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The attack on Althea Bernstein is an attack on all people

A Black, Jewish woman is attacked. Of course, it matters.

Althea Bernstein before, left, and after a recent attack, right. Left: Bernstein family handout photo; Right: Video screengrab via GMA

(RNS) — Let us say their names out loud.


Althea Bernstein is a biracial Jewish woman in Madison, Wisconsin. Her car was stopped at a traffic light early on Wednesday (June 24), when a car pulled up next to hers. Someone yelled a racial epithet. A man sprayed lighter fluid on her and threw a lighter on her. She was treated at a hospital for burns on her face.

Unlike the others whom I have mentioned, she is alive. She is very lucky.

Various American Jewish groups, like the American Jewish Committee, the ADL and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, condemned the attack. No less an A-lister than the ex-royal biracial Meghan Markle reached out to Althea.

How might we Jews think about this terrible incident?

It’s about intersectionality. A good basic definition of that oft-used term: understanding how people’s different identities combine and intersect to create either oppression or privilege.

In that sense, Althea is a “double victim” — Black and Jewish — and perhaps triple, with “woman” as part of it.

Did her attackers know that she is Jewish? Probably not. The attack on her, therefore, would seem to be “purely” (!) racial and not motivated by anti-Semitism.

But, when you are Black and Jewish, and white people attack you, why wouldn’t you perceive that as a double-pronged attack? And why wouldn’t the attackers themselves regard it as a “twofer”?

Some years ago, I was teaching Bible at a small college in Georgia. Most of my students were Black. At one point, we got around to talking about anti-Semitism. 

I reminded them: “Everyone who hates you, hates me as well. One hundred percent of the time.” They got it.

It’s about inclusion. The attack on Althea Bernstein reminds us of the significant number of Black Jews/interracial Jews in America — 10% of the American Jewish population, according to one study.

And, while some might quibble with that estimate, they do not quibble with the need for American Jewish institutions to reach out and include Jews of color in our community.

I know this from my own religious school. Several of our kids are of mixed race — Black/white; white/Hispanic. Throw in several of our kids who are not your usual “Fiddler On The Roof” Jews — kids of Iraqi and Yemenite Jewish heritage.

For years, I have been trying to wean my own Jewish learning and teaching away from its Ashkenormativity — trying to include atypical Jewish voices — from Sephardic, Middle Eastern and Jews-of-color communities.

No doubt about it. The American Jewish community is Joseph’s coat. Let’s start treating it that way.

It’s about peoplehood. You know that Joseph’s coat?

Althea Bernstein is at least several stripes of it.

Althea is:

  1. Black
  2. Jewish — culturally so.
  3. Unitarian.

I am going to (at least, temporarily) silence all of those questions about the vagaries of Jewish identity. What does it mean to be “culturally Jewish”? Can a Jew also be a Unitarian?

This would be precisely the wrong time, and precisely the wrong occasion, in American Jewish history to raise those questions, as worthy as they might be.

They don’t matter. Althea Bernstein is one of us.

Why am I writing about Althea?

First of all, because Carly Pildis (on Twitter @carlypildis) of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a Black-Jewish activist, asked me to do so.

Well, not me, personally.

Jews. Jewish leaders. Jewish writers.

Yes, several Jewish organizations condemned this horrific assault.

Yes, such diverse media outlets as Essence, Cosmopolitan, Elle and Town & Country covered the attack.

All good, all appreciated.

But, as I said, Althea Bernstein is ours. And this Jewish writer/leader will not be silent.

This Shabbat, I am going to pray for her healing.

I invite you all to do the same.

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