There's a tremendous amount for us to learn about Jews from Syria, Brazil, India, and other parts of the world," he says.

Excluding Jews of color gives Jews "a false sense of who Jews are," which "makes it easier for us to pretend we're white," Kivel says.

And he makes a good case for why Jews, Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans and other minorities would want to align themselves with white America. The author devotes much of the book to describing the origins of racist stereotypes of various groups, and discussing why they persist.

Since the 1970s, Kivel has spent much of his life working to end racism and violence, conducting hundreds of workshops concerning race relations, sexual assault and male/female relationships for adults and children. He co-founded the Oakland Men's Project, which helps educate men, teens and social service professionals about domestic violence.

With the Oakland Men's Project, Kivel hoped to shift the focus from ending "violence against women" to ending "male violence," placing responsibility and emphasis on educating men about patterns of violence. In the same way, "Uprooting Racism" attempts to focus on racism from the point of view of white people.

"This is an issue for white people. Racism effects our lives every day, where we live, what we study in school, what music we listen to, what sports we watch, every aspect of our lives. We cannot pretend this isn't true, that racism happens in another part of town," says Kivel.

Both racism and anti-Semitism divert attention from the "center of power, to those who are not powerful, diverting us from those who make decisions to move factories overseas, to dump toxic waste. We have to stop scape goating Jews, African Americans, Asian Americans to overcome that — to clarify the focus on where power really lies."