A narrow focus on identity doesn’t help any of us

Let’s take action when people behave badly or illegally, and let’s celebrate our differences. But please, Mr Bush, should we not all be presumed innocent until found guilty?


A protester holds a "guilty" sign outside the Courthouse In Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 19, 2021. - A jury is to hear closing arguments on April 19, 2021 in the trial of the white ex-police officer accused of murdering African-American George Floyd, a case that laid bare racial wounds in the United States and has come to be seen as a pivotal test of police accountability. Derek Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, faces a maximum of 40 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge -- second-degree murder. (Photo by Kerem YUCEL / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

April 22, 2021 12:09

Are we really all the same? And are we really all guilty?

As I write this, the verdict in the trial in Minneapolis, USA, in the case against former policeman Derek Chauvin has just been delivered. The jury unanimously found him guilty on all three charges. Good. You don’t need me to remind you of the barbaric, reckless and lethal actions resulting in the killing of George Floyd. We could almost have done without the entire trial. Of course we didn’t because we couldn’t. We must weigh the evidence before conferring guilt.

That killing sparked riots and protests in the USA, worldwide, and in the UK. The words, “Black Lives Matter” and “Silence is Violence” started appearing absolutely everywhere. Some of my (white) social media friends cringingly apologised for their whiteness and promised to do better. Some of this was heartfelt anti-racism; a lot wasn’t.

You couldn’t go out for a walk in north London without encountering well-meaning (white) groups solemnly on their knees displaying their lack of racism. The default now seemed to be that we were all guilty and had to be seen to display, to literally perform, our innocence.

My children’s Jewish secondary school, JCoSS, immediately consulted its “children of colour” to ascertain their perceptions, thoughts and experiences of any racial bias or incidents. Rightly, the school promised to listen, keep consulting, and acknowledging the existence of different perspectives and experiences and dealing with any issues. It’s done much the same about sexual harassment and abuse campaign “Everyone’s Invited”. It’s done a fantastic job. Surely no one can deny that sexism and racism exists in every community.

However, the report by the Board of Deputies Commission on Racial Inclusivity, excellent and admirable though it is in many aspects, has left me exhausted and not a little disillusioned. After reading Stephen Bush’s report, which was prompted by the actions of BLM since the killing of George Floyd, you could be forgiven for thinking that every Ashkenazi, or white, British Jew was a rabid racist belittling and despising fellow Jews who are not Ashkenazi or white. “Ashkenormativity” is at the evil root of it all. Schools, synagogues, cultural spaces, shops and restaurants, even your bagel bakery it seems, are full of the guilty. Apparently there is a two-tier system amongst Jews and it’s down to skin colour.

Take, for example, synagogues: guilty. According to the report not enough, if any, attention is paid to the traditions of black Jews, Jews of colour, Sephardic, Mizrahi and Yemenite Jews in predominantly Ashkenazi synagogues. Bush recommends that all synagogues include and reflect all Jewish traditions in their prayers and songs. Bush wants “welcoming committees” in every synagogue making sure non-Ashkenazis feel welcome and included. How? Why? Sure, we Jews are all Jews but we’re culturally tribal. The prayers may all be the same, but the way they are recited, the rhythms, songs, foods and traditions are different. At my parents’ Adeni synagogue, I’d be extremely amused to see “welcoming committees” catering for each and every non-Adeni Jew, glad-handing them and offering gefilte fish in a Yiddishe accent.

Throughout the report, the same themes are repeated: that all Jewish schools (guilty), organisations (guilty) and institutions (guilty) need to focus far more on black history, Black History Month, and shoehorn in the traditions of “black Jews, Jews of colour, Sephardim, Mizrahim and Yemenite Jews”. As though these proud, diverse, complex communities were one homogenous “other”. To be fair, Bush acknowledges the clumsiness of lumping all non-Ashkenazim together, but seems to believe there is little alternative to combat what he implies is “systemic/institutional racism” within Ashkenazi British Jewry.

What I find confusing is the constant endeavour throughout the report not to “other” non-Ashkenazis, whilst simultaneously “othering” and urging everyone to keep emphasising and acknowledging people’s diversity. Why must we be constantly pointing out what’s different even when it’s irrelevant (and I know, it’s not always irrelevant) and be told that if we don’t, we are guilty of racism? Why must everything now be about narrow identity politics, and how does that help us be less divided? We need to find what we have in common — and all our Jewish communities share experiences of oppression and othering.

Of course I’m not denying racism, insensitivity, thoughtlessness, ignorance and sheer stupidity in the behaviour of some British Jews. Let’s call out racism when we see it, wherever it exists. Let’s take action when people behave badly or illegally, and let’s celebrate our differences. But please, Mr Bush, should we not all be presumed innocent until found guilty?

Misha Mansoor is a writer based in London


April 22, 2021 12:09

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