MILWAUKEE – There are major differences between the Jewish and Asian experience in America, but there’s common ground, too.
“There is a need for us to address what it means to be an ‘other,’” said Ron Kuramato, president of the Japanese American Citizens League – Wisconsin Chapter, during a May 22, 2022, panel discussion. “It is always with us, and it always will be. We need to figure out what to do with that.”
This discussion and more came when Milwaukee-area Jewish and Asian community representatives gathered to celebrate a new alliance. Community leaders from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation; the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition; ElevAsian, a collective of Asian organizations in greater Milwaukee; and others, created the informal alliance.
The purpose of the alliance is to counter hate, share best practices and consider cross community celebrations, among other ideas, said Kai Gardner Mishlove, director of the JCRC.
The panel discussion, attended by several dozen people at the Helfaer Community Service Building in Downtown Milwaukee, served as a kick-off for the alliance. The moderator was Corry Joe Biddle, executive director of Fuel Milwaukee, with panelists Dr. Steven Moffic, a local retired psychiatrist, professor and author; Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition Director of Community Engagement Jessica Boling; and Mishlove and Kuramato. Pardeep Kalek, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, appeared by video to offer support.
Panelists noted that Jews and Asians can experience visibility and invisibility in different ways. For example, Jews can sometimes withhold their Jewishness – one Jewish panelist recalled once doing so for career purposes. Asian invisibility can be present, though, too, as when panelist Boling recalled not being recognized as a full person in a workplace.
Boling noted that success in the Asian community can lead to a “model minority” stereotype, which can be applied to Asians as a whole, ignoring the variety of Asia and of individuals.
“It gets lost in … the aggregate data, that if you’re Asian, you are well off, you are smart, you have a college degree, and you don’t need resources, and you don’t have any racism against you, because you’ve achieved the top level,” Boling said. But, she added, as with Wisconsin’s Hmong population, there are “disparities within our community often get lost in that data … and there are things that we do struggle with.”
The discussion of the “model minority” stereotype resulted from the moderator’s request for top community issues. Mishlove’s response was to discuss the misconception of Jewish control.
“I would call it the power model, that Jews are behind – you can fill in the blank, whether it’s COVID … whether it’s about the media,” she said. “I wish that would go away.”
Another unfortunate commonality noted was that anti-Asian and anti-Jewish hate have increased markedly in recent years. Anti-Asian hate has more often targeted Asian women, so misogyny appears to be part of the mix, said Kuramato, who is executive director of the Peace Learning Center of Milwaukee, in addition to holding key roles in local Asian groups.
The Jewish community successfully lobbied for a Holocaust and genocide education mandate in Wisconsin, going into effect with the next school year, and some from Asian organizations expressed interest in learning from the Jewish community on how to pursue that sort of initiative. They reported less success in their efforts.
Panelists touched on many other issues, among them an apparent reticence for hate crimes to be identified as such, in the media.
“It really is our shared experience and love for each other that really is going to help us overcome,” said Biddle, who is an activist against racial inequity. “I respect this alliance. I think it’s amazing. I’m really proud to be a part of this conversation.”