Brandeis U. Press and a Historian Split over how to Talk about Jews and White SupremacyHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, racism, books, antisemitism
Marc Dollinger’s book, “Black Power, Jewish Politics,” sold more than expected in this year of racial reckoning, and by September, there were only 150 copies left.
Since the police killing of George Floyd in May, Dollinger and his book have been in high demand in liberal Jewish communities grappling with structural racism. Dollinger, a historian at San Francisco State University, has given dozens of Zoom lectures in the last seven months, and his publisher, Brandeis University Press, rushed to put out a fourth printing of the 2018 book with a new preface reflecting the current discourse.
Dollinger penned a 2,400-word essay describing the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, writing that suburban white Jews were increasingly recognizing how their upward mobility had “reinforced elements of white supremacy in their own lived experience.”
Editors at the Press objected Dollinger linking Jews with the term “white supremacy.” Dollinger objected back.
The dispute deepened until the publisher not only sent the book to press without the preface, but also took the unusual step of handing Dollinger back the rights for future printings.
For Dollinger, the imbroglio illustrates that even as many white Jews clamor to understand American racism, they are still deeply uncomfortable confronting how bound up they are in its structures.
“‘White supremacy’ is triggering,” he said in a recent interview, “and the meta question is, why that kind of response from that word?”
The directors of the press, however, see an author who refused to accept constructive criticism.
“We’re not uncomfortable about terminology,” said Sylvia Fuks Fried, the editorial director of the press. “We have a long track record at Brandeis of publishing cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields. The only thing we’re uncomfortable with is bad scholarship.”
What may seem like an ivory tower debate over semantics in fact reflects an enduring fissure in many parts of the American Jewish world. Black Jews are pushing white Jews, who have long considered themselves uniquely devoted allies in the fight for racial justice, to reexamine how they have benefited from whiteness and been unwelcoming or even discriminatory toward Jews of color within their synagogues, schools and community centers.
The preface dispute in some ways reflects a broader debate over the American Jewish story. Is it one of immigrant achievement aided by democratic and meritocratic values? Or of a white ethnic minority gaining access to the dominant racial caste of a racist society?
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