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Jewish, Black panelists consider common issues

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

On the last Sunday of February, Black History Month, Temple Beth Shalom, Congregation Emanu-El and Spokane Area Jewish Family Services sponsored a virtual panel, "Separate Histories, Common Challenges."

The event brought together members of the Spokane Jewish Community and representatives of the African American community to reflect on current realities and linkages between anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.

The hope of panel sponsors was to create a greater understanding of historical and contemporary differences and common struggles of the two communities and explore opportunities for greater solidarity in the region.

In explaining how the concept for the panel arose, Diana Koorkanian-Sauders, president of Congregation Emanu-El, spoke of the Jewish community's response to the racist killing of George Floyd and so many other African Americans, and the need to confront structural racism nationally and locally. Because social justice is a key principle of Judaism, Congregation Emanu-El and Temple Beth Shalom looked into possible actions.

Along with building relationships with the Spokane NAACP, their inspiration came from a recent documentary,  "Sharing Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance," which traced the involvement of Jewish leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

They found the film enlightening and inspiring, but it led them to want an event to go beyond the historical solidarity it described, to show the present local situation in the Spokane region and to lead participants to understand distinct issues and concerns of each community while building solidarity with one another.

Michael DeLand, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Gonzaga University, moderated the panel, which focused on the participants' experiences and their reactions to some of today's controversial issues related to racism in the United States.

"What is critical race theory (CRT)? How do we teach about race, racism and oppression and political topics today? What is the way we teach about race, racism and oppression in all kinds in schools? Does the anti-CRT movement threaten our capacity to teach children about racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression? What is the state of racism and anti-Semitism in the Spokane region? What are opportunities for building stronger forms of solidarity between the two communities?" Michael asked.

Among the panelists were three speakers who identify as Jewish: Emily Kaufman, an investigative researcher from the Anti-Defamation League in Seattle, Joan Braune, professor at Gonzaga's Institute for Hate Studies, and Joann Muneta, chairwoman of Latah County Idaho's Human Rights Task Force, and two members of the African American community in the Inland Northwest, Kiantha Duncan, president of the Spokane NAACP and Scott Finnie, professor and program director of Eastern Washington University's Africana Studies Program.

Each shared experiences that brought them to where they are today, their understandings of anti-Semitism or anti-Black racism, and their view of similarities and differences in the oppression of Jews and Blacks.

Emily Kaufman, like other Jewish-identified panelists, grew up in an interfaith family. She explained that at the Anti-Defamation League she works against defamation of Jewish people but more importantly against all forms of hate because she has come to see them as interconnected.

As a young person, she traveled to South Africa where she witnessed racial oppression that she described as being "so draconian and so oppressive that it allowed her to reflect on the reality of the segregation going on in American society during those years.

"It woke me up to the kind of white privilege that I had," she said.

Scott Finnie grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s and 1970s, and belonged to a family oriented toward social justice. His cousin, Huey Newton, was one of the originators of the Black Panthers.

"This led us to family discussions about what is social justice and what is the best methodology to achieve it. Was it Malcolm's view? Was it Martin's?" he remembered.


Mike asked the panelists what they thought when they heard racism described as "systemic" or "structural"?

Kiantha Duncan responded. "It tickles me when I hear people talking about getting at the root of systemic racism. These structures, these systems didn't just happen. They were created and what is at their root is power and the value this has in our country," she said.

To help people understand this, Scott used the metaphor of how the world is set up structurally to favor right-handed people. 

"Right-handers don't have to adjust when they open a notebook. They don't have any awkwardness if they are driving a stick shift. It is not that right-handers are bad people or need to feel guilty because the structures favor them but there is a need to hear from the left-handers to know about how the system is difficult for them," he said.

Scott noted that in health care, the rate of incarceration, the system of policing, housing practices, structures have been put in place that privilege white people.

Kiantha talked about the pushback to critical race theory.

"It is a useful way for those who don't want to give up power to cloak their desire to maintain power," she said, adding that this is especially the case for those who believe that the white race is under threat by Blacks and Jews.

"We went wrong talking about critical RACE theory. We should have just said critical history theory, because this is really the history of our nation, not just the history of the races in our country," she said.

Joann Muneta explained that the attack on critical race theory was being used to defund public education in Idaho.

Scott clarified that no one in K-12 public schools is teaching critical race theory. The experiences blacks have had throughout U.S. history need to be taught as part of the actuality of history.

The panel concluded with an acknowledgement by Kiantha that racism is alive and well in the Inland Northwest.

Joan Braune affirmed that white Jews, though they might not be considered white by some white nationalists, are recognized as white by U.S. systems, particularly policing and education.

"White Jews are not just passing as white," she said. "They are white and they benefit from the privilege of whiteness like any other white person." 

Joann suggested reviving a coalition of church organizations working together for human rights as a positive step to build a more effective solidarity between those experiencing anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.

Many churches are concerned about human rights and the injustice of racism, she said.

"Anti-Black racists and anti-Semites would like nothing more than to keep us divided," Joan said. "Alone, we are like the fingers on a hand but together we become strong like a fist."

The full discussion and resources are at

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2022