Theorizing Modernities article

An Afro-Jewish Critique of Jews Against Liberation

Map of Moses’ and the Jews’ journey into exile recorded in Exodus. From John Speed’s The Genealogies Recorded in the Sacred Scriptures (1628). Via Wikimedia Commons.

For years, Marc Ellis has been arguing for the importance of a Jewish theology of liberation. His efforts fall for the most part on deaf ears, except, for example, Atalia Omer’s Days of Awe and Santiago Slabodsky’s Decolonial Judaism. Those interlocutors fall, for the most part, within a paradigm of Jews who are, as Judith Butler would say, “intelligible,” to those who dominate Jewish identity today—namely, Ashkenazi Jews, especially those living in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Intelligibility in this context refers to forms of appearance, given the rules of legitimate performance, behavior, or embodiment, that makes sense to those perceiving them.

Despite the historical influence of Latin American Liberation Theology, Sephardic Jews, historically the most prominent in the Americas, seem to lack a voice and visibility. To make matters worse, the various rifts across the views of Jews worldwide—or at least Ashkenazi Jews—range not only from the ultra-orthodox to secular, but also from far right to radical left. This is despite earlier tendencies among critics from the right and the left to associate such Jews primarily with liberalism. What, however, if we were to consider other Jewish voices, Jews among Jews who are genuinely “others”?

Afro-Jews and White Jews Reflecting on Pesach

Consider Afro-Jews. What do such Jews reflect on at Seders during the evenings of Pesach (Passover)? The Seder is a ritual meal involving reflection on Shemoth (Names), popularly known through Christianity as the Exodus story of the Israelites’ liberation from enslavement in Kmt (the ancient indigenous people’s name for the country that eventually became, through Greek conquest, Egypt). It is among the binding narratives of Jews, when even secular Jews often take time for such reflection. During this time of the year, regardless of ideological perspectives, Jews today in and outside of the State of Israel simultaneously reflect on the value of liberation. That is, however, also where many Jews divide. It is much easier to reflect on liberation from enslavement in a story reputed to have taken place in Northeast Africa approximately 3,400 years ago, and one in which Moses—the greatest hero and prophet of the Jewish people—and his biological siblings rose to the occasion in actions reverberating over the ages.

Most white Jews (and many white Christians) overlook the story’s philosophical and political significance, however, in favor of the redemptive elements it offers. Moreover, the closing line at the conclusion of all Seders for Jews outside of Israel—“Next year, in Jerusalem . . .”—poses a challenge for Afro-Jews, Arab Jews, and Jews located among Dalits in South Asia. It makes them think of the plight of non-white Jews living in Israel. For some white Jews, the declaration poses challenges of ambivalence and for others it requires summoning the strongest resources of self-evasion or bad faith because they may support struggles for liberation for oppressed peoples in every country except Israel.

Why do I say this?

First, reflection on enslavement doesn’t require a huge leap for Afro-Jews. Though much of Jewish history has been whitewashed as Euromodernity offered European Jews possibilities of assimilation in the former colonies through promises of racial transformation, the fact of the matter is that the ancient, technically pre-Jewish people of the Exodus narrative (“Hebrews,” “Israelites,” and “Jews” are not identical), were clearly East African and West Asian. This is the case even accounting for, in today’s parlance, “racial mixture.” That combination makes these people unequivocally, in today’s understanding, people of color. Today’s hegemonic white Jewish populations connect with such ancient peoples, then, in the way Germanic peoples imagine themselves the descendants of ancient Mediterranean peoples from whom they claim to inherit a classical past. Some may be their biological descendants, but not all and probably not most.

White Jewish connection with ancient Israelites is mostly symbolic, and when they attempt to make it otherwise, they do so by eliding history and basic facts. This is made easier by simply rewriting the past as white. This whitening emerges from a failure to learn not only the ancient history of East Africa and West Asia, but also crucial moments in Jewish history, such as the events of the first few hundred years after the fall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem and the unfortunate prohibitions against exogamy enacted in the 4th century CE by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Judeans who became citizens of the Ancient Roman Empire were a proselytizing people, initially ranging from 150,000 (some critics say 4 million), whose efforts produced about 8,000,000 Jews among the Romans in little more than a century.

Such a large influx of people across the Roman Empire pushed to the wayside the earlier Afro-Asiatic peoples and inaugurated a story of hegemony among members who during different periods were at the center of whichever empire displaced others. A line stretching from Rome to Mecca to Andalusia to Spain to Portugal to the Netherlands to Britain to the United States in “the west” reveals one of shifting representations of who “authentically” exemplifies Jewish people. Different lines pushed into Asia, and others through Africa and South America. In all, closeness to enslavement shifted here and there, but for the Afro-Jew from the fifteenth century onward, it is more near than far. In the words of the famed reggae artist Bob Marley, who was also of Jewish ancestry, “Every time I hear the crack of a whip / My blood runs cold” (1973).

If “the slave” is symbolic and to be liberated, then the relationship of the white Jew to the story of liberation is remote. Bear in mind that white Jews aren’t the only Jews for whom identification with enslavement is remote. The history of Arab racism and enslavement of non-Muslim African peoples raises questions for Mizrahi or Arab Jews as well. I’m not focusing on that group here because, frankly, they are not hegemonic.

If “the slave” is symbolic and to be liberated, then the relationship of the white Jew to the story of liberation is remote.

Identification with whiteness leaves no recourse from being identified with the enslaver and master. White Jewish evocation of Exodus thus reeks of hypocrisy so long as such a Jew insists on being white. A different basis of connection must supervene, and for such Jews, nothing affords such a connection more than antisemitism and the historical significance of Shoah (the Holocaust). Thus, “long ago” tends to be the Exodus where liberation is less significant, while “near” becomes hatred of Jews, Jewphobia, the importance of twentieth-century atrocity, and the achievement of the State of Israel. Looking at non-Jewish blacks reflecting on slavery, such Jews quickly speak of antisemitism. When confronting Afro-Jews, however, white Jews prioritizing antisemitism face several problems. Where such Jews relate to Afro-Jews as among Jews, there shouldn’t be an issue, that is except for Afro-Jews bringing along both the realities of recent enslavement and antisemitism. That the overwhelming population of Jews massacred in Shoah were Ashkenazi creates a peculiar Jewish problem. White Jews may question Afro-Jews’ identification of shared loss, but for many white Jews who did not lose family members in that effort at genocide, the question is: Why do they have a more legitimate connection to those victims of antisemitism than their counterparts of color?

Black Dream, White Dread

The situation of such ambivalence and dispute has added difficulty. The “nearness” or “closeness” of injustice and oppression for Afro-Jews is not only about enslavement, racism, and antisemitism. It is also about colonialism.

Why does colonialism pose a problem? A clue rests in the distancing of antisemitism from racism. Jews were, after all, not historically white. It was the need to create distance from the colonized populations in the Euromodern world that raised the demand for growing populations of whites in the colonies. The result was that many groups who were not white in Europe were offered a ticket to become white in its outposts. Difficulty emerged from Christianity being the dominant religion of European colonies because of the transformation of Christendom into a European identity. New identities were born through the protection of religious freedoms, where a group’s religion could be separated from its “race,” a term that emerged from Andalusia in the Middle Ages through a transformation of the word “raza,” which, ironically, referred to Jews and Moors. If Jewishness could be made exclusively religious, then the bearer of the religion could be racially otherwise. Thus, those light-skinned enough to be accepted as white received membership into whiteness by appealing to their religious identity as separate. This was not a good development for Jews who could not “pass” as white, however, and its impact on Jewish history is palatable as a once majority population of color quickly disappeared in proverbial plain sight.

“Travesia del Judio’ street sign in Spain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

There are many negative consequences of Jewish whiteness. The first is that it led to a rewriting of Jewish history to match the expectations of Euromodernity. I define “modernity” here as the value of belonging to the future. As such, it legitimates a people’s present and rewrites their past. Thus, if the future of Jewishness is whiteness, then authentic Jews of the present become white, which makes the Jewish story a retroactively affected one of whiteness as a condition of appearance. This was catastrophic for other Jews, because since they supposedly did not legitimately belong to the future, their present was delegitimated and their past erased. This led to an additional false thesis—namely, that non-white Jews must have somehow come to Judaism. Since whiteness afforded Euromodern Judaism’s legitimacy, this meant that those other people could only enter Euromodernity and then become Jews by other means. The standard position is Christianity. If Africans enter Euromodernity through colonization and enslavement, the presumption is that happens through their having first become Christian. Thus, to stand as an Afro-Jew is, by many white Jews, presumed erroneously to do so as a prior Christian. The Afro-Jew thus faces delegitimation of her or his Jewish history since even when embodying a line of Jewish ancestry older than many white Jews, they are presumed to be “converts” in the presence of a population whose presumed original authenticity is not premised on conversion. Actual Jewish history disputes that.

“Antisemitism” is thus, for many white Jews, an attractive formulation of hatred of Jews since it disassociates Jews from the dreaded designation of being a race, because, as nearly anyone who has experienced racism would admit—like “gender” with regard to “feminine”—“race” is a term that for the most part signifies being of color. As this discussion is short, I won’t get into the details of why “antisemitism” is a concept saturated with bad faith. I will just state this: Most people who hate Jews are not thinking about religion. They see Jews, even if white, as never white enough. They ascribe, in what existentialists call the spirit of seriousness—the materialization of values—that Jewishness is in the flesh and soul of Jews. There is thus the error of avowedly white Jews rallying for religious freedom in the face of a foe that sees them as a racial threat. They want to defend “us Jews” in the practice of our religion while imagining “us whites” in their daily social lives.

If we concede antisemitism as a form of racism, the story is different. As mixed-race people could be hated for both sides of their mixture (think of an Afro-Asian receiving anti-black racism and anti-Asian racism, or Arabs who could be hated as an ethnicity or “race” despite their morphological diversity), the Afro-Jew may ask if both are at work if she or he focuses on racial oppression.

These reflections become complicated when we reflect on the passage into whiteness of many Euro-Jews. The story is, after all, a colonial one, and that precious whiteness is indebted to colonialism, enslavement, and racism. Thus, Euro-Jewish investment in whiteness ensnares them in a defense of colonialism, enslavement, and racism. As liberation discourses are patently anti-colonial, anti-enslavement, and anti-racist, this places Jewish whiteness in a logical collision with liberation and struggles for freedom.

The Afro-Jew thus faces delegitimation of her or his Jewish history since even when embodying a line of Jewish ancestry older than many white Jews, they are presumed to be ‘converts’ in the presence of a population whose presumed original authenticity is not premised on conversion. Actual Jewish history disputes that.

This reactionary position is not, of course, the only historical Jewish story. On the one hand, Jews were so associated with the formation of liberalism that even Karl Marx, a grandson of a Rabbi, saw it fitting to address European Jewish values as ideologically linked to Euromodern liberal capitalism in “On the Jewish Question.” In recent times, the lure of whiteness produced politically neoconservative Jews who moved to the right of liberalism in a desperate embrace of whiteness to the point of, unfortunately, allying in recent times with White supremacist Christians and even, as we see in the United States, politicians supported by neo-Nazi and other fascist groups.

Rejecting Idols, Embracing Ethical Life

To the left of all this are many secular Jews, and among Jews who practice Judaism, the complicated matter of religion offers a unique convergence of their Jewish political identity among those in and out of the white umbrella. I cannot here, because of limited space, spell out the many kinds of Jews who live their faith, ethnic, and racial identities outside of whiteness. As I do that elsewhere, I would here simply like to state this: Many Jews of color who are also Jews of faith do not live their lives worried about what white Jews think of them. They are simply people of faith practicing the varieties of Judaism they know. There is, however, a common question posed to all Jews that come to the fore on the question of liberation, and that is its relation, specifically, to Jewish ethics.

To illustrate my point, consider the famed early Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists. They are often misunderstood today because of how they are studied by Christian theorists who presume the grammar of a secularized Christian framework. The idea of a critical philosophy, originally formulated by Immanuel Kant as transcendental idealism, was a formal, secularized Protestantism. The transcendental movement through Arthur Schopenhauer and G. W. F. Hegel kept the Protestant eschatological elements. In Marx, however, the problem of idolatry was posed as a problem of ideological critique and a rejection of fetishism. Sigmund Freud took these concerns to the inner reaches of consciousness and even the unconscious elements of mind. Adding Edmund Husserl’s effort to explore the critical conditions of consciousness without ontological reductionism, we have three Jewish thinkers (although the first was from a family who converted to Christianity and the third did so on his own) posing what to some seemed the irreconcilable objectives of the material world, unconscious forces, and the social world in which reality becomes meaningfully conscious. Yet the early group of Frankfurt School thinkers—for example, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, all Jewish and committed secularists—took on the task of not only bringing these thinkers together (especially Marx and Freud), but also to do so without collapsing into idolatry, that is, making their intellectual heroes, societal norms, and economic systems into gods. (I regard the post-WWII Frankfurt School, whose main exemplar is Jürgen Habermas, to be a reclamation of secularized Protestant Christian thought.) Adorno expressed this Jewish anti-idolatry position well in the concept of negative dialectics and negative theology.

This rejection of idolatry is also the basis of a uniquely Jewish position on theodicy. Christian theology poses a deity who must be cleansed of contradictions. Judaism, alternatively, poses a deity who must not be named, constrained, reduced—in short, offered as an image. This is a crucial element for Jewish ethics, since it in effect explains “election” (in Hebrew, bhira) and the significance of striving for kashrut (kosher living) according to Halakhah (“the way,” or Jewish law). Many Christians are surprised, even shocked, when they learn that Jews do not need to embrace G-d as an ontological being or entity. An activist philosopher and social worker friend of mine once put it this way: “I don’t go to shul [synagogue] because I believe in G-d.”

This mysterious explanation makes sense for Jews who understand that election or to be chosen does not mean to be better than others. It means to face the fear and trembling of radical ethical responsibility. I add “radical” because the responsibility is for more than specific commandments (mitzvoth). Its radicality rests on taking responsibility for responsibility. In Judaism, this means responsibility for the image of G-d on earth, which, as the argument goes, is not an “image” proper, since that would be idolatrous. It is a responsibility, and it is so often in the form of a terrible, burdensome calling. Through the act of carrying the Torah (direction, instruction, teachings) when becoming a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah (daughter or son of the commandments), the honored is also taking on the weight or burden in one reading of ethical life. The seeming conundrum of non-ontological Jewishness is resolved thus. There are Jews who regard G-d as a just being. No Jew, however, should accept the idea of G-d solely as a being. Justice, broadly conceived (because the Hebrew word Tzedek includes but is not reduced exclusively to justice), is the crucial element. Thus, since neither the religious nor the secular Jew would reject the importance of taking responsibility for the ethical face of the universe, my friend’s remark on believing in G-d makes sense. She refuses to be idolatrous, and she insists on the importance of ethical life marked also by righteous action. That friend’s remark was to offer a critique of synagogues that have subordinated Jewish ethical responsibility for responsibility through subordinating it to the fetish of such things as a Jewish state.

Fetishizing antisemitism at the expense of fighting against oppression endangers Jewish ethical life. This leads to a form of idolatrous relationship to Jewish people read through Judaism and, as a consequence, places Jews in an antagonistic relationship to liberation struggles against colonization, enslavement, and racism. Where Jewish people become the enemy of liberation, Judaism, from this point of view, is lost.

Though I have posed these reflections in terms of white Jews versus Afro-Jews and other Jews of color, there is the reality of ideological critique where beneath white Jews is the paradoxical darkness offering ethical life. There are designated white Jews who make decisions to shed the unethical garbs of white investments in anti-liberation. This reflection from an Ashkenazi mother on her son from her union with an Afro-Sephardic-Mizrahi father concludes these reflections:

… there is a general lesson that more fully entering a black world through marriage and parenting has taught me: one must live as if values and virtues and excelling and being a person of integrity matter, for that is what it is to live a human life.


*This revised, English version of the author’s “Pourquoi les juifs ne doivent pas redouter la libération,” Tumultes numéro 50 (2018): 97–108, appears here with the permission of Tumultes.

Lewis R. Gordon
Lewis R. Gordon is Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department at UCONN-Storrs, where he is also a member of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the author of many books, including Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization. He co-edits, with Jane Anna Gordon, the journal Philosophy and Global Affairs. He is Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies and a former president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, for which he now serves as its chairperson of awards and global collaborations.

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