July 14, 2020 – By ALEX ROSE
When conversations about race, oppression and privilege exploded across the world following the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, they made Sara Yacobi-Harris wonder to what extent the broader Canadian Jewish community was concretely addressing its own instances of racial discrimination.
In the midst of this “racial reckoning,” Yacobi-Harris, a Black Jewish woman from Toronto, founded the campaign, “No Silence on Race,” which calls on Canadian Jews to “commit to the creation of a truly anti-racist, inclusive and equitable Jewish community.”
Yacobi-Harris established the effort with two other activists, Daisy Moriyama and Akilah Allen Silverstein.
On June 30, the campaign published an open letter “from Black Jews, non-Black Jews of colour and our allies, to Jewish organizations in Canada.”
The letter lays out nine pillars to guide organizations in making structural changes to combat racism and actively make mainstream Jewish spaces truly inclusive and equitable for Jews of colour. It also asks them to publish statements of their own outlining how they plan to meet those goals by July 29.
Yacobi-Harris said the campaign was necessary for “many, many, many reasons,” including the lack of representation for Jews of colour in most Jewish institutions.
“It’s about seeing ourselves represented in Jewish spaces, and seeing ourselves represented in Jewish literature and programming and histories that we celebrate,” she said, before quoting the beginning of the letter: “We are Jewish community board members, educators and leaders. We write from a place of love for our Jewish identities and our community, while also grappling with the cultural erasure, exclusion and structural racism that we experience in Jewish spaces. Nevertheless, we are compelled to be in Jewish community because it is who we are.”
Although the campaign is new and specific to the current collective Jewish experience, Yacobi-Harris says Jews of colour have been dealing with these issues for a very long time.
They often avoid mainstream Jewish spaces because they are not always received equally, sometimes even experiencing overt racism. For that reason, there are a number of Jews of colour who have devoted their entire lives to ensuring that Jewish spaces are inclusive and hospitable for Jews of colour.
As important as their work has been, though, Yacobi-Harris says real, comprehensive change isn’t possible without everyone committed to a unified goal.
That’s why the first pillar of “No Silence on Race” is “allyship.”
“Allyship is earned through trust, through action and through impact.” Yacobi-Harris explained. “You can implement as many policies and strategies and initiatives as you want. But if the culture doesn’t shift within our community, the conversation doesn’t shift, we don’t talk about our individual responsibility, then eventually the policies and strategies will hold less weight and be less meaningful. That’s why we need people behind it who truly understand their individual role in creating change in our community.”
After allyship, the next pillar is education, which is about engaging with issues at all levels of an organization and systematically implementing policies, strategies and initiatives based on education and training from consultants who are Jews of colour and other people of colour.
The other seven pillars include investing in a leadership strategy for Jews of colour, working with an equity consultant, and committing to more programming and partnerships with a more diverse range of cultural institutions.
So far, Yacobi-Harris says the response has been very positive, with people and organizations reaching out to learn more about continuing the work of anti-racism and equality.
“No Silence on Race” has heard a lot of people thanking them for the work they’re doing, saying the community needs it and people want to do more.
The response to the campaign, combined with the climate of open conversation that precipitated it, has left Yacobi-Harris feeling hopeful about the work Jewish institutions will do to make themselves actively inclusive for Jews of colour. After all, she wouldn’t have put the effort into creating this initiative if she didn’t think it could make a difference.
“People do see this work as extremely important,” she said. “And they do see the gaps that exist in our community and how much work we all have to do. And how beautiful and inspiring and supportive and important this initiative is.
“And so, having received that feedback has made me hopeful that change is coming, that action is coming and that this commitment is important for everyone and for our community,” she said.
Yacobi-Harris also encouraged representatives from Jewish organizations to contact firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a meeting or have a conversation about how to best implement the nine pillars.